Guest Post: Shai Afsai
Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s Founding Fathers, was born on this date, January 17, in 1706. In addition to being a well-known statesman, he was a successful newspaper editor and inventor. He was also one of the founders of the Academy and College of Philadelphia, a predecessor of the University of Pennsylvania, and its first president. Less well-known is the lasting impact he had on Judaism.
Benjamin Franklin’s famous autobiography includes the description of a character improvement method that he invented in his 20s to help him break his bad habits and acquire better ones. The method centers on 13 behavioral traits (temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility).
Each one, in succession, was allotted a week of special attention and reflection. Progress and setbacks in mastering these behavioral traits – or virtues – were recorded on a grid chart with the seven days of the week running horizontally and the 13 traits running vertically. After 13 weeks the cycle began again so that, over the course of a year, each virtue received four full weeks of focus.
Though he never succeeded in fully altering his habits using this technique, later in life Franklin reflected: “I was by the Endeavour a better and a happier Man than I otherwise should have been, if I had not attempted it.”
Designed for People in All Religions
A notable feature of Franklin’s invention is that it was intentionally designed to be compatible with different faiths. As Franklin, whose own religious beliefs may be described as Deistic, explained: “being fully persuaded of the Utility and Excellency of my Method, and that it might be serviceable to People in all Religions, and intending some time or other to publish it, I would not have any thing in it that should prejudice any one of any Sect against it.”
Publishing his method as a book was part of what he described as “a great and extensive Project.” Franklin envisioned forming an international secret fraternity and mutual-aid society, called “the Society of the Free and Easy,” whose members would follow “the Thirteen Weeks Examination and Practice of the Virtues.” They were to profess that God governs the world and ought to be worshiped, and “that the most acceptable Service of God is doing Good to Man.” This non-sectarian brotherhood, “begun & spread at first among young and single Men only,” was meant to develop into a global “united Party for Virtue.”
Franklin passed away in 1790 without having written a book expounding his Art of Virtue and without laying the groundwork for a new international society. Nonetheless, since he had described his system in some detail in his popular autobiography, people interested in character improvement still had access to the technique. In fact, nearly 20 years after his death, Franklin’s ideas were recast in Hebrew and shared with Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.
Bringing Franklin to the Jewish Community
Rabbi Menahem Mendel Lefin of Satanów (1749–1826) was an early Eastern European maskil (proponent of the Jewish Enlightenment movement). In 1808, he anonymously published a Hebrew text called the Sefer Heshbon Ha-nefesh (Book of Spiritual Accounting) that elaborated on Franklin’s character improvement method. However, it was not designed to “be serviceable to People in all Religions.” Instead, it was written for the spiritual and moral edification of Lefin’s fellow Jews. More specifically, Lefin adapted Franklin’s method to help subordinate the Animal Soul to the Divine Soul.
Lefin did state outright that he had not invented the method taught in his book, but he neglected to name Franklin or to cite Franklin’s autobiography. Instead, Lefin wrote elusively that “a few years ago a new technique was discovered, and it is a wonderful innovation in this work [of subordinating the Animal Soul], and it seems, God willing, that its impact will spread quickly, as with the invention of the printing press that brought light to the world.” This omitting of Franklin’s name and of Franklin’s autobiography has led to much confusion in Jewish scholarship about Lefin’s source.
While basing his text on Franklin’s technique for character improvement, including the use of grid charts, Lefin diverged from it in several ways. Franklin had envisioned his method as universally applicable and as the basis for a global “united Party for Virtue.” As a result, he wanted a fixed set of 13 virtues that all prospective members could focus on. Lefin did not share this concern.
Following Franklin, Lefin detailed an initial list of 13 behavioral traits, but Lefin stressed that these were only examples of what readers might choose to concentrate on. Later in Heshbon Ha-nefesh, he offered five additional suggestions, including modesty, trust, and generosity. Taken together, Lefin’s 18 traits comprised all of Franklin’s 13 virtues. However, certain details, such as presenting Socrates and Jesus as models of the virtue of humility, were absent from Lefin’s work.
Lefin also discarded Franklin’s ideas of a global “united Party for Virtue,” but the rabbi did not consider character improvement to be solely a private endeavor. He counseled fathers to monitor their sons’ characters for five years, beginning at age 13 (when a boy becomes a bar mitzvah) and continuing to age 18 (the age of greater independence). After that, sons could embark on their own self-examinations, aided by their fathers’ knowledge of the areas in which they most needed improvement. Similarly, husbands and wives could embark on character refinement together, two friends could form character study partnerships, and men could seek out different teachers who exemplified particular character traits they yearned for and whom they could emulate.
Professor Nancy Sinkoff noted in her excellent article “Benjamin Franklin in Jewish Eastern Europe: Cultural Appropriation in the Age of the Enlightenment” (2000) that Lefin had been drawn to Franklin’s method for the same reason that Franklin had been compelled to devise it. Both had “come to the conclusion that a practical program of behavior modification was necessary to effect individual change” and “that self-improvement required a structured plan of behavior modification.”
Because of Franklin’s approach to virtue and religion, Lefin could easily adapt the method to accepted Jewish practice. From the outset, Franklin had wanted his system to be universally accessible, and there were no obstacles to prevent its subsequent incorporation into Judaism. Heshbon Ha-nefesh received the approbation of prominent rabbis, was embraced by the Musar movement – which concentrated on moral discipline and ethical refinement – and became one of the many Hebrew texts still studied in yeshivot. In this way, Franklin’s initial goal of having his invention “be serviceable to People in all Religions” was realized. In fact, over 230 years after his death, Franklin’s legacy of character development still endures in 21st century Jewish thought and practice.
For ideas about using Franklin and Judaism in the classroom, see Dana Huff’s article “Toward ‘Moral Perfection’: Integrating Judaic Concepts and Benjamin Franklin’s ‘Autobiography’” (2006), which is written from the perspective of a non-Jewish English teacher working at a Jewish high school.
Shai Afsai has written about Benjamin Franklin and Judaism in the Journal of the American Revolution, the Review of Rabbinic Judaism, and Segula: The Jewish History Magazine.
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