Jewish History Blog

Ben Franklin… Jewish Ethicist?

One of the strange quirks in history is that Rabbi Salanter and the followers of his Mussar Movement were strongly influenced by Benjamin Franklin.

One of the strange quirks in history is that Rabbi Salanter and the followers of his Mussar Movement were strongly influenced by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin’s personal life leaves much to be desired. However, his ideas were extraordinary in many respects.

In the 1700s, Ben Franklin had published Poor Richard’s Almanac, which includes in it a great deal of philosophy. In it he listed 13 famous character traits, which he said are the foundation of a good person and a good society. Included on the list are such traits as thrift, honesty, silence, study, etc.

A Lithuanian Jew by the name of Menachem Mendel Lefin (also Menahem Mendel Levin — 1749–1826) had traveled west and studied in the universities of Germany and France. There he read the writings of Benjamin Franklin, and became greatly influenced by them. He wrote a book of Jewish ethics based on Franklin’s ideas, almost quoting him verbatim but never mentioning his name. It was as though it was his book.

Ohr Yisrael, “The Light of Israel,” is a biography of Rabbi Salanter and a philosophy of movement penned by his main disciple.

Rabbi Israel Salanter read his book and was very impressed by it. He subsequently published it in Kovno using his own funds. The book was republished by his followers a number of times. As late as the 1930s it was still being published by the Slobodka Yeshiva.

In our day, the book was translated into English by Feldheim publishers and one can even find posters of Franklin’s list in Jewish classrooms and on refrigerators in Jewish homes. It is ironic that one will not find these principles discussed or displaying in American school and homes; only in those of religious Jews.

There have also been a number of interesting books, theses and articles written about the relationship between the followers of the Mussar Movement and Benjamin Franklin. “Accept the truth from whoever says it,” is a principle in Jewish life. Indeed, that was what Maimonides responded when he was criticized for quoting Aristotle and the Greek philosophers. The bottom line is that if a person will live by those 13 principles he will be a better person and the world will be a better place.

 

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Posted in:
American Jewish history, Biographies
by
Berel Wein
  • Comments Off
  • January 20, 2012

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