Shai Afsai
Shai Afsai

Benjamin Franklin’s Virtues and Jewish Practice

Benjamin Franklin, who passed away on April 17, 1790, has had a lasting impact on Jewish thought and practice.

When Benjamin Franklin (born January 17, 1706) composed his autobiography, he included the description of a self-improvement method he had devised in his younger years, along with an honest assessment of how well he was able to apply the method to his conduct.

His method centered on 13 behavioral traits (temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity and humility), each of which, in succession, was allotted a week of close attention and reflection.

Franklin tracked his progress and setbacks in mastering the traits on a grid chart, which had the seven days of the week running horizontally and the 13 traits running vertically. After 13 weeks, Franklin began the cycle again, so that over the course of a year, each behavioral trait could be carefully worked on for four full weeks.

Franklin devised this self-improvement method when he was in his 20s and had originally intended to devote a book to its elaboration. In his autobiography, he regrets that he was never able to accomplish this task due to his many other concerns. “I should have called my BOOK the ART of Virtue… But it so happened that my Intention of writing & publishing this Comment was never fulfilled…the necessary close Attention to private Business in the earlier part of Life, and public Business since, have occasioned my postponing it,” he wrote.

His method centered on 13 behavioral traits (temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity and humility), each of which, in succession, was allotted a week of close attention and reflection.

Producing this book was part of “a great and extensive Project” Franklin had envisioned: the formation of an international secret fraternity and mutual-aid society called “the Society of the Free and Easy.” Its initiates were to profess a belief in a generic religious creed — so that people of all religions would be able to join — and follow “the Thirteen Weeks Examination and Practice of the Virtues.”

Franklin explained that, according to his youthful plan, the society’s members would comprise a global and growing “united Party for Virtue.” He recollected that “My Ideas at that time were, that the Sect should be begun & spread at first among young and single Men only…[and] that the existence of such a Society should be kept a Secret till it was to become considerable, to prevent Solicitations for the Admission of improper Persons.”

The American founding father passed away without writing his book on virtue or forming his international fraternity. However, nearly 20 years after Franklin’s death, and halfway across the world, the early Eastern European maskil (proponent of the Jewish Enlightenment movement) Rabbi Menahem Mendel Lefin of Satanów (1749-1826) completed and published a Hebrew text based on Franklin’s self-improvement method.

Its purpose may have surprised Franklin, for instead of being a work for the “Virtuous and good Men of all Nations,” Lefin’s 1808 Sefer Heshbon Ha-nefesh (Book of Spiritual Accounting) was written specifically for the moral and spiritual edification of his fellow Jews.

While basing himself on Franklin’s new technique, including the use of Franklin’s grid chart, Lefin diverged from it in several important details.

Although Lefin stated outright in Heshbon Ha-nefesh (which was first published anonymously) that its innovative method was not his own invention, he did not name Franklin or cite the autobiography there. “A few years ago a new technique was discovered, and it is a wonderful invention in this task [of character improvement], and it seems this innovation will spread quickly, God willing, as with the invention of the printing press, which brought light to the world,” Lefin wrote.

While basing himself on Franklin’s new technique, including the use of Franklin’s grid chart, Lefin diverged from it in several important details.

Because Franklin had envisioned his program as universally applicable and as forming the basis for a global fraternity, he wanted a fixed set of 13 traits that could be focused on by all prospective members. Franklin also arranged his list cumulatively, with the idea that improved mastery of certain behavioral traits might make it easier to master others. Lefin did not share these concerns. Although, following Franklin, he detailed an initial list of 13 traits — so that practitioners would not exhaust themselves by concentrating too closely on a smaller number during each four-week cycle of introspection — Lefin noted that they were offered only as concrete examples of the kinds readers might choose for themselves. Later in the book, he offered additional suggestions for traits readers might wish to master, such as modesty, trust and generosity. (Taken together, one finds that Lefin essentially replicated the autobiography’s 13 virtues — though mention of Jesus and Socrates, whom Franklin gave as models of humility, are absent from Heshbon Ha-nefesh.)

While Lefin did not have dreams of a global fraternity that would use his book, he did not consider character monitoring to be a private activity only. He counseled fathers to closely monitor their sons’ character traits for five years — beginning at age 13 and continuing to age 18 — after which time the sons would embark on their own self-examinations, aided by their fathers’ close observations of their adolescence and of the areas in which they were most in need of growth. He also advised that husbands and wives embark on character refinement together, that two friends form character-study partnerships, and that men seek out different rabbis who exemplified particular character traits they yearned for, and whom they could emulate.

Professor Nancy Sinkoff observed in her article “Benjamin Franklin in Jewish Eastern Europe: Cultural Appropriation in the Age of the Enlightenment” (2000) that Lefin was drawn to Franklin’s method for the very 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.”

Franklin’s approach to virtue and religion helped Lefin easily adapt his method and make it a part of accepted Jewish practice. From the outset, Franklin sought to make his system for self-improvement, as well as the international fraternity whose members would adhere to it, universally accessible.

As Franklin had taken a non-sectarian approach, there were no religious obstacles preventing his method’s use within a Jewish context. Heshbon Ha-nefesh received the approbation of prominent rabbis, was embraced by the Jewish ethical Mussar movement and became one of the many Hebrew texts still studied in yeshivot, furthering Franklin’s initial goal of making his system for self-examination and character development “serviceable to People in all Religions.” 231 years after his death, Franklin’s legacy — including his contribution to Jewish thought and practice — lives on.

For more related to this subject, see “A Forgetting of Benjamin Franklin,” “How Rabbi Klein Used Jewish Ethics to Help Rehabilitate Inmates,” and “Benjamin Franklin’s Influence on Mussar Thought and Practice: a Chronicle of Misapprehension.”

About the Author
Shai Afsai (shaiafsai.com) lives in Providence, Rhode Island. In addition to fiction and poetry, his recent writing has focused on the works of Thomas Paine, Zionist historiography, Jews and Freemasonry, Benjamin Franklin’s influence on Jewish thought and practice, religious traditions of the Beta Yisrael Jewish community from Ethiopia, Jewish observance and identity in Nigeria, aliyah to Israel from Rhode Island, Jewish pilgrimage to Ukraine, Jewish-Polish relations, Jews and Irish literature, and Judaism in Northern Ireland.
Related Topics
Related Posts
Comments