Sunday, July 24, 2016

Does Secular Wisdom Have Anything to Teach Us?

Looking through last week’s edition of the Queens Jewish Link, I came across the front page article by Gerald Harris, entitled “Was Benjamin Franklin Influenced by Torah Thinking”.  In this informative article, Mr. Harris cited many ideas regarding frugality and money management popularized by Franklin that are consistent with Torah values, leading him to speculate whether, in fact, Franklin had been exposed to Torah teachings.  It was taken as a matter of course that – given that Franklin lived long after the Torah had taught similar values – Franklin in all probability was “familiar with Jewish thinking . . . advice [was] strongly influenced by verses in Mishlei and various musar seforim.”  In other words, Franklin had, knowingly or not, probably received these values from Torah, directly or indirectly.

It is, of course, highly likely that Franklin, who was known as a man of uncertain religious beliefs (especially in regard to Christianity) but nevertheless a passionate pursuer of wisdom and virtue, studied the Book of Proverbs (Mishlei) closely; less likely that he had access to our musar seforim.  I am convinced that Franklin learned of Mishlei through Christian teachings, in keeping with the famous dictum of the Rambam in Hilchos Melachim 11:11-13, regarding the importance of Christianity and Islam in spreading Ethical Monotheism to the larger world.[1]  But perhaps Mr. Harris is correct, and Franklin did have direct exposure to Torah teachings.

Be that as it may, the implicit attitude -- not uncommon in the orthodox world -- that if we find wisdom in the secular, or non-Jewish world, it must have come from Torah sources[2], is what moved me to write this essay.  I have found that many seem to believe that the non-Torah world has little or nothing of value to teach us, and one should focus exclusively on Torah sources in seeking wisdom, guidance, and aids to self-improvement, or that of society.  There are, of course, many sources that could be cited to buttress this attitude; the most famous perhaps being the Mishna in Pirkei Avos 5:22

בן בג בג אומר: 
הפוך בה והפוך בה, דכולא בה. 
ובה תחזי, וסיב ובלה בה, ומנה לא תזוע, שאין לך מדה טובה הימנה.
Ben Bag Bag says: Search in it, and search in it, for everything is in it. In it you shall look and grow old and gray with it. From it do not move, for no characteristic is better than it.

Rav Ovadia of Bartenura comments: Do not say, “I have learned the wisdom of Israel, I will now go and learn Greek wisdom”, as it is not permissible to learn Greek wisdom except in a place that it is forbidden to contemplate words of Torah, e.g. in a bathhouse or in a bathroom. . .”

This fascinating topic, i.e. the propriety of accepting wisdom from non-Torah sources, is the subject of an enormous amount of debate and scholarship, and there are strongly held views on all sides.  The extent of the applicability of Ben Bag Bag’s statement is certainly viewed differently in Yeshiva University and in Lakewood (and within subgroups of those communities), although all claim to honor that Mishna, including the comment of Harav MiBartenura.[3]  I daresay that differences of opinion regarding this issue represents one of the great divides between the Hareidi and non-Hareidi communities today. It is a critically important topic for those of us who are not cloistered in New Square or Meah Shearim, but proudly live within the modern world and enjoy and appreciate the many wonderful advances that science, technology, and secular wisdom in general has brought to our lives, while at the same time are all too aware of the  depraved nature of much of modern culture.  As an avowed “middle of the roader” and a disciple of Rav Samson R Hirsch zt”l, the balance between the primacy of Torah and the benefits of worldly wisdom, i.e. the application of Torah Im Derech Eretz for individuals and society, could not be more important.

I thus found it fascinating that this article purported to show how Franklin derived his wisdom from Torah sources, including musar seforim, when, most paradoxically, the reverse may be true.   As I will describe below, there is a little-known but fascinating relationship between the work of Benjamin Franklin and none other than Rav Yisrael Lipkin, known as Rav Yisrael Salanter zt”l, famed Tzaddik, Gaon, and father of the Mussar movement.

When perusing seforim stores in Yerushalayim or New York, one often sees posters that displayed the program of the famous Thirteen Middos Of Rav Yisroel Salanter .  These 13 principles, it is said, were formulated by the famous tzaddik as a program for growth and self-improvement.  By focusing on one of the middos for one week for each of 13 weeks, and then repeating the cycle, one would go through this process four times in the course of a year and be greatly enriched by it.  This program of 13 principles is one of  the most famous of all of Rav Yisrael’s many teachings.

What is less known, however, is that in all likelihood, the original source of the structure of these principles was not Mishlei, or another Torah source, but none other than Benjamin Franklin. 
Many know of Rav Yisroel's storied career as a Rosh Yeshiva and founder of the Mussar movement in Vilna and elsewhere in Lithuania.   It is less known that for almost the second half of his life, Rav Yisroel Salanter moved to Western Europe and spent decades devoted to Kiruv Rechokim, trying to combat the ravages that the Haskalah and Reform had caused turning masses of Jews away from the Mesorah.  It was during that period that he grew enamored of a sefer called “Cheshbon HaNefesh”, written by R. Mendel (Leffin) Satanover, who while being fully shomer Torah Umitzvos (observant), was in fact one of the early Maskilim.  Rav Yisrael felt that it was such an important and worthy primer on Mussar work that -- despite its origin -- he embraced and republished it, and encouraged his disciples to read and use it.
Germane to our discussion is that it seems true beyond a doubt that the book Cheshbon HaNefesh was based on the List of 13 Virtues that were written a generation before by Benjamin Franklin.  As Rabbi Berel Wein writes, “Menachem Mendel Lefin … 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”.  Many other scholarly articles establish this fact beyond a reasonable doubt.
Franklin, for his part, attributed his amazing success and accomplishments to his constant focus on these principles that he authored at the age of 20, and which he worked on until his old age.  He formulated these principles when he realized that the “mere…conviction…to be…virtuous, was not sufficient” to effect behavioral change, because “habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason”  Towards the end of his life he wrote “It may be well my posterity should be informed that to this little artifice, with the blessing of God, their ancestor ow'd the constant felicity of his life, down to his 79th year, in which this is written.”
Incredibly, these celebrated virtues, that have been much cited by thinkers and ethicists the world over, were undoubtedly what R Mendel Satanover used when adapting them for his “Cheshbon HaNefesh”, and it was these that were further adapted by Rav Yisrael Salanter.
In a wonderful article, Rabbi Rabbi Micha Berger discussed this anomaly more fully; I reference my readers to presentation of this issue.  He included in his discussion the version of Rav Baruch Epstein (author of Makor Baruch and Torah Temima) in his biographical notes on Rav Yisroel Salanter.  In that article, Rabbi Berger designed a table comparing the various versions of these virtues, that I have reproduced below.
I conclude this essay hoping that my readers enjoy the delicious irony that I felt when reading Mr. Harris’ article, and that we accept the dictum of Chazal that
אם יאמר לך אדם יש חכמה בגוים תאמן: –מדרש איכה רבה פרשה ב סימן יג
“There is wisdom amongst the Nations”.   More importantly, I hope that we will be encouraged to use this wonderful and wise plan, whether of Rav Yisroel Salanter, or lehavdil Benjamin Franklin (or both), to pursue a virtuous life of self-improvement.

Benjamin Franklin
Cheshbon Hanefesh
Rav Yisrael Salanter
11. TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
1. MENUCHAS HANEFESH. Rise above events that are inconsequential — both bad and good — for they are not worth disturbing your equanimity.
5. MENUCHAH. Have a spirit that is at rest, without ever being hasty, so that you can do everything calmly

2. SAVLANUS. When something bad happens to you and you did not have the power to avoid it, do not aggravate the situation even more through wasted grief.
8. SAVLANUS. Bear with calm every happening and every event in life.
3. ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
3. SEDER. All of your actions and possessions should be orderly — each and every one in a set place and at a set time. Let your thoughts always be free to deal with that which lies ahead of you.
9. SEDER. Do all of your deeds and all of your undertakings in an organized and disciplined manner.
4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
4. CHARITZUS. All of your acts should be preceded by deliberation; when you have reached a decision, act without hesitating.
3. CHARITZUS. Do what you decide to do with industriousness and enthusiasm.
10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
5. NEQIYUS. Let no stain or ugliness be found in your possessions or in your home, and surely not on your body or clothes.
7. NIQAYON. Keep your body and clothes clean and pure.
13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
6. ANAVAH. Always seek to learn wisdom from every man, to recognize your failings and correct them. In doing so you will learn to stop thinking about your virtues and you will take your mind off your friend’s faults.
10. ANAVAH. Recognize your own shortcomings and pay no attention to those of others.
8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.               
7. TZEDEQ. What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.
11. TZEDEQ. Do whatever Torah says is right, in its letter and spirit, and give in on what is rightfully yours.
5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
8. QIMUTZ. Be careful with your money. Do not spend even a penny needlessly.
12. QIMUTZ. Do not spend a penny that is not for a necessary purpose.
6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
9. ZERIZUS. Always find something to do — for yourself or for a friend and do not allow a moment of your life to be wasted.
2. ZERIZUS. Never waste a moment, to let it be for no positive purpose, and likewise actively do what you seek to accomplish.
2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
10. SHETIQAH. Before you open your mouth, be silent and reflect: “What benefit will my speech bring to me or others?”
13. SHETIQAH. Consider the result that is to come out of your words before you speak.

11. NICHUSAH. The words of the wise are stated gently. In being good, do not be called ‘evil’.
6. NACHAS. The words of the wise are with gentleness heard, so therefore always strive to speak gently.
7. SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
12. EMES. Do not allow anything to pass your lips that you are not certain is completely true.
1. EMES. Never let anything out of your mouth that your heart cannot testify as to its truth.

4. KAVOD. Be cautious in the honoring of every person, even anyone whose thinking you consider to be imperfect.
1. TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

9. MODERATION. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

12. CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
13. PERISHUS. Strengthen yourself so that you can stop lewd thoughts. Draw close to your [spouse] only when your mind is free, [occupied only] by thoughts of fulfilling your conjugal duties [to your spouse] or procreating.

[1]  Briefly, the Rambam held that it is Hashem’s plan that the world become “filled with the mention of Moshiach, Torah, and mitzvot” through exposure to the "daughter religions" of Judaism, namely Christianity and Islam, both huge advances over paganism and primitive idolatry.  When Moshiach finally arrives, it will then be far easier for the whole world to come to the Ultimate Truth, at which time “all flesh will call in Your name”

 In fact, Franklin wrote shortly before his death "I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by His Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this ... As for Jesus of Nazareth ... I think the system of Morals and Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw ... but I have ... some Doubts to his Divinity”.   I believe that this is very much in keeping what the Rambam hoped would happen!

[2] As I do not know the author, I emphasize that this is a general comment, as I do not know his views on this issue.
[3] One way of understanding Ben Bag Bag is that although it is true that all wisdom is in the Torah, it may be close to impossible for anyone but the very greatest to access that wisdom.  So, for instance, it is true that the Chazon Ish had an uncanny understanding of the workings of the human body exclusively from Torah sources, most people would probably be well advised to seek medical advice from a medical profession who gained his knowledge from secular sources.


lee woo said...

Don't avoid extremes, and don't choose any one extreme. Remain available to both the polarities - that is the art, the secret of balancing.
See the below for more info.


Nathalie Uy said...

Good vibes. Everyday, all day. God Bless :)