Benjamin Franklin’s Influence on Mussar Thought and Practice: a Chronicle of Misapprehension

In: Review of Rabbinic Judaism
Shai Afsai PO Box 603139, Providence, RI 02906

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Benjamin Franklin’s ideas and writings may be said to have had an impact on Jewish thought and practice. This influence occurred posthumously, primarily through his Autobiography and by way of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Lefin’s Sefer Cheshbon ha-Nefesh (Book of Spiritual Accounting, 1808), which introduced Franklin’s method for moral perfection to a Hebrew-reading Jewish audience. This historical development has confused Judaic scholars, and Franklin specialists have been largely oblivious to it. Remedying the record on this matter illustrates how even within the presumably insular world of Eastern European rabbinic Judaism—far from the deism of the trans-Atlantic Enlightenment—pre-Reform, pre-Conservative Jewish religion was affected by broader currents of thought.

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