A Forgetting of Benjamin Franklin

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Shai Afsai marks the passing of Ben Franklin on 17 April 1790.

Rabbis and Jewish scholars have often been unaware of, confused about, or uncomfortable acknowledging American founding father Benjamin Franklin’s influence on Judaism. Franklin specialists have been largely oblivious to it.

Benjamin Franklin experiments in the night. Photo: Wikipedia

Though the mussar (practical Jewish ethical instruction) classic Sefer Heshbon Hanefesh (Book of Spiritual Accounting) has been reprinted many times and in many places since 1808, as far as I know only the 2015 edition put out by Jerusalem’s Mossad Harav Kook has contained any recognition that this Hebrew text is drawn from the writings of the American founding father Benjamin Franklin (January 17, 1706-April 17, 1790). Readers picking up other available editions have needed external information to make the link between Franklin and Judaism.

Franklin’s influence on Judaism occurred posthumously, primarily through his famous autobiography. In the autobiography’s second part, the nearly 80-year-old revolutionary recounts how, as a younger man in his 20s, he devised a program to break his bad habits and replace them with better ones. His year-long, quarterly-repeated self-reform program centered on 13 virtues, each of which was given a week of close attention. Progress and setbacks in acquiring them were monitored with daily markings in grid charts that had the seven days of the week running horizontally and the 13 desired traits running vertically. After 13 weeks the cycle was begun again, so that in a year each trait was carefully worked on for four weeks.

Benjamin West, American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Agreement with Great Britain, 1783-1784, London, England. (oil on canvas, unfinished sketch), Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Delaware, gift of Henry Francis du Pont. From left to right: John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens, and William Temple Franklin. The British commissioners refused to pose, and the picture was never finished. Photo: Wikipedia

Franklin chose to concentrate on the following virtues:

  1. Temperance: Eat not to Dullness. Drink not to Elevation.
  2. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling Conversation.
  3. Order: Let all your Things have their Places. Let each Part of your Business have its Time.
  4. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Frugality: Make no Expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e. Waste nothing.
  6. Industry: Lose no Time. Be always employ’d in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary Actions.
  7. Sincerity: Use no hurtful Deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Justice: Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty.
  9. Moderation: Avoid Extremes. Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness: Tolerate no Uncleanness in Body, Clothes or Habitation.
  11. Tranquility: Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. Chastity: Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring; Never to Dullness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another’s Peace or Reputation.
  13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Early on, Franklin realized that his method could be of great use to others. He had intended to expand upon it and publish it as a book, recalling in his autobiography: ‘I should have called my BOOK the ART of Virtue.’ Ever the enthusiast of fraternities and secret societies, Franklin even envisioned forming a new international secret fraternity and mutual-aid society, ‘the Society of the Free and Easy,’ whose initiates would profess a belief in a generic religious creed – so that men of all religions would be able to join – and would follow ‘the Thirteen Weeks Examination and Practice of the Virtues.’ But Franklin, who was a busy man, passed away without writing a book on virtue or forming a global fraternity.

Benjamin Franklin. Stipple engraving by O. Pelton, 1859. Photo: Wikipedia

With the publication of Heshbon Hanefesh, Rabbi Menahem Mendel Lefin of Satanów (1749-1826), an early Eastern European maskil (proponent of the Jewish Enlightenment), introduced Franklin’s Art of Virtue to Hebrew-reading Jewish audiences. Rabbis and Jewish scholars have since often been unaware of, confused about, or uncomfortable acknowledging Franklin’s influence on Judaism, while Franklin specialists have been largely oblivious to it.

In recent years, some Orthodox Jews have also become uneasy with the notion that Lefin could have been a maskil, as well as uncomfortable with the thought that a mussar book based upon a non-Jew’s writings could have received extensive rabbinic approval and become part of the Jewish canon. An apparently anxiety-relieving Orthodox Jewish response has been to largely write Franklin or Lefin out of the history of mussar.

W. O. Geller: Franklin Surrounded by the Ladies at Court, ca. 1830. Photo: Wikipedia

Although Lefin stated outright in Heshbon Hanefesh (which was first published anonymously) that its innovative method was not his own invention, he did not name Franklin or cite the autobiography there. (He did do so, however, in unpublished writings.) Jewish scholars – including Hillel Levine, Immanuel Etkes, David Shahar, and Nancy Sinkoff – who have discussed this non-crediting have generally seen it as a calculated omission on Lefin’s part. Deliberate or not, this omission contributed to the eventual widespread Jewish forgetting of the fact that Franklin had originated Heshbon Hanefesh’s central method. Still, Heshbon Hanefesh’s connection to Franklin has long been written about by some of those (myself included) interested in Lefin’s work.

Several years after its publication, Lefin’s fellow maskil Jacob Samuel Bick praised Heshbon Hanefesh’s self-improvement method, in an 1815 Hebrew letter, as: ‘A wonderful technique invented by the sage Benjamin Franklin from the city of Philadelphia in North America. This scholar is renowned in all corners of the earth. “The light of a lamp kindled by a gentile [for himself on the Sabbath] may also be used by a Jew.’ And thus R[abbi] Mendel has prepared a delicacy for his nation…and taught a simple and clear solution for the broken but still precious soul to speedily return from the bad to the good. In their approbation, the rabbis of the generation said that this thing is beneficial and new. And the nation replied in turn: Sanctified! Sanctified!’

John Trumbull’s painting, Declaration of Independence, depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. The painting can be found on the back of the U.S. $2 bill. The original hangs in the US Capitol rotunda. Photo: Wikipedia

The connection has also been the subject of academic focus. Boston University’s Hillel Levine wrote his doctoral dissertation on ‘Menahem Mendel Lefin: A Case Study of Judaism and Modernization’ (1974) at Harvard University. Two decades later, Rutgers University’s Nancy Sinkoff wrote her doctoral dissertation on ‘Tradition and Transition: Mendel Lefin of Satanów and the Beginnings of the Jewish Enlightenment in Eastern Europe, 1749-1826’ (1996) at Columbia University. (Sinkoff’s 2004 book Out of the Shtetl: Making Jews Modern in the Polish Borderlands, which built upon her dissertation, has recently been updated with a new preface and republished, and is available for free downloading through Brown Judaic Studies and JSTOR.)

In contrast to those academic works, the Hebrew-English edition of Heshbon Hanefesh put out by Feldheim Publishers in 1995 is silent about Franklin’s influence. Moreover, its back cover gives a misleading picture of Heshbon Hanefesh’s character-building method, suggesting – contrary to Lefin’s own words about how the method preceded him – that it is unique to Heshbon Hanefesh, was formulated by Lefin, and was devised for religious Jews: ‘CHESHBON HANEFESH, first published in Lemberg in 1812 [sic], presents a unique system for self-improvement and the development of positive character traits. Employing sophisticated psychological techniques and charts to monitor one’s progress, this method was designed specifically for bnei Torah [i.e., those intensively engaged in the study of Torah] and is as applicable today as it was when it was first formulated, nearly 200 years ago.’

Reproduction of a Charles Mills painting by the Detroit Publishing Company. Depicts W:Benjamin Franklin at work on a printing press.
Date circa 1914. Photo: Wikipedia

Not only is any mention of Franklin’s Art of Virtue absent from the Feldheim edition, but all biographical information about Lefin’s affiliation with the Haskalah movement (the Jewish Enlightenment) has been omitted, too. (The editor of the 2015 Mossad Harav Kook edition, who notes in his preface that Lefin’s text is based on Franklin’s writing, was also unwilling to identify Lefin as a maskil.)

A starker illustration of such forgetting is evident in a popular poster put out by Torah Umesorah (the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools), in which neither Franklin nor Lefin are recognized alongside the “13 Middos.” Instead, in what has become common among some contemporary Orthodox Jews, the character traits in these posters (as well as in decorative artwork of the traits occasionally found in Orthodox Jewish homes) are attributed to Rabbi Israel (Yisroel) Salanter (1810-1883), the father of the Mussar movement. Just as Franklin was left out of Heshbon Hanefesh, both he and Lefin are left out of the alphabetically arranged ‘13 Middos’ (or midot, i.e., character traits.)

Benjamin Franklin by Charles Andres, 1948 – Better Vision Institute. Photo: Wikipedia

Meanwhile, though Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, et al.’s 2019 Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land – The Hebrew Bible in the United States: A Sourcebook contains a lengthy excerpt from Franklin’s autobiography relating to his attempts at attaining virtue and to his self-improvement method – thus implying that these were principally inspired by Jewish scripture – Franklin’s influence on Jewish religious texts is entirely ignored there. 

There is a long tradition of using and misusing Franklin’s legacy to prop up various causes. I have just finished reading Ray Bradbury’s dystopian 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451. One of its most ironic passages describes the revisionist history of the Firemen of America, whose job in the novel – now that homes have become completely fireproofed – is to set fire to the country’s books: ‘Established, 1790, to burn English-influenced books in the Colonies. First Fireman: Benjamin Franklin.’ (Franklin, who as a younger man helped found Philadelphia’s first library and first firefighting organization, was 84 in 1790, by which time the Colonies had, of course, already become independent of England.) In March, I wrote at JewThink about how anti-Semites have been exploiting Franklin’s reputation since 1934. Franklin could do without much of the ‘credit’ he has been given since his death. But he ought to be appreciated for posthumously inspiring Rabbi Menahem Mendel Lefin, and for Judaism’s acquisition of a beneficial and new self-improvement method.


Shai Afsai’s articles and poems have appeared in Anthropology Today, Journal of the American Revolution, Poetica Magazine, Reform Jewish Quarterly, Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, and Tablet Magazine.
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