Benjamin Franklin, Spiritual Accounting and the Mussar Movement

Benjamin Franklin's January 17 birthday is an appropriate time to remember the American founding father and learn about his effect on the Mussar movement.

Shai Afsai

Judaism Shai Afsai
Shai Afsai

When Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) composed his autobiography, he included the description of a self-improvement method he’d devised in his younger years, along with an honest assessment of his varied success in applying it to his conduct. The method centers on thirteen behavioral traits — temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility — each of which, in succession, is allotted a week of close attention and reflection. Progress and setbacks in mastering the traits are tracked daily in a grid chart, which has the seven days of the week running horizontally, and the thirteen traits running vertically. After thirteen weeks, the cycle begins again, so that over the course of a year each behavioral trait has been carefully worked on for four weeks.

Franklin devised this self-improvement method when he was still in his twenties, and had originally intended to devote a book to its elaboration. In the Autobiography he laments that due to his many other concerns over the years he never accomplished this task: “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 . . . [and] it has hitherto remain’d unfinish’d.”

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, “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 were to follow “the Thirteen Weeks Examination and Practice of the Virtues.”

In Franklin’s plan, the society’s worldwide members would comprise a “united Party for Virtue”: “My Ideas at that time were, that the Sect should be begun & spread at first among young and single Men only . . . 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 . . . [t]hat the Members should engage to afford their Advice Assistance and Support to each other in promoting one another’s Interest, Business and Advancement in Life . . .”

In the Autobiography, Franklin reconciles with the fact that he’s no longer able to carry out his ambitious project at his now more advanced age: “my multifarious Occupations public & private induc’d me to continue postponing, so that it has been omitted till I have no longer Strength or Activity left sufficient for such an Enterprise.”  In the end, he neither wrote his book on virtue, nor formed his party.

However, nearly twenty years after Franklin’s death, and half way across the world from Philadelphia, the early Eastern European maskil (Jewish enlightener) Rabbi Menahem Mendel Lefin of Satanow (1749-1826) succeeded in completing and publishing a Hebrew text based on Franklin’s self-improvement method. Its purpose may have surprised Franklin, for instead of this being a work for the use of the “Virtuous and good Men of all Nations,” whom Franklin had envisioned as the members of his party, Lefin’s 1808 Sefer Heshbon Ha-nefesh (Book of Spiritual Accounting) was written specifically for the moral and spiritual edification of his fellow Jews. 

Nancy Sinkoff observes in “Benjamin Franklin in Jewish Eastern Europe: Cultural Appropriation in the Age of the Enlightenment” that Lefin was drawn to Franklin’s method for the very reason that Franklin had originally been compelled to devise it himself. Both the American philosopher and the Eastern European rabbi 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.” 

Explaining why he’d thought up his program, Franklin wrote: “I concluded at length, that the mere speculative Conviction that it was in our Interest to be completely virtuous, was not sufficient to prevent our Slipping, and that the contrary Habits must be broken and good ones acquired and established, before we can have any Dependence on a steady uniform Rectitude of Conduct.” Finding that no practical method for breaking bad habits and inculcating better ones had been formulated to his satisfaction, Franklin developed his own.

Likewise, explaining his decision to embrace Franklin’s method, Lefin wrote: “Even though [the sages of blessed memory] were themselves tremendously righteous and pious . . . they only addressed the intellectual soul [in their instruction]; but where will we take advice for ruling our animal soul, and submitting it to our direction?”

Lefin wished that the rabbis of the past had provided more detailed explanations of the practical methods they’d used in refining themselves: “Would that those admonishing righteous ones of blessed memory, or at least their students who served them, had also left us the details of their life stories [i.e., autobiographies or biographies], and made us wise to those wonderful techniques that they invented for themselves to conquer their animal souls and elevate themselves to their lofty levels . . . ” 

Whereas they hadn’t done so to Lefin’s satisfaction, Franklin furnished just such an account in his Autobiography and Lefin believed that Franklin’s method could benefit all who were interested in self-improvement: “Indeed, several years ago a new technique was discovered, which is a wonderful innovation in this task [of overcoming one’s animal nature], and it seems apparent that its mark will spread as quickly, God willing, as that of the innovation of the printing press, which has brought light to the world.”

Because Franklin had envisioned his program as being universally applicable and as forming the basis of an international fraternity, he needed a set of traits that could be focused on by all prospective members. He compiled his list deliberately, and arranged it cumulatively, so that improved mastery of the first behavioral trait might make it easier to master the second, and so on.

Lefin, on the other hand, had no such concerns. Disregarding this aspect of Franklin’s program, Lefin instead urged his readers to select and focus on behavioral traits relevant to their own unique circumstances and personalities, rather than on the specific ones he outlined as examples. 

Although Lefin still instructed his readers to select thirteen traits — so that they wouldn’t exhaust themselves by focusing too intently on a smaller number — the order of the traits could be shuffled as needed, and practitioners might dwell on a trait for more than one week of a thirteen-week cycle if they felt it required their special attention. Lefin also expected that as they mastered certain behaviors and became ready for new challenges, practitioners would alter the list of traits they focused on.

In general, Spiritual Accounting offered a more malleable, individualized method than Franklin had presented in his Autobiography. Nonetheless, the behavioral traits outlined for improvement in the Autobiography and in Spiritual Accounting, though not identical, largely overlap, as does the emphasis on gradually and systematically overcoming undesirable habits and acquiring positive ones.

Among the rabbis who admired Spiritual Accounting was Rabbi Yisroel Salanter (1810-1883), the promulgator of the Mussar movement, who saw it “as a truly practical book for ethical guidance” and endeavored to have it reprinted. Likewise, a foreword composed for the book by Rabbi Yitzhok Isaac Sher of Slobodka stressed Spiritual Accounting’s singularity and innovativeness: “In this esteemed book, important matters from the wisdom of mussar, which we have not found in the other mussar books in our possession, are clarified.”

Such praise has persisted to the present. More recently, for example, Rabbi Yisroel Miller has suggested that parents introduce their older children “to the behavior-modification system used by Rav Yisroel Salanter and his disciples, as found in Sefer Cheshbon ha-Nefesh,” assuring them that its “program is virtually guaranteed to repay huge dividends.” 

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

He explained this non-sectarian approach in the Autobiography: “It will be remark’d that, tho’ my Scheme was not wholly without Religion there was in it no Mark of any of the distinguishing Tenets of any particular Sect.  I had purposely avoided them; for being fully persuaded of the Utility and Excellency of my Method, and that it might be serviceable to People in all Religions, and intending some time or other to publish it, I would not have any thing in it that should prejudice any one of any Sect against it.”

Since Franklin took such a non-sectarian approach, there were no philosophical or religious obstacles to prevent the method’s use within a Jewish context. Spiritual Accounting received the approbation of prominent rabbis, was embraced by the Mussar movement, and became one of the many Hebrew texts studied in yeshivot, furthering Franklin’s initial goal of making his system for self-examination and character improvement “serviceable to People in all Religions.”

Shai Afsai, who sent the above article to Arutz Sheva, lives in Rhode Island. A longer and scholarly version of this article "Benjamin Franklin and Judaism"J appears in the November 2016 issue of the Journal of the American Revolution.