From the Bookshelf

From the Bookshelf: Ira Stone, Mesillat Yesharim: The Path of the Upright

A guest post by Marley Weiner.

I have not written this book to teach the reader anything new. Rather is it my aim to direct his attention to certain well known and generally accepted truths. for the very fact that they are well known and generally accepted is the cause of their being overlooked.

The book Mesillat Yesharim (the Path of the Upright), written by Moses Hayyim Luzatto around 1738, translated by Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, and with modern commentary by Rabbi Ira Stone, is an attempt to translate the traditional Jewish practice of Musar into a language that a modern-day reader can grasp. I tend to jokingly call Musar “group therapy for your morals” as it is a lifelong practice with both private and group components designed to produce the kind of accountability that leads to real moral growth. This practice grew out of centuries of moralistic Jewish literature, but in its last great renaissance was born of a reaction against Jewish houses of study where the students knew their Talmud forward and back, but did not necessarily apply its lessons to their own lives. Since the mid-18th century, Mesillat Yesharim has been used as a cornerstone text by those wishing to study Musar.

The central premise of Musar is this: every person is continuously obligated to serve other people, through moral acts and through living according to traditional Jewish law. Most of us struggle with this, as we are occasionally (or not so occasionally) selfish and petty. Through studying Musar, one continuously evaluates one’s behavior to make ever better choices about how to interact in the world, to the point that making the best moral decision becomes second nature. The goal of the book is to grow righteous people, who would never consider sinning, while acknowledging that few of us will ever reach that point.

In recent years, the practice of Musar has experienced somewhat of a resurgence, and this edition is at attempt to update much of the traditional language and provide a scaffolding for modern readers to access its insights. The book as originally written speaks a fair deal about reward and punishment, and heaven and hell, which can put up a stumbling block before modern readers who do not believe in these ideas as traditionally understood. The book is also full of passages that reflect assumptions about sexuality and gender that can grate on modern sensibilities.

It is to Rabbi Stone’s credit that his commentary usually helps to draw out the moral lessons from this book that are relevant to our own day. The “world to come” of Rabbi Luzatto is translated into a moral and psychological state, that of cheerfully selfless service to the wants and needs of others. It is achieved in this world but for most of us it is usually impermanent and fleeting. That being said, there are some passages, such as the section on guarding against one’s sexual urges (including an exhortation for the reader to limit his conversations with women), in which it is much more difficult to find the grain of moral truth.

It should be noted that this book is not designed to be read at once in a sitting. The book is written to be read over many years, by oneself and with a partner, to go back and reread paragraphs and chapters over and over again, as sections later in the book help to illuminate earlier chapters even more deeply. It comes out of the study hall, where partners in study would argue and reread and jump around in texts. It is not a simple self-help book, and it should be noted that I haven’t finished the whole thing, as I’m still trying to implement the lessons of the earlier chapters. Sometimes I get a glimpse of the world to come that the author is talking about. It’s not often, but it’s there.

Marley Weiner is beginning her third year at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical college. She writes (less often than she should) at