Headstone of the Ramchal in Tiberias, Israel
Headstone of the Ramchal in Tiberias, Israel

People Of The Book:

Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition

By Dr. Henry Abramson

“One who passes through this world without thinking is like a blind man walking along a river. Danger is ever-present, and drowning is more likely than rescue.”

–From the recently published early version of Mesilat Yesharim

Perhaps the most enduring work of Jewish thought published in the last 300 years, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s MesilatYesharim (1740) has long held pride of place in the canon of the mussar tradition, but few readers are aware of the bitter controversy that surrounded the author in his lifetime. Critics pursued him across Europe, driving him from one city to another until he finally left the continent altogether to die in Israel at the tragically young age of 38. Only the enthusiastic approbations of later 18th-century authors, such as the Gaon of Vilna, assured MesilatYesharim a central role as an essential work of Jewish ethics. At issue was the charge–championed by Rabbi Moshe Hagiz–that Rabbi Luzzatto was a secret follower of the disgraced false Messiah, Shabbetai Tsvi.

Rabbi Luzzatto (known as the Ramchal) was a native of Padua, Italy, and a student at its famous university. A child genius, he engaged in study of Kabbalah in his early twenties, violating the sensibilities of the city elders who felt he should cease such activity until he reached the age of 40. The Ramchal was forced to submit to a series of humiliating bans, including a requirement to deliver all his manuscripts into the care of his teacher and faithful ally Rabbi Yeshayahu Bassan. Gently chastised by Rabbi Bassan for his intellectual curiosity, the Ramchal responded by quoting the third-century sage Rabbi Meir, who was similarly criticized for learning from the apostate Rabbi Elisha Ben Abuya: “I eat the fruit, and discard the peel.”

Were it to be shelved among contemporary works, Mesilat Yesharim would probably be located in both the “philosophy” and “self-help” sections of your local bookstore. It’s an extended discussion of Talmudic passage that describes a trajectory of personal development, hence the title “Path of the Righteous.” Beginning with the trait of “caution” and continuing through “alacrity,” “cleanliness,” and other stages, ending with “holiness,” the Ramchal outlines specific behaviors that nurture each trait, and behaviors that must be avoided in order to master that trait. A brilliant and perceptive exploration of the path to self-knowledge, MesilatYesharim is especially well-suited to spiritually sensitive readers committed to rigorous self-evaluation for personal growth.

In the early 1990s, the world of Ramchal enthusiasts received a monumental gift with the Ofeq Institute publication of an alternative version of Mesilat Yesharim, based on a manuscript written in the Ramchal’s own hand and held in the Guenzburg Archive of the Russian State Library in Moscow. A cursory review of the untitled manuscript revealed that it was an earlier version of Mesilat Yesharim, composed in a radically different fashion: while the traditional published edition was written in simple declarative prose, the Guenzburg manuscript rendered Mesilat Yesharim in the form of a dialogue between two friends, separated for years since their youth, who had chosen to follow very different spiritual paths. One (the “chacham,” or clever one) sought to incorporate his Torah study as one among many other valuable pursuits in the sciences and other fields, while the other (the “chassid,” or pious one) spent his spiritual energies in deep meditation, in the recitation of Psalms, and the like. Together they reviewed their respective choices in Jewish observance and philosophy, and in so doing described the same arc of personal development outlined in the prose version of Mesilat Yesharim. This dual technique, prose and drama, was utilized by the Ramchal in other works as well, notably Da’at Tevunot.

The traditional edition of Mesilat Yesharim is still the more widely studied, but in my humble opinion the dialogue version is of incalculable value, and is even greater than the prose version. It conveys a mood of immediacy and urgency that is remarkably relevant to the condition of modern Judaism, and deserves a wide readership. v

Dr. Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish History and Thought. He serves as dean at the Avenue J Campus of Touro’s Lander Colleges and may be reached at abramson@touro.edu.

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