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Journal of the History of Ideas 61.1 (2000) 133-152

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Benjamin Franklin in Jewish Eastern Europe: Cultural Appropriation in the Age of the Enlightenment

Nancy Sinkoff *


IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= In 1808 an anonymous Hebrew chapbook detailing a behaviorist guide to moral education and self-improvement appeared in Lemberg, Austrian Galicia. Composed by Mendel Lefin of Satanów, an enlightened Polish Jew (maskil in the Hebrew terminology of the period), Moral Accounting (Sefer Heshbon ha-Nefesh) was a crucial weapon in Lefin's lifelong literary war against Hasidism, the new Jewish pietistic movement which had captured the hearts and souls of much of eighteenth-century Polish Jewry. 1 The core of Moral Accounting was a boxed grid, seven lines by thirteen, which correlated, respectively, to the days of the week and to thirteen virtues in need of improvement. The grid was to be used daily throughout a thirteen-week cycle which repeated four times during the course of a year. Addressing a traditionally-educated Jewish audience, Mendel Lefin did not disclose the gentile source of the method of moral self-reform, but he did acknowledge that it was not his innovation: "Several years ago a new method was revealed, and it is [such] a wonderful invention for this [kind] of [moral] education that it seems that its renown will spread as quickly, if God desires it, as that of the invention of printing which brought light to the world." 2 [End Page 133] The creator of this "wonderful invention" was none other than Benjamin Franklin, whose "Rules of Conduct" first appeared in 1791 in the second part of his English Autobiography. 3

There has been a noticeable interest recently among historians of the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah) to map carefully, region by region, the nuances and varieties of the Jewish encounter with modernity. 4 Nonetheless, Haskalah scholars have generally regarded Mendel Lefin's use of Franklin's technique as a confirmation of their view that the impetus for the Haskalah among East European Jewry lay in its exposure to the West in general and to the Berlin Haskalah's Western orientation in particular. 5 They have viewed Moral Accounting as merely a translation of yet another text of the European and American Enlightenments into Hebrew, and they have paid little attention to the Polish context and orientation of Lefin's work. 6 Implicit in this view, too, was the problematic assumption that translation of a text is an uncritical, acquiescent act. Mendel Lefin's wholesale adoption of Franklin's "Rules of Conduct," implied, first, a static, unidirectional influence of a Western text on an East European and, second, that Franklin's work itself had a fixed, absolute meaning which Lefin simply appended to his Hebrew book. Yet the appearance of the "Rules of Conduct" in Hebrew and [End Page 134] Lefin's use of other Western and non-Jewish texts were anything but mechanical. 7

Not only Lefin's Jewishness but his Polish origins and Polish orientation make the assumption of passivity particularly acute. Effaced from the map of Europe at the end of the eighteenth century, Poland's history has not been integrated into general historical treatments of the Enlightenment. 8 Just as studies of the Jewish Enlightenment describe a trajectory from Berlin to Austrian Galician to Russia, so do general interpretations of the European Enlightenment draw a line from Germany and France to Russia, bypassing Poland. For example, in Roy Porter and Mikulás Teich's important book, The Enlightenment in National Context, Poland is nowhere to be found. 9 Yet Poland, too, had an Enlightenment (Oswiecenie), beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, which was stimulated by many of the same forces that spurred change in the West: the desire to reform antiquated political systems, to liberate education from religious dogma, and to create a rational state apparatus. In Poland the Enlightenment had its own national coloring; it was sponsored not by a rising bourgeois class but by royal and noble circles (and thus lacked the social critique of the Enlightenment in the...


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