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Introduction Mordecai M. Kaplan There was a time–and that not so long ago–when the pious Jew would turn to the Mesillat Yesharim to derive from it fresh incentive to moral and spiritual effort. The universe of discourse in which the reader then moved was almost the same as that in which the author, R. Moses Hayyim Luzzatto, conceived his ideal of a holy life lived in accordance with the will of God. That kind of reader is a rarity nowadays. Very few can be counted on to look to this and similar ethical works for edification in that unsophisticated fashion which was possible until a generation ago. The reason is obvious. Very few readers find themselves thinking in terms of the spiritual aims formulated in the Mesillat Yesharim. Though written in the eighteenth century, it is essentially a medieval book, for, as has been remarked, Jewish medievalism outlasted European medievalism by almost four centuries. But, though the Mesillat Yesharim is not likely to be read for purposes of edification, it should at least be read among other books of a similar character for the purpose of acquiring a knowledge of the ethical ideals that actuated the inner life of the Jewish people in the past. Such knowledge is of indispensable value nowadays, when the Jew gets most of his information about his people from non-Jewish sources. Together with much information, he gets a good deal of misinformation which he is all too apt to accept uncritically. Among the misleading generalizations which he is certain to meet almost everywhere, if we except R. T. Herford and G. F. Moore, is that Judaism was nothing but a formal system of practices which exacted outward conformity regardless of inner meaning or attitude of mind and heart. The only way to escape being influenced by this groundless accusation against Judaism, which is repeated ad nauseam, is to dip into the vast ethical literature which the Jews have produced. The function of this literature, as a cursory examination of it must show, is to cultivate the inwardness of the laws and duties to which the Jew has to live up. The title Duties of the Hearts, which one of these ethical works bears, might well be applied to the entire mass of Jewish ethics; for, side by side with the emphasis upon outward observance or “duties of the limbs,” Judaism has stressed the importance of cultivating the proper spirit and frame of mind. h xxiii Dictionaries and textbooks usually limit the term “ethics” to the scientific or philosophical study of conduct. Ethics has thus come to mean essentially the approach to the problem of right and wrong from the standpoint made familiar by the ancient Greek philosophers and maintained by modern thinkers. If we are to persist in this limited use of the term, we shall find it difficult to account for designating such writings as the Pirké Abot in the Mishna, the Duties of the Hearts by Bahya, or the Mesillat Yesharim as ethical treatises. While it is true that they deal with conduct, they make no attempt to study the sources or sanctions of duty, but merely exhort the reader to live up to duties which it is assumed he takes for granted, as does the author. Surely, it is not mere systematic arrangement of the content that entitles some of the medieval books of exhortation to be classed as ethical. In the mishnaic Pirké Abot, and in the scriptural book of Proverbs, no attempt is made at system, yet no one would deny them the right to be classed among ethical works. We must, therefore, revise our conception of the term ethics so as to admit within its scope works of so disparate a character as Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics on the one hand, and, on the other, Ben Sira, the Menorat ha-Maor and the Sefer ha-Yashar. We venture to propose that the term “ethics” be used to denote all interpretations of desirable conduct which are calculated to further it independently of outward compulsion or fear of one’s neighbors. In contrast with the legalistic mores, which are backed by the sanction of force that society can bring to bear upon the transgressor, ethics proceeds from the recognition of the fact that no legal system can cope with the problem of getting the individual to do his duty, whether religious or social, when he does not have to fear retribution at the hands of...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780827611221
Related ISBN
9780827608566
MARC Record
OCLC
794925430
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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