Enter your mobile number or email address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
Other Sellers on Amazon
+ $3.99 shipping
+ Free Shipping
+ $3.99 shipping
Mesillat Yesharim: The Path of the Upright Hardcover – September 15, 2010
"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover," illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Learn more
Frequently bought together
Customers who bought this item also bought
Customers who viewed this item also viewed
From the Publisher
The Translation of Mordecai M. Kaplan
With a new introduction and new commentary by Ira F. Stone
Top customer reviews
There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later.
Moses Hayyim Luzzatto of Padua (1707-1746/47) was a rather controversial eighteenth-century Jewish mystic. He managed to be accused of heresy for his privately circulated Kabbalistic tracts, and also accepted as a thoroughly Orthodox expounder of the holy life for his popular writings, particularly this book ("Mesillat Yesharim," or "Path of the Upright Ones"), written in exile in Amsterdam!
Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983) was born in Lithuania under the Czars, lived, studied, and taught in New York, helped found the Young Israel movement in the Orthodox community, critiqued the Reform Movement, became an influential teacher at the Conservative Movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, and retired to Israel, where he continued to outrage the Orthodox with his openly modern and sociological and scientific views on religion. Along the way, he founded a fourth Movement in American Judaism, Reconstructionism.
Beyond being Jewish, and learned (and having entries in the "Oxford Dictionary of World Religions"), they don't seem to have all that much in common. Kaplan's somewhat surprising decision to translate Luzzatto's book, undertaken when he was formulating a revolutionary theory of Jewish history, brought them together.
Joseph Dan tells Luzzatto's story, briefly but clearly, near the end of his "Jewish Mysticism and Jewish Ethics" (1986: Second Revised edition, 1996), a short, stimulating book. He thinks the situation an extreme case of the more typical bifurcation of consensus legal-ethical and controversial theological positions in some types of traditional Jewish writings, although not the most extreme. Dan, in earlier chapters of the thin volume, traced the precedents of mystics choosing to write for the public by addressing human behavior, and not specific legal and ritual issues, and being accepted within the broad discourse of normative Judaism, so his view is pretty convincing.
It should be pointed out that "Kabbalah" just means "[what is] received," and there has been a long struggle over whether the *mystical* Kabbalah, or any version of it, was really a Secret Tradition, a new private revelation (also something "received"), or just a human innovation. For those who accepted it, Kabbalah was usually considered something reserved for a qualified spiritual elite.
There is also a short, and more sophisticated, discussion of Luzzatto's intellectual background, and historical importance as a popularizer, by Dan's mentor, Gershom Scholem, in "On The Mystical Shape of the Godhead: Basic Concepts in the Kabbalah." Despite the "Basic" in the title, the collected studies in the volume are full of technical discussions of the histories of ideas, and clearly meant for relatively advanced students! ("Basic" clearly means "Fundamental," not "Elementary," here -- translation of the titles of the German and Hebrew editions into English left an ambiguity.)
Luzzatto's short book "The Path of the Upright: Mesillat Yesharim," leading the reader step by step through degrees of Holiness, beginning with basic Jewish religious practices, culminates in what is recognizably, but not too explicitly, a form of mystical experience. The title evokes the Biblical Patriarchs, "Yashar" (in English Bibles, usually Jashar) being a word regarded as their special epithet in glosses on Biblical references to a mysterious "Book of Yashar" (Sefer Ha-Yashar, Joshua 10:13 and 2 Samuel 1:18). But it is also intriguingly non-specific. Perhaps partly because the title implicitly attributed such deep significance to the communal norms (you too can emulate Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob!), the book soon attracted favorable attention. It actually became preferred, even required, reading, in the Rabbinic schools of nineteenth-century Lithuania, which were very much in favor of the life of conscious, thought-out, obedience to Heaven, and, although not opposed to mysticism, were very much set against its public discussion.
And not just opposed to publicity for the usual "Secret Teachings of the Wise" reasons. Like Luzzatto's original opponents, they were living in the wake of the openly mystical Sabbatean ("False Messiah") movement of the seventeenth century, and its offspring of antinomian heresies, and had the popularized mystical Hasidic movement subverting their authority as well.
"Path of the Upright" was also promoted as popular reading matter by the Mussar ("Discipline") movement of moral/spiritual reformers in Eastern Europe, which gave it a broader popularity in Jewish communities as an "improving" work for a wide public -- or at least for men literate in Hebrew, an ability far more widespread than Talmudic erudition.
So it is only an addition to the paradoxes that the present English translation (generally considered the best; there are several competing versions) was the work of the likewise controversial, but very non-mystical, Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan. Originally published by the Jewish Publication Society of America in 1936 (and reprinted by them in 1966) as "A Critical Edition provided with a translation and notes," it offered the then (and apparently still) standard Hebrew text facing the translation. It was reprinted again in 1995 by Jason Aronson, Inc., and that edition may be the most readily available. I have seen it listed with the Hebrew and English in different orders in the title, and sometimes as by Kaplan alone.
(The dust jacket of the Aronson edition gives Luzzatto's first name as Moshe, a better transliteration, but not the one used inside. Some other translations are in fact listed as by Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, and there are other transliterations. At least one version announces its allegiance to the Eastern European view of the book by giving the title in Ashkenazic pronunciation, as "Mesillas." The Italian-born author probably would have found that a little odd.)
Kaplan was a committed rationalist, an admirer of American Pragmatists (among others) as well as a Talmudic scholar. He is best known as the founder of the modernizing Reconstructionist movement (to re-order Jewish life and thought in America; not to be confused with Christian Reconstructionists, who appear to favor re-ordering American life on theocratic lines). Unlike many of the author's original opponents, he was entirely out of sympathy with Luzzatto's other work in principle, not just worried about suspicious trends and tendencies! Kaplan was not even a speculative theologian: his 1937 book on "The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion" was largely about the spiritual and moral values of the Jewish religious calendar, and how its symbolic system and liturgy can be understood in the scientific modern world. (It appeared the year after his translation of Luzzatto.)
Still, "Mesillat Yesharim" came to him with the seal of approval of both the Wilno (or Vilna, or Vilnius) Talmudic seminaries and the highly respected Mussar teachers, and he decided to offer it to Jews in the English-speaking world as an important part of their heritage. And Luzzatto's approach to finding new and deeper meanings in tradition-prescribed actions was recognizably compatible with his own program of re-interpreting, instead of abandoning, such practices. (His critique of early twentieth-century Reform Judaism on this issue contributed to a major re-evaluation of the place of observance and ritual within that movement.)
Kaplan's introduction slights Luzzatto's Kabbalistic interests, which, given that he was working before Scholem had laid out a recognizable history of the subject, might have been fortunate. (The less said, the fewer chances to be wrong.) But Kaplan does carefully identify in running notes the exoteric (Biblical and Rabbinic) sources, which would have been instantly recognizable to Luzzatto's expected readers. Luzzatto seems to have avoided obvious references to esoteric teachings or to Halachic (legal) codes, or theological controversies, and Kaplan did not dig out any subtle ones. (Unfortunately, there is no index of the citations; I worked out a partial one for my own purposes, and found that they were heavily weighted to well-known texts.) Although Kaplan taught Homiletics, the art of giving sermons, he scrupulously refrained from imposing his exposition on Luzzatto.
A bit dry as a translation of a much-loved work; but careful, precise, and, despite the avoidance of mystical language as such, it doesn't hide what Luzzatto is talking about in the later stages. The pursuit of Holiness begins in the experience of the material and bodily, and forms a series of steps, which Luzzatto sets forth, through increasing degrees of awareness.
Some Christianity-based terms like "the Spiritual Life" don't really translate well into traditional Jewish thought, at least on the conceptual level, because they reflect distinctions (oppositions of sacred and secular, and, sometimes, of body and soul, for example) that don't quite fit. Luzzatto's short book seems to show that the type of experience doesn't need a fixed name.
If you came to this book looking for information on Kaplan and his views, there is a large literature which will be far, far more helpful. A short, and obviously favorable, introduction is Rebecca T. Alpert and Jacob J. Staub, "Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach." Jack J. Cohn's book in Hebrew comparing Kaplan and a revered Orthodox leader, Rav Kook, has been translated as "Guides for an Age of Confusion: Studies in the Thinking of Avraham Y. Kook and Mordecai M. Kaplan." The former requires little knowledge of Judaism, the latter assumes a serious interest and a fair amount of background. Kaplan's own magnum opus was "Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American Jewish Life," originally published in 1934; most of his later works popularized, expanded, or applied his views there.
There are at least three ways of understanding this book. Rabbi Ira F. Stone offers readers the generally accepted Hebrew text with the 1936 translation by Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, his and Kaplan's introductions to the classic, and his own commentary.
Stone states that Kaplan, a rationalist, disliked Luzzatto's teachings because Luzzatto frequently stressed supernatural matters. Kaplan read the volume as a medieval mystical text that taught individuals mystic lessons, stressed ignoring the benefits of this world, and taught ways that its readers could mystically transcend their human limitations and thereby attain everlasting life. He felt that the work is outdated and only interesting from an historical perspective. This is the first approach.
The second understanding this work is to overlook its mystical nature, as many rabbinical schools do, and read it as an ethical text that teaches Jews how to develop a saintly life, a life that assures them life in the world to come as a result of proper ethical behavior. These people may recognize the mystical underpinning of the classic, but choose to ignore it because they feel that the ethical teachings in it are valuable.
Contrary to the former views that see the volume addressing individual growth, Stone sees the classic as being relevant, significant, enlightening, and a springboard for his own theology, that people should learn to improve society, an interpretation that he discusses in his introduction and commentary. Readers may wonder if Stone's interpretation truly reflects Luzzatto's teaching or if Stone is misconstruing it to fit his own view.
Stone supports his understanding of the volume by giving his own interpretation of traditional words, words that appear frequently in the volume, translations that no other scholar saw in these words. For example, yetzer ha-ra and yetzer ha-tov, usually explained as "evil" and "good inclinations," he renders "an inclination focusing on the self," and the second as "an inclination to please and serve others." He sees yirat ha-Shem and ahavat ha-Shem, not as "fear" and "love of God," as they are usually understood, and as Luzzatto understood them, but as "trepidation at the infinite nature of our responsibility for the other," and "the experience of...joy available to us in meeting that responsibility." He translates olam ha-zeh and olam ha-ba not as conventionally understood "this world" and "the world to come," the later being the goal in Luzzatto's classic, but as "the world of self" and "the world of the other." They refer "to dimensions of reality that human beings experience" here on earth.
A reading of the Hebrew of Luzzatto's work and the Kaplan translation do not appear to support Stone's interpretation that Luzzatto sought to improve society, not the individual. A few examples follow. Luzzatto writes that his teachings are based on the principles of R. Pinchas ben Yair, which help an individual not society develop (page 14). "Our Sages have taught us that man was created only to find delight in the Lord, and to bask in the radiance of His presence. But the real place for such happiness is the world to come, which was created for that very purpose" (page 16). Just like "bask in the delight of the Lord" is a mystical concept that focuses on the individual, so too is "communion with God" in his statement "true perfection lies only in communion with God" (page 18). Luzzatto tell us that we must not be "allured by the things of this world" (page 21). The "chief function of man in this world is to keep the Mitzvot, to worship God, and to withstand trial" (page 32). The goal in the final chapter is holiness, which Luzzatto describes as an individual's mystical duty: "holiness consists in a man's so cleaving to God that in no action that he performs does he depart or withdraw from Him (God)" (page 269). The goal is not an improved society, as Stone states, an individual must "practice abstinence, to meditate intently upon the mysteries of Providence" (page 270). This holiness, Luzzatto states, is only attained in solitude with no distractions (page 271).
Thus, we see Luzzatto is addressing the need of individuals to overcome evil urges, learn to love God, and mystically cleave to Him, so that the person can attain everlasting life, not as Stone contends that Luzzatto is teaching that people need to focus on helping others so that society can be improved. While Stone's reading of Luzzatto may not appear to be what the mystic intended, readers can see the original intent in Kaplan's translation, and readers will find Stone's ideas thought provoking.