Friday, January 4, 2013

On the Popularity of the Mesillas Yesharim

One of the most influential and popular seforim (Jewish religious works) ever written is the mussar (ethical) work, Mesillas Yesharim, by R' Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (d.1747) - popularly known as the "Ramchal". The Mesillas Yesharim is considered a basic text in most yeshivos today and is widely studied by Jews throughout the world (both in the original Hebrew and in translation).

The question, of course, is why - of all the great mussar works written over the generations - this work should have become so immensely popular that it has reached the point of being one of the basic religious works of the Jewish world?

Before we can address the reasons for the immense popularity of this work, we first need to address a concern that is sometimes raised. The Ramchal, who passed away at the young age of 39, had the misfortune of being a rather controversial figure in his lifetime. He was accused - and even threatened with excommunication - of improper involvement in mystical practices and even Sabbatianism (adherence to one of the heretical cults based on the false messiah, Sabbatai Zvi). At first glance it might seem surprising that a work written by such a controversial figure has become such a central text of the Jewish world.

The reality, however, is that the Jewish world has long accepted that these accusations were incorrect. The fact that major figures, most notably, the Vilna Gaon (R' Elijah of Vilna, d.1797), strongly endorsed the Ramchal and his works has served to completely clear any suspicion from his name. The conventional opinion within the Orthodox community is that, as is often the case with complex figures (and the Ramchal was certainly a complex figure), especially those deeply involved with kabbalah and mysticism, the Ramchal was simply misunderstood. (The Ramchal was not unique in this regard; R' Yonason Eibshutz (d.1764) is another example of a major figure accused of Sabbatianism, whose works are fully accepted today, and for largely the same reason.)

The accusations against the Ramchal have, therefore, not been given any credence within the religious Jewish world for well over two centuries, and have long been viewed as just another unfortunate aspect of history.

Of course, the fact that the Ramchal is not viewed as a controversial figure does not, in of itself, explain why the Mesillas Yesharim became so popular. In fact, the Ramchal himself wrote many other works, and while some are fairly popular today, none of them comes close to the extraordinary popularity that the Mesillas Yesharim has enjoyed for more than two centuries.

I don't believe there can be any definite answers to this question. The fact that the Mesillas Yesharim was enthusiastically endorsed by numerous major rabbinic figures over the years (such as the Vilna Gaon and, perhaps most significantly, R' Yisrael Salanter (d.1883), the founder of the Mussar Movement in 19th century Eastern Europe) has certainly played a large role in its popularity. However, asides from the fact that this does not explain why the book received such enthusiastic endorsements in the first place, it also fails to really explain the work's general popularity as well. There have been many works over the years that have been enthusiastically endorsed by major figures that failed to really gain general popularity. (For example, in addition to Mesillas Yesharim, R' Yisrael Salanter also sought to popularize the study of several other mussar works, yet none of these works enjoys anything resembling the popularity of the Mesillas Yesharim, and some, such as the medieval mussar work, Tikkun Middos HaNefesh, by R' Solomon ibn Gabirol (d.1058), remain virtually unknown.) The reality is that it is the popularity of the Mesillas Yesharim that explains why people are aware of the many endorsements it has received, not the other way around.

So what was it about the Mesillas Yesharim that set it apart from all the other classic mussar works?

In my opinion, the most significant factor that sets the Mesillas Yesharim apart from earlier works is that, unlike many earlier mussar works, the Mesillas Yesharim refrains entirely from harsh, condemnatory language directed at the reader.  With many earlier mussar works, it is all too easy for the reader to come away from his studies with a sense of despair and fear. (An elderly - and very religious - woman once told me that she had difficulty studying the classic mussar work Shaarei Teshuva (by Rabbeinu Yona of Gerona, d.1263) because, for her, its uncompromising style was too intimidating and, ultimately, discouraging.) Many older mussar works seem to make a special effort to describe the dreadful fate of the sinner in the afterlife (the Reishis Chochma, by R' Elijah di Vidas, d.1592, is particularly noted for this).

The Mesillas Yesharim entirely refrains from such rhetoric. On the contrary, the work continually stresses that every positive step, no matter how small, is actually a major achievement, and that even one who attains to only the lowest of the levels described in the book has done something extraordinary.

Another significant factor that, in my opinion, distinguishes the Mesillas Yesharim from most earlier works is that he largely refrains from lengthy technical discussions. Many other works are written more in the style of philosophical works than as guides to self-improvement. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this is the classic Chovos Halevovos (by Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Paquda, 11th century), with its often cumbersome lists of proof-texts from Scripture and Rabbinic literature and philosophical arguments that, for the average reader, are often unnecessary. (It should be noted that, despite this issue, the Chovos Halevovos remains quite popular, and is probably the next most popular mussar work after the Mesillas Yesharim.)

Both of these factors point to the single, unique quality that distinguishes the Mesillas Yesharim: The sense that the author is there for you as a supportive and understanding personal mentor. The Ramchal in Mesillas Yesharim never condemns you; he never implies that your spiritual failings mean that you are a bad person or that you just don't care. He never implies that you just need to get your act together and stop doing bad things, as if it were an easy thing to do. And he never attempts to motivate you through fear of punishment. Instead, the Ramchal guides the reader step by step, with practical and inspirational advice, on how to gradually develop oneself and work one's way upwards spiritually. (For an overview of the general structure of the Messilas Yesharim, see my previous post: Who Achieves Divine Inspiration?)

In writing the Mesillas Yesharim in this manner, the Ramchal demonstrated a deep sensitivity to the changes that were taking place in society (both in Jewish society and in society at large). While earlier generations apparently found the older style mussar works effective, in the modern world a very different approach was necessary. The Mesillas Yesharim was thus, in many ways, the first modern Hebrew work. (Indeed, the early maskilim were great admirers of the Ramchal, and the Mesillas Yesharim, for this very reason.)

Given all of the above, it is not surprising that the Mesillas Yesharim was a huge "hit" and became the most popular mussar work of all time.

There is one more issue that is often raised that needs to be addressed. Anyone who has studied the Mesillas Yesharim will quickly recognize that, of the nine levels he describes, few people ever attain much beyond the first two or three. That being so, what is the point of studying the later sections?

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to discuss this topic with my rebbi, who is himself a long-time student of the Mesillas Yesharim. In the discussion, we came to three basic reasons why the later sections of Mesillas Yesharim are relevant to every Jew.
  1. "You can't begin a journey if you don't know where you are going." Even when you are still on a lower level, the knowledge of what you are working to eventually achieve on the higher levels still has a major impact.
  2. Spiritual growth is usually uneven. There are always some areas in which we are stronger than in other areas. Thus, it is possible that while a person may have only achieved the first or second level in most regards, he is nevertheless on level 5 or 6 in certain specific areas. A person should not restrict his spiritual growth in stronger areas while he waits for his weakest areas to "catch up". On the contrary, it is often the case that as one improves in one area, other areas tend to be "drawn along" and improve as well.
  3. It is important for us to understand what true spirituality is, so that we will be able to recognize it (or its absence) in the people around us. Even if we have not achieved the highest levels described in Mesillas Yesharim, if we study them we will at least be able to recognize such greatness when we encounter it in another person, and we will also be able to recognize its absence in those who put on false pretenses of holiness.

Originally written in response to a question on an on-line forum.

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