Celebration of Mesillat Yesharim at Beth Zion-Beth Israel

John Oliver Mason

The Jewish Publication Society (JPS) celebrated the new edition of the classic Jewish text, Mesillat Yesharim, at a brunch and discussion held at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel.

Messillat Yesharim is a classic in Jewish Mussar (ethical) literature, written by the Kabbalist Moses Hayyim Luzzatto. It was translated into English by Doctor Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement in Judaism. The new edition has an introduction and commentary by Rabbi Ira Stone, of Beth Zion-Beth Israel.

More after the jump.

Rabbi Barry Schwartz, CEO of  JPS, welcomed everyone attending, and commended BZBI for providing the brunch, and he also thanked the Kehillah of center City for co-sponsoring the event. “It’s is truly an event,” he said, “that cuts across denominational lines, and it’s wonderful to see representatives from many different synagogues and different streams of Judaism this morning.”  Schwartz spoke of the life of Moses Hayyim Luzzatto, “A great Italian rabbi whose life straddles the transition from Medieval Judaism to Modernity.”

Schwartz also spoke of his research into the rabbis in Amsterdam in the 17th century for an upcoming book on that era, adding, “One of the things I’ve learned is that these individuals, these rabbis were very well-schooled and educated, and applied a rational approach to understanding Judaism and understanding text, in the spirit of Maimonides. At the same time, some of these same individuals had very strong, mystical and kabalistic leanings. We’re used to dividing people into categories, rationalists and mystics; but what we’ve discovered from (studying) this period is that one individual, the same individual, could hold all these views together in different parts of their lives.” Kaplan, said Schwartz, was not comfortable in researching Luzzatto, because Luzzatto was not a pure rationalist, but also a mystic.

The re-publication of Mesillat Yesharim, said Schwartz, was made possible by a donation from the family of Miles Lerman, who “became a study partner with Rabbi Stone, in the subject that this book covers which is Mussar, the ethical impulse if Judaism.”

Susan Stanek, Director of the Kehillah, said, “It’s amazing to see so many people from so many synagogues (represented), and how wonderful it is to see our community coming together to support Rabbi Stone, BZBI, and the Jewish Publication Society.”  

David Lerman, President of the Jewish Publication Society and son of Miles Lerman, told the audience, “I’m privileged to be a member of this congregation, and I’m especially privileged to have the opportunity to study with Rabbi Stone…

During the High Holy Days,” added Lerman, “Rabbi Stone told us in the congregation that one of his commitments this year was to multiply the opportunities for the members of the congregation to encounter text. For people who weren’t raised studying at yeshivot, who didn’t have as natural an opportunity to encounter text, approaching text seems a little intimidating, and text seems difficult to access.”

The purpose of JPS, said Lerman, is “to create opportunities for exploring Jews to have a chance to understand and explore our roots and our traditions, in ways that enrich and expand our contemporary lives.”

Professor Mel Scult, pre-eminent authority on the life of Mordecai Kaplan and co-editor of an anthology of Kaplan’s writings, Dynamic Judaism: The Essential writings of Mordecai Kaplan,  said of the Mesillat Yesharim, “(It) has been popular for a very long time, and was central to the Jewish community in the 18th and 19th centuries. What Mordecai Kaplan did was, he brought it into his own time. Every translation is really a commentary,  really an interpretation, and he brought it into the world of the 1930’s. What Rabbi Stone has done is he has reconstructed it for our own time.”

Scult described the book as “a how-to book on Jewish religiosity, spirituality, and ethics. All of us want to move from where we are to a higher level, and Luzzatto, Kaplan, and Rabbi Stone help us do that.”

Rabbi Stone thanked the JPS staff and everyone who participated.  


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