The Path of the Upright
By Moses Hayyim Luzzatto
Introduction and Commentary by Ira F. Stone
Translation and Original Introduction by Mordecai M. Kaplan
Jewish Publication Society, 2010, 509 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - December 3, 2010
Mesillat Yesharim, The Path of the Upright, by Rabbi Moses Hayyim Luzzatto (1707-1747), a mystic devotee to Kabbala, was published in 1740 and soon became a classic of Jewish moral teachings and required study by students in many rabbinical academies, along with the Talmud and law codes. Luzzatto believed in the existence of celestial spirits who spoke to him and explained significant Jewish texts to him. Jews who denied the truth and value of mysticism provoked rabbis to excommunicate him and ban his books. This episode was forgotten by many people after his early death.
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 He felt that the work is outdated and only interesting from an historical perspective.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.