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The Mystical Ethicist

Lawrence Bush
May 15, 2017

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, whose writings on Jewish ethics became a centerpiece of the Musar movement in the 19th century, died of a plague at age 39 in Acco, Palestine on this date in 1746. Luzzatto was a prominent Italian Torah scholar and kabbalist whose mystical teachings, coming less than a century after the worldwide Jewish mystical frenzy stoked by Shabtai Zvi, resulted in many of his writings being burned by Jewish authorities before Luzzatto transplanted himself to the freer atmosphere of Amsterdam. According to a Wikipedia post, “his 70 Tikkunim Hadashim re-appeared in 1958 against all odds in the main library of Oxford,” and his Mesillat Yesharim (1740), an ethical treatise with kabbalistic overtones that posits a step-by-step process by which “every person can overcome the inclination to sin and might eventually experience a divine inspiration similar to prophecy,” was adopted by Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883), who made it a central work of his Musar movement. The Musar curriculum for ethical living was used by yeshivot throughout Eastern Europe. Luzzato’s synagogue in Acco was razed by the city’s Bedouin ruler in 1758, and a mosque was built on the site, but the Jews of the town received a small building north of the mosque, which today still functions as a synagogue and bears Luzzatto’s Hebrew acronym, RaMHaL.

“Behold a man, most of his years are spent in thinking thoughts on his businesses, business of this temporary world. Why does he not put to heart even one hour also on thinking these other things -- what is he? Why did he come to this world? Or what does the King of kings seek from him? What will be the end of his matter? This is the biggest and most powerful medicine that one can find against the yetzer. It is easy and its effects are great. Its fruit is many, in that a man should stand each day for at least an hour, free from all other thoughts, and to think only on this matter that I’ve said.”--Moshe Chaim Luzatto, Derech Etz Chaim

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.