START with this: Not only do we not know the name of the author of this book, we are not even certain in which century it was written.
Anonymity is the highest compliment in the Jewish spiritual lexicon.
The author of The Ways of the Righteous succeeded in hiding himself (herself?) for hundreds of years.
The virtue of anonymity is altruism. If I am to be a wholly true servant of the L-rd, it is entirely irrelevant that people know my name. Ego soils altruism. The only important thing is that my good works be done.
On a lesser level, but surely a remarkable one in this day and age, there is no extant picture of either Rabbi Israel Salanter or the Alter of Novorodock. These pietists guarded their anonymity visually, so as to reduce the challenges to their humility.
The Ways of the Righteous has been reprinted in many lands more than 73 times; it is a perennial favorite. A Bar or Bat Mitzvah can gain from it — so too a senior scholar or sage. The book speaks across the generations.
WHAT speaks to me about this book is its structure. It is unlike all other staples of Jewish ethical literature. It is dialectical, subtle and nuanced in a way that sets it apart. It salutes no “golden mean” and keeps the reader off balance. Its kaleidoscopic view of ethical virtues — seeing each virtue from many perspectives — precludes ethical simplicities. At the same time, The Ways of the Righteous is clear, forceful and filled with colorful metaphors and examples to make its points. The book differs from other staples of Jewish ethical literature, which are structured in one of three ways:
• linearly (one commendable character trait is a prerequisite to the next, such as the 10 traits that make up perhaps the most renowned book of Jewish ethics, Duties of the Heart);
• singularly (one trait alone is emphasized, such as repentance in the Gates of Repentance); or
• episodically (an unlinked assemblage of traits and topics, such as the books, Candelabrum of Light and Book of the Pious).
The Ways of the Righteous is different. No character trait is espoused unequivocally or instrumentally or episodically.*
There are at least two sides to every trait: the ways, and the opposite ways, of being good.
The reader is made aware of the freshness of this book’s structure as early as its table of contents. Chapter titles form a series of opposites:
The Chapter of Pride is followed by The Chapter of Humility; The Chapter of Shame is followed by The Chapter of Brazenness; The Chapter of Love is followed by The Chapter of Hatred; The Chapter of Mercy is followed by The Chapter of Cruelty; and there is something good — and bad — to be said for each of these traits, depending on the circumstances.
Of the The Ways of the Righteous’ 28 chapters, 18 constitute opposite pairs, conveying a sense of paradox and subtlety.
TAKE the opening chapter, The Chapter of Pride.
At first it seems that the vices of pride are enumerated, classified, and condemned.
There is pride of body and pride of wisdom.
Pride of body suffuses the human carriage; one’s throat, hands, legs, forehead, eyes, ears and nose reek with contemptible haughtiness, annoying both man and G-d.
Pride of body leads to undisciplined pursuit of wealth and the lording of one’s wealth over others. People who are proud of, or with, their bodies are likened unto idolators, and will be cut down.
Pride of wisdom includes self-praise, demeaning others, inability to admit the truth and rejoicing over the ignorance and misfortune of others.
In this fashion The Chapter of Pride continues relentlessly, finally reaching this conclusion:
“The proud person lusts for everything and this is the most evil of all human traits.”
Then, suddenly, with no transition, the author writes that there is commendable pride:
Let a man not say, “Since pride is such an evil trait I shall separate from it in the extreme” — to such an extent that he will not eat meat, not drink wine, not marry, not live in a nice dwelling, not wear nice clothing but only sackcloth and wool, and torn and dirty garments; and will use dirty garments, and will use dirty and repugnant dishes, and will not wash his hands, his face, and his legs until his human form is corrupted, inferior to that of other people: all this in order to distance himself from pride until it is possible to distance himself no further. One who follows this course is labeled “a sinner” . . .
Commendable pride of body includes keeping one’s body clean, and the use, not of luxurious, but of clean and fit food, furniture and clothing.
Commendable pride of wisdom includes unflinching rebuke of evildoers and pursuit of excellence in the study of Torah, observance of commandments and search for knowledge of G-d.
In The Ways of the Righteous, there are no hard and fast ways to determine when administering rebuke, pursuing excellence and the like reflect an unworthy arrogance, and when they reflect a worthy pride in G-d’s will.
But this does not blur the distinction between contemptible and commendable pride. Pride remains unworthy — and worthy.
AND so it goes throughout the book. One can literally open a page at random, learn about one way of the righteous — and soon enough read about an opposite way.
Cruelty, for example, is not merely rejected, but its psychological implications are laid down. When a person is angry, he is prone to cruelty; Cruelty to servants is also wrong — likewise, to animals.
“But there are places when it is necessary to be cruel . . . to pursue evildoers.”
Or, more subtly, one can be excessively attentive and giving to his children. This can spoil them and can also lead to dishonesty. One may feel that he must provide for his family beyond his means, and will cheat to secure those means. “Excessive love corrupts.”
As the midrash sums up, “A person who is merciful when it is appropriate to be cruel, will end up being cruel when it is appropriate to be merciful.”
It is customary during the month of Elul to consult these works of Jewish ethics, to remind oneself of the Jewish ethical ideals, to work on oneself, to prepare in this way for the High Holidays. Now is the time when one is especially receptive to the messages in these works.
No doubt, each of the Jewish ethical books has its advantages, but the one I keep coming back to seems to be The Ways of the Righteous.
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News