Monday, December 20, 2010

Rabbis of Renown: The Ramchal

I am an unabashed fan of the Ramchal--Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746). He is one of those authors whose works I return to again and again. Yet, I often feel like there are two Ramchals. There is the tzaddik who spawned the modern mussar (ethics) movement who work is taught in orthodox yeshivot around the world. Then, there is the sometimes heretical, messianic mystic studied by academics. Can these be the same person?

Recent publications of some of the Ramchal's mystical masterpieces (including 138 Openings of Wisdom and Secrets of the Future Temple: Mishkney Elyon) by Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum have begun to close this gap, by showing the importance of the Ramchal as a mystical thinker as well as ethical philosopher. In my own scholarship, I've tried to understand why the Ramchal became such a crucial figure for mainstream Judaism by looking to how he reveals the logic of mysticism and how he answers the fundamental theological questions of his era.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746) was born in Padua (Italy) and died in Acre, near Tiberius (Israel). In between, he settled in Amsterdam where he wrote many of his most famous works, including Mesillat Yesharim (The Path of the Just) and possibly Derech haShem (The Way of G-d). These works answered a basic need in the Sephardic community, particularly the questions raised by the large numbers of conversos arriving in Amsterdam due to late waves of the Inquisition. These are questions that still plague us today. Do our acts matter for salvation? How can we gain knowledge of God’s plan? What is the relationship between the physical realm and the spiritual? What is the meaning and purpose of life? If God is in charge of the universe, how can I have free will?

The Ramchal’s writings were (and are) powerful because they addressed the great questions and concerns of his day; moreover, his answers revealed that the major “threats” to Jewish practice were not as threatening as people might have thought. Thus it should not surprise us, that works like Mesillat Yesharim and Derech haShem were almost immediately accepted as central formulations of Jewish belief, despite the fact that the Ramchal authored other more controversial messianic manuscripts.

Ramchal Synagogue in Acre © Yourway

Like any good fan, as soon as there is another edition of one the Ramchal's books, I rush out to get it. Hence I was thrilled when my copy of the Ofeq Institute's Complete Mesillat Yesharim arrived. I own several other versions of Mesillat Yesharim, but this version is already by far my favorite. I suspect that the new Ofeq edition of The Complete Mesillat Yesharim (superbly edited and translated by Avraham Shoshana) will appeal to readers new to the Ramchal as well as fans like myself.

The edition has many strengths. First, the translation is lively and very readable. Second, the notes are excellent and insightful, but not intrusive. Third, the introduction is succinct and still helpful. Fourth, the book contains both the "dialogue" and "thematic" versions of this classic work.

It is this fourth element that will ensure the Ofeq edition is an immediate classic and is necessary to any serious study of the Ramchal. The "thematic version" is the one most commonly found in print, and is based on a revised version of the 1740 edition of Mesillat Yesharim from Amsterdam. The dialogue version is based on a 1738 manuscript in the Guenzberg Collection of the Russian State Library in Moscow. This "version" takes the form of a dialogue between a hakham (wise man) and a hasid (a pietist). Although the 1740 edition of Mesillat Yesharim was both generated from this dialogic text and is an abridgement of it, the manuscript was an independent work, not a "draft." One of the geniuses of the Ofeq edition is that it allows readers to toggle back and forth between the two versions and learn from the comparison. Indeed, there is a comparative study of the two versions at the end of the volume. At $35.99 (and 672 pages) this beautifully printed edition is a bargain.

If you are new to the Ramchal, you might find it helpful to read Derech haShem before trying Mesillat Yesharim. Likewise, I find that the Ramchal's more openly kabbalistic texts 138 Openings of Wisdom and Secrets of the Future Temple: Mishkney benefit both from an introduction to kabbalism and a thorough reading of his other works. Here are a few resources that people may enjoy:

Resources on the Ramchal


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