At the Society of Biblical Literature this year, I once again had the chance to talk with Alx Block of JPS. JPS is a publisher of numerous useful and educationally convenient books. The JPS Commentary series is one of the best overall, a good mix of practical and academic. The Commentator’s Bible series is the best English-Hebrew Chumash in existence (in my opinion, and only Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers complete so far).
Anyway, I had showed interest in JPS’s new edition of Mesillat Yesharim and by the end of SBL, Alx gave me a copy. Publishers do this with bloggers. It is understood that giving a free book does not obligate a blogger to give a positive review. I’d be a fool not to give Path of the Just and especially this edition with Rabbi Ira Stone’s commentary a positive review.
And I want to explain a little about mussar, about Riverton Mussar, and why Mesillat Yesharim is more than just any old book for me and my community.
How Mesillat Yesharim Has Become Important to Me
I joined Riverton Mussar back in November. You can join and/or find out more by clicking here.
I already knew that mussar was going to bring together a number of things I love: the biblical wisdom literature, the ethical teachings of the rabbis, a modern movement of ethics and devotion that is <em<very comparable to the Christian classic devotional literature, and the powerful call to ethical and radical living I have been finding in my close reading of the life and teachings of Yeshua the last few years.
When I got back from SBL, I loaned my gifted copy of Mesillat Yesharim to a friend and proposed that he and I become chevrutah partners in the study of mussar.
He devoured Mesillat Yesharim and is now on his third reading of it. As we develop a community of learners here in Atlanta at our Tikvat David Community Learning Center, I definitely plan on having mussar classes. And I’ve already asked my chevrutah partner to teach them.
I was thrilled when Rabbi Jason Forbes started the Riverton Mussar community (it’s online, so no matter where you live you can participate).
There is a need in broader Judaism, in Messianic Judaism, in Judeo-Christian groups, and in broader Christianity for a radical discipleship that is not merely waiting for Messiah to come (or come again).
In many small movements in Judaism (independent minyanim, various charitable organizations, synagogue movements involved in hands-on justice and charity work, and so on), there is a realization that radicality is an important part of Judaism.
In many emerging streams of Christian devotion (neo-monasticism, emergent church, missional church, and so on) people have been coming to the same realization. Waiting for the Second Coming or for death and afterlife is not discipleship.
In both Judaism and Christianity there are plenty of historical precedents for an active faith that is giving, participatory, radical, alternative, and focused on bringing the World to Come into the here and now.
Mussar is a Jewish stream that will contribute greatly to the depth of this kind of active faith for Jews and Messianic Jews and any Judeo-Christians who wish to join in. Just as the classic works of Christian devotional literature (I could name favorites like Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, a Kempis, Brother Lawrence, Francis of Assisi, and Francis de Sales) often bring us to practical transformation of character, so mussar is concentrated on character development with very practical and hands-on methods.
And the similarity of mussar concepts to New Testament ethical texts and to Christian devotional texts ought to be an encouragement. The Spirit is working in many places.
Why JPS’s Edition of Mesillat Yesharim is Great
Rabbi Ira F. Stone adds his helpful commentary to this ancient work of character refinement. Modern people reading ancient texts often need a modern interpreter who has put in the time, who has the depth of reading in similar literature, to make it all the more relevant and comprehensible.
This is exactly what Rabbi Stone does.
Good Reading for the Convinced
If you are a Christian and you want to develop a more radical life of discipleship, I can make plenty of recommendations. For some free reading, go to MJPassages.com and check out my “Discipleship” page. For good Christian books, I love Augustine’s Confessions and a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ. You’d do well to consider Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship or Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy.
If you are Jewish or Judaically informed in your practice, I encourage you to join Riverton Mussar. You’ll thank me. And get Mesillat Yesharim as well as Alan Morinis’ Everyday Holiness. I also hope you will look at MJPassages.com on my “Discipleship” page, which is a work in progress. And a booklet on Discipleship in Yeshua is coming as a Yeshua in Context project in the somewhat near future.
As the Ramchal (Rabbi Moses Hayyim Luzzatto, author of Mesillat Yesharim) says:
. . . there are those who penetrate into the innermost sanctuary of knowledge, which is the study of Holy Torah. Of these, some pursue the study of dialectics, some study Midrash, and others study the Codes. There are but few who study the nature of the love and fear of God . . . we cannot grasp that to which we give no thought . . . Is it proper . . . that we leave to habit and blind custom that which constitutes our main duty to our Creator?