Sunday, 11 September 2022

399) Why Did Ramchal Write Mesilas Yesharim?

A Guest Post by Rabbi Boruch Clinton 

Mesilas Yesharim: Perhaps it really is nothing more than a magnificent guide to Torah perfection

No one who’s spent serious time learning Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (Ramchal)’s ethical masterpiece Mesilas Yesharim can walk away uninspired. It’s possible to return to sin after being confronted with Ramchal’s powerful arguments, but it won’t be easy.

There’s no doubt that Ramchal gave the world his Mesilas Yesharim out of a genuine desire to have a positive impact. But what was the precise impact he hoped for? A simple reading of the book suggests it’s nothing more than a guide to perfecting our observance of the Torah’s timeless principles. But some claim the book was also designed to subtly introduce esoteric kabbalistic ideas into mainstream Jewish culture.

What would be the point? Well we know that in his youth Ramchal and his peers - following the extended Tzfas tradition in one form or another - were deeply engaged in intense kabbalah study. We also know that many of his earlier seforim were controversial, resulting in his being forced in Padua in 1730 to publicly swear he would cease the teaching and publishing of kabbalistic content. And that’s besides the 1735 ban in Venice requiring the burning of any books by Ramchal.

It’s assumed that Ramchal moved to Amsterdam - where Mesilas Yesharim was eventually written - to escape such restrictions on his activities. So for many it can be difficult to picture Ramchal throwing so much energy into a Torah project without imbuing his work with at least some fruits of his kabbalistic studies.

Curious, I decided to learn through the book once again to see if I could find any evidence one way or the other. Having spent significant time researching many of the innovative and sometimes shocking beliefs coming from the Ari’s Tzfas community, I had a pretty good idea of what I was looking for. At worst, I’ll have spent some time with a supremely beautiful Torah classic. And it wouldn’t kill me to do a little teshuva either.

How did it go?

Armed with some knowledge of the tumultuous events of the Eighteenth Century controversies involving Ramchal and his kabbalah studies, I’ll freely admit that I initially expected to find frequent hints and references to Tzfas ideas. I’ll also freely admit that I was completely wrong. In fact, as far as I can tell, Mesilas Yesharim could, for the most part, have as easily been written and published a century or two before the birth of the Ari, as after. As far as I can tell, there’s barely a trace of kabbalistic influence.

The Simple and Practical Mesilas Yesharim

Let me show you what I mean. First off, Ramchal himself says it pretty much explicitly in the introduction:

“I didn’t write this book to teach people anything they don’t already know, but to remind them of what was already known and blatantly obvious to them.”

Those words would make little sense in describing a book containing mystical secrets. There is, after all, a reason they call kabbalah esoteric.

But, in fact, a lot of the book’s actual content bears out Ramchal’s initial claim. There are, in particular, some touchstone concepts that Ramchal addresses in ways that simply don’t align with the Tzfas approach.

For instance, when Ramchal (in chapter five) describes the value of Torah study, he doesn’t talk about its segula-theurgic power (i.e., how its study might invisibly influence the cosmos) - an approach common among kabbalists. Instead, Ramchal celebrates how Torah study can, in a very practical sense, protect us from a dangerous loss of focus in our mission.

Another obvious “un-Tzfas-ism” in the book comes in chapter 16, where Ramchal defines the ideal intentions that should drive our actions (i.e., l’shma). Kabbalists would famously focus l’shma on specific partzufim or on active theurgic executions. By contrast, the categories and context Ramchal used in his description are purely natural and perfectly in sync with a traditional, pre-Ari worldview.

Similarly, contrast Ramchal’s instructions for the proper mindset during prayer from chapter 19 with the kabbalistic שביתי charts and mystical diagram posters commonly found in synagogues as prayer aids. Here, however, is how Ramchal would have us focus:

“The core fear (of heaven) is fear of His greatness. For a man must think about Him as he prays or performs a mitzva that his is praying or performing a mitzva before the King of all kings…”

Finally, when discussing kedusha (holiness) in chapter 26, Ramchal quotes the midrash (Rabbah 82): “The avos [‘fathers’] are the chariot” and explains: “That the Divine Presence rests on them as it rests on the temple.” This simple illustration is plainly different from some more popular kabbalistic interpretations of the midrash (which are perhaps best not repeated without urgent cause).

Those last few examples were obvious opportunities for the Ramchal to effortlessly insert popular and fundamental kabbalistic teachings into his book. Instead, he chose to work with traditional mainstream sources and ideas.

Bottom of Form

A Few Exceptions

It is true that Mesilas Yesharim directly quoted Zohar at least three times (in chapters 11, 19, and 23). But those hardly served to advance any ideologically kabbalistic principles. Chapter nineteen ("איזהו חסיד המתחסד עם קונו") is a good example, as it simply amplified a common idea based on Avos (1:3): “Do not be like a servant serving his master for reward, but like a servant serving his master for no reward.”

By contrast, when the Ari addressed this same issue, he advocated explicit efforts to divert prayer and mitzva observance in the service of theurgic goals (see the notes on page 356 of the R’ Avraham Shoshana/Ofeq publication of the Guenzburg edition, 5759). Specifically:

אין ענין זה מתקיים אלא במי שיודע כונת התפילה והמצות ומכוין בעשייתם לתקן עולמות העליונים וליחדא שמא לקב"ה עם שכינתיה

One would be hard pressed to imagine how two such different approaches could spring from a single source.

To be sure, there are a few ideas scattered through Mesilas Yesharim that can’t be easily traced to mainstream Torah sources and, in fact, sound vaguely theurgic. This passage from the first chapter is an example:

“For if a man is drawn after this world and distances himself from his Creator, he will be corrupted and will corrupt the world with him [but otherwise] he will be elevated and the world itself will be elevated with him. For it is greatly elevating for all creations when they serve a perfect and sanctified man.” (see also: chapter 26)

Nevertheless, Ramchal himself attributes this idea to Koheles Rabbah (7): “Take care so you shouldn’t become corrupted and destroy My world.”

Also in the first chapter, Ramchal wrote:

“…as Chazal taught us, that a man was not created except to take pleasure on God [להתענג על השם] and to receive enjoyment from the shine of His presence.”

Honestly, I’m not even sure I understand what that means. But I certainly can’t imagine where it could be found in Chazal. In that context, I believe it’s highly significant that the corresponding text in the recently discovered and published first edition of Mesilas Yesharim (originally written in the format of a conversation between a chassid and a chochom) is phrased:

“…My opinion on this [דעתי בזה] is that a man was not created…”

“Chazal” are not invoked.


  1. שהאדם לא נברא אלא להתענג על ה' ולהנות מזיו שכינתו
    This is clearly a reference to
    צדיקים יושבים ועטרותיהם בראשיהם ונהנים מזיו השכינה
    with an embedded reference to Isaiah's
    אז תתענג על ה'

    1. I had thought about the Berachos 17a gemara, but that Isaiah source was definitely what I was missing. Thanks!

  2. Thank you for this interesting perspective. I must say that I expected far more theurgic-Lurianic references in Mesillat Yesharim.

    You made me wonder why this book is so mainstream. Full disclosure: I am personally convinced of the deep Sabbatian influences that R. Luzzato was exposed to. I would love to see how those influences may have played out in his writings, but this would be a very difficult exercise because "the printed version of Mesilat Yesharim drastically differed from the author's original manuscript, which he had concluded a year and a half before publication...The imprint's paratexts suggest that Jacob Bassan and David Meldola, Luzzatto's colleagues...were responsible for the book's publication, removing the treatise's most controversial elements in order to publish it at the Ashkenazi-owned press then the most involved in disseminating pietistic and mystical titles (Sclar 2015:35).

    R. Luzzato's one teacher, R. Yeshaya Bassan, was a known Sabbatian. His other teacher, who later became his father-in-law, R. Binyamin Vitale "was brazen enough to hang a portrait of Shabbatai Tzvi in his home!" (Scholem 1987:275).

    R. Yakov Emden wrote of R. Luzatto: "It is quite evident that there was a great heresy (minut) in Luzzatto's heart, and it struck evil roots in this world" (Zot Torat haKenaot 58r).

    Also of interest is Dr David Sclar (who strongly believes R. Luzzato was not a Sabbatian!) writes: "Luzzatto, meanwhile, conceived of a cosmological chain of redemption that linked his contemporary era to that of Luria and the Safed adepts. Moreover, in response to the accusations levelled against him, Luzzatto composed a treatise that jointly defended Kabbalah and condemned Sabbatianism, he intended to publish it, though his motives were rejected as charlatanistic" (Sclar 2014:253).

    Taking all this into consideration, one wonders how strongly the printed version of Mesillat Yesharim corresponds to R. Lazzato's original and actual opinions and writings.
    Perhaps all the 'reworking' on the text point to why this book is in fact so apparently 'mainstream'?

    1. I guess if I were to do a proper job of this, I would work through Ramchal's Derech Hashem using a similar methodology. I'm not currently familiar with Derech Hashem, but I've seen it described as "translating" kabbalistic ideas that Ramchal was unable to discuss into philosophical terms. It might be possible to reverse-engineer the book to see if it actually does map backwards to kabbala.
      I assume that Derech Hashem was written in Amsterdam under similar conditions - although I'm not even sure about that.

  3. It should be of interest, that Ramchal's idea of the purpose in this world is diametrically opposed to chabbad ideology. Whereas Ramchal considers the physical world bad and to be avoided, Chabbad considers the purpose of the physical world as a place to bring God into and sanctify.