I never used the words “proof” or “evidence” in my recent submission to The Jewish Voice on “A Jewish Forgetting of Ben Franklin,” yet these words suddenly appeared in print beneath my name. There is actually incontrovertible proof and evidence of Franklin’s influence on mussar (Jewish ethical teaching), but I offered none in my brief article. I was also very careful to refer to only “some Orthodox Jews” in my critique, avoiding generalizations. Yet The Voice changed my words to include all Orthodox Jews, and printed: “The Jewish Orthodox response has been to largely write Franklin or Lefin out of the history of mussar.”
That has not, in fact, been “the Jewish Orthodox response.” It has been, as I stressed in my submission, an apparently anxiety-relieving response of “some” Orthodox Jews. As it happens, I consulted with two of Rhode Island’s haredi rabbis before I began publishing articles in newspapers and journals on the subject of Franklin and Judaism. Rather than being anxious about Franklin’s contributions to mussar – or about the suggestion that even within the presumably insular world of Eastern European rabbinic Judaism, far from the deism of the trans-Atlantic Enlightenment, the pre-Reform, pre-Conservative version of the Jewish religion was affected by broader currents of thought – they were eager to discuss the matter and offer their perspectives. Likewise, without a hint of anxiety, Providence’s Modern Orthodox Congregation Beth Sholom invited me to speak on this topic as part of a Shabbat dinner.
Afsai’s upcoming article about Franklin’s influence on mussar thought and practice will appear in The Review of Rabbinic Judaism in 2019. At his request, “A Jewish Forgetting of Ben Franklin” has been removed from The Voice’s website.