Our Jewish past can teach us how to be better

From the Bible to Benjamin Franklin, here's how our history teaches you to have a better character.

 A tightrope walker performs during the opening ceremony of the Carnival in Venice. (photo credit: REUTERS/MANUEL SILVESTRI)
A tightrope walker performs during the opening ceremony of the Carnival in Venice.

“When you perform a good deed, do not concern yourself with the reward you may receive. Make yourself like a tightrope walker in a carnival. If he thinks of the rewards he may receive, he surely will lose his footing and fall.” – Hassidic teaching 

The development of character – the focus of musar – has been of interest throughout recorded history. One can view the Bible as an extended character study, elaborated explicitly in Pirkei Avot and further extended in the writings of Maimonides. As Maimonides put it:  “The moral man will remain always aware of his dispositions and will evaluate his actions, and will inquire every day into the traits of his soul, and whenever he perceives his soul tending toward one of the extremes, he will hurry to remedy it and not allow the evil trait to strengthen itself through the repetition of bad actions” (Maimonides, 1168).

The idea that assessing and reflecting on one’s character is seen as the best method of improving character is not new but is easier to sermonize about than facilitate. It might surprise you to know that the first prominent system for character assessment was created by Benjamin Franklin in the mid-1700s.

A lesser-known but equivalent system was created by Menachem Mendel Levin (sometimes written Lefin) in Poland in 1812: The Accounting of the Soul. A Guide to Self-Improvement and Character Refinement. 

 The cover of Menachem Mendel Levin’s 1812 book reprinted in 1995. (credit: FELDHEIM PUBLISHERS) The cover of Menachem Mendel Levin’s 1812 book reprinted in 1995. (credit: FELDHEIM PUBLISHERS)

As recounted in the pages of this magazine (Benjamin Franklin’s Virtues, 5/18/20. pp. 33-35), it is likely that Levin knew of Franklin’s basic approach. However, his book (reprinted in 1995 by Feldheim Publishers) provides a practical and in some ways very modern approach to putting Franklin’s ideas into action. Let’s look at this assessment system and its practical application in our time.

Adopt a modern philosophy

Franklin and Levin both expressed what is now referred to as the philosophy of a growth mindset. This means that character is not a set of inborn and immutable traits, but rather consists of a number of attributes that can and should be cultivated and modified as needed. However, this is easier said than done. Exhortations to do the right thing always has been much more successful in theory than in practice. 

So Levin built on Franklin’s ideas and his own trenchant observations of human behavior to devise a system that seems quite modern in its reflection of the psychology of learning and change.

Determine aspects of character that need to be developed Franklin and Levin literally believed in the idea of “accounting”: determining what the “accounts” were and then creating a system for tallying so that there could be no doubt about the status of one’ character at the end of a given period of time. Writing in very different contexts, here are the thirteen character attributes focused on by Franklin and Levin (likely influenced by the 13 attributes of God delineated in the Torah). 

Ten attributes are on both of their lists:











Three differ slightly







Separation (from lewd thoughts)


Understanding the culture and context of the times during which Franklin and Levin wrote explains a lot about their lists. Certainly, in many contemporary Western cultures at present, student voice would be more valued than silence, frugality might not be quite so prominent, and perhaps being well-mannered might be preferred to simple cleanliness. Current lists would likely be developed through wide participation, perhaps by a school, a religious group, a camp, or another organization. Yet, I would expect meaningful overlap with the Franklin-Levin lists of more than 200 years ago. 

Levin devotes one chapter to each of his 13 virtues, providing what we might now say are behavioral anchors to help individuals recognize when they have or have not accomplished it in practice. He also provides a rationale in scripture. For example, writing about diligence, Levin notes, “As our Sages (Avot D’Rabi Natan, 11) said, Men only die because they are idle … One who finds he is therefore pursuing a life of idleness and laziness must cure himself though discipling himself in the trait of diligence” (p. 163). 

Specify the theory of change

With great sophistication about human behavior, Levin notes there are four ways to improve one’s character:

1. Deal with a desire before the “animal spirit is aware of it,” i.e., avoid a situation or temptation

2. Succeed in positive actions in small, relatively non-challenging situations and build upon them

3. Succeed in very challenging situations that one finds oneself in

4. Motivating oneself to rise to the occasion in a situation that could otherwise be avoided.

Because each of these has a drawback (can’t avoid a situation, small successes don’t prepare for big successes, early attempts in challenging situations lead to discouragement, one does not rise to the occasion), Levin finds that it is necessary to use all four strategies in considering how to improve one’s character. And the path to lasting change involves ongoing monitoring, self-refection, and carrying out ideas to improve on areas in which progress is slowest.

Set up a long-term accounting system for self-improvement

Like Ben Franklin, Levin understood that lasting change takes time. One must think in terms of seasons and years, not days. Here is the basic process:

1. List the attributes in order of focus on the left side of a page.

2. Across the top, put the numbers 1-7, representing the days of the week. 

3. Create a grid of 13 by 7 spaces.

4. Make 14 of these grids, placing at the top of each grid the numbers 1-14.

Each day, for each attribute, a number is put into the appropriate box in the grid that notes how many times one failed to exercise that attribute when called for during that day. A blank box means that there were no “violations.” 

Each grid represents a week’s worth of ratings; one carries out ratings for 13 weeks and uses the 14th week, and grid, to tally the results. The results are reviewed and ways to maintain gains or make more progress on areas of less growth (or “regression,” as Levin referred to it) are considered. Then, a new set of 14 grids is created and implemented. This is carried out for at least all 4 seasons (constituting 52 weeks), after which adjustments to the list of attributes can be made to include new areas for self-improvement and dropping attributes that have become positive habits, and then the process is repeated for additional years.

Each week, an individual chooses one attribute on which to focus. Each day, during the morning, one is asked to consider the attribute, say, humility, and anticipate the situations that might come up during the week when humility might be required. Review the results of the prior week to see if humility was “violated,” try to recall the circumstances, see what can be learned for use in the current week, and go forward from there. While all attributes are rated every day, during a given “season,” each attribute has one week of focus.

Current sensibilities might suggest tracking successful examples of the attributes, vs tallying “violations.” Franklin and Levin knew, of course, that it’s the negative attributes that tend to stand out most in our minds and therefore are easier to track accurately. 

There are various modern systems for assessing and improving character but none have clearly surpassed Rabbi Levin’s adaptation of Ben Franklin’s insightful approach. Rabbi Levin’s rationale for the 13 attributes in his system shows clearly the enduring concern of Jewish sages with how to help people become mensches. His methods can help turn an ideal into a reality. 

The author is a professor of psychology and contributing faculty in Jewish Studies at Rutgers University, where he also directs the Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org). He is co-author of The Joys and Oys of Parenting: Wisdom and Insight from the Jewish Tradition (Behrman House, available at Amazon.com) and The Other Side of the Report Card. Assessing Students’ Social, Emotional, and Character Development (Corwin Press). He can be reached at maurice.elias@rutgers.edu.