Ben Franklin, one of the founding fathers of our nation, was an inventor, writer and signer of the Declaration of Independence. He also believed in the possibility of moral perfection, and in pursuit of that goal, he identified 12 specific virtues, which became the focus of a unique mission. Franklin believed that by practicing temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity and humility, he could accomplish a life without “fault.” He also understood that attaining a moral life involved not only self-growth but also investment in and improvement of the larger community. To pursue this vision, Franklin created a Junto — a weekly mutual improvement club — in 1727.

A millennia and a half before Franklin’s gathering first met, a group of rabbinic scholars in Israel fashioned a similar roadmap to living a moral life. It was known as Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Ancestors). In this ancient Jewish text, the sages highlighted specific behaviors – often quite similar to Franklin’s virtues — that would help to put a person on the moral path in life. The Ben Franklin Circles — a project launched last year by 92nd Street Y, Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and Citizen University — encourage people to form their own mutual improvement clubs, revisiting Franklin’s virtues in our time and providing an opportunity for meaningful conversation about personal as well as civic values. With this toolkit – developed with the Union for Reform Judaism and Central Synagogue — we invite you to discuss and debate Franklin’s 12 virtues alongside selected teachings from Pirkei Avot that explore similar concepts. Both Franklin and Pirkei Avot offer timeless insight into the nature of justice, the importance of sincerity, the impact of humility and more. Franklin strove for “moral perfection,” but also understood human limitations. So did the rabbis. As the 2nd century Rabbi Tarfon himself said in Pirkei Avot, “It is not your responsibility to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

We hope that exploring these two great traditions side-by-side will help us to engage in powerful dialogue about both our Jewish and American values. Let us all move forward on this journey together.



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