What is the ethical Jewish personality? In our world of corruption, dishonesty, slander, gossip, and unprovoked hatred, where does one turn? The Ethical Personality by Rabbi Zechariah Fendel (Hashkafah Publications., 1986) answers these questions and provides considerable guidance and instruction on the improvement of one’s character. The work is divided into three sections. The first section addresses the responsibility of Jews to focus on the refinement of middot (personal qualities), character development, and the improvement of one’s ethical behavior. This section provides the reader with a Torah psychological perspective on self-improvement, with insights, guidelines and extensive references from traditional sources. It is an approach which can be aptly summarized with a quote from the Vilna Goan (1720-1797) ?The main substance of man’s existence is to strengthen himself continually in the improvement of his charac?ter traits? (p.51).
Section II provides an elaborate discussion of four selected middon truth, humility, contentment, and gratitude. These values are basic to Judaism and according to Rabbi Fendel, they are values which go far beyond American social values, just as they have transcended the values of other cultures for many generations.
The final section includes the Hebrew original and Rabbi Fendel’s translation of 2 important essays: Iggeret ha Ramban (Essayof the Ramban (Nachmonides 1194-1270)and Iggeret ha Mussar (Essay of Ethical Instruction) by Rabbi Yisroel Salanter(1810-1883).Nachmonides’ essay is actually a letter written to his son in the 13th Century. However, the advice he provides in itand his insights, particularly into the relationship between anger and humility, are timeless and profound.
Rabbi Salanter was the foremost exponent of Mussar philosophy in the 19th Century. His essay addresses an important existential struggle in each person’s life: the problem oftaking responsibility for oneself. Rabbi Salanter discusses and integrates physical and spiritual means of gaining control over one’s destiny. His philosophy focuses on both strengthening one’s positive traits as well as dispelling one’s negative qualities.
In summary, The Ethical Personality isa worthwhile presentation of a Torah psychological approach to ethical behavior and values. It is excellent for the beginner as it includes a glossary of hebrew terms, numerous explanatory footnotes and translates all the hebrew passages into english including the classical essays by Nachmonides and R. Yisroel Salanter. It is also recommended for those already familiar with classical Mussar literature as it goes beyond the written texts and includes what one could only gain through the personal instruction of a learned scholar. Rabbi Fendel is to be commended both for devoting his energies to this important area and for the clarity of his exegesis of the key ethical concepts in Judaism. The purpose of Rabbi Fendel’s work is best conveyed in his own words. He writes in the introduction , ?It is my sincere hope and prayer that by conveying to our fellow Jews a heightened awareness of the importance of ethical Torah values, and by fostering a climate of ethical sensitivity, these essays will be instrumental in eliminating every trace of sinas chinam (wanton, unprovoked hatred) from our midst and in replacing it, instead with a truefeeling …of love, of brotherhood, of peace, and of friendship as the underlying motif of all communal and interpersonal relationships…?