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To overgeneralize, I bet there is a copy of the mesillas yesharim in almost every orthodox home, shul and beis medrash. I'm wondering why this work is so popular and accepted.

My wondering is prompted by two possible objections to this work:

  1. The author, the Ramchal, has been the subject of controversy, including suspicion of having sympathies to Shabbtai Tzvi (see paragraph 5 for a concise summary) and for believing that he was the messiah (see, for example his ketubah).

  2. The content itself may be difficult to use as a tool for personal development. Any reader would be hard pressed to believe that he has progressed past the first few stages outlined in this work.

What is it about the Messilas Yesharim that makes it so universally accepted as a classic work?

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By the way, being controversial in one's own time is not problematic for future generations. See the Arizal and Rambam. Also, the Talmud as a whole was controversial in several ways at the start. –  Charles Koppelman Dec 12 '12 at 16:03
    
As currently stated, the question is actually three related but still distinct questions. (1) Why is the Ramchal accepted by the Orthodox Jewish world as a great figure, considering the accusations that were made against him (which some academic scholars believe to have been true)? (2) Why did the sefer Mesillas Yesharim become so popular? (Or, perhaps: Why did so many major figures highly recommend the study of MY? (3) How is an ordinary person supposed to utilize the later chapters of MY? (There are, in fact, several answers to that question.) –  LazerA Dec 12 '12 at 16:33
    
@LazerA, I think that as it is now, the question is your (2), with (1) and (3) being side points that contribute to its motivation. –  Isaac Moses Dec 12 '12 at 16:35
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Wow seems I missed a lot! very related question by a different OP judaism.stackexchange.com/q/14492/759 –  Double AA Dec 13 '12 at 4:13
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Downvoters: certainly in it's current form, this is an excellent question. It sources its presumptions, it is clear what it wants, and is certainly relevant and in scope. Disagreeing with presumptions is not a valid reason to downvote, but an excellent reason to write a refuting answer. I remind you that your votes aren't permanent once the answer is edited (which is has been) so that you can change them if the post is improved. +1 from me. –  Double AA Dec 13 '12 at 4:29

4 Answers 4

The Mesillas Yesharim is certainly one of the most influential and popular seforim ever written. It is considered a basic text in most yeshivos and is widely studied by Jews throughout the world (both in the original language and in translation).

Before we can address the reasons for the immense popularity of this work, we first need to address one of the specific concerns mentioned in question. The question mentions that accusations were made against the Ramchal (R' Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, author of Mesillas Yesharim) in his lifetime that for improper involvement in mystical practices and even Sabbatianism (adherence to one of the heretical cults based on the false messiah, Sabbatai Zvi). The question asks how it can be that a work from such a controversial figure could have become so widely accepted within the traditional/Orthodox community.

The reality is, however, that the Jewish community has accepted that these accusations were incorrect. The fact that major figures such as the Vilna Gaon strongly endorsed the Ramchal and his works served to completely clear any suspicion from his name. The conventional opinion within the Orthodox community is that, as is often the case with complex figures (and the Ramchal was certainly a complex figure), especially those deeply involved with kabbalah and mysticism, the Ramchal was simply misunderstood. (The Ramchal was not unique in this regard; R' Yonason Eibshutz is another example of a major figure accused of Sabbatianism, whose works are fully accepted today, and for largely the same reason.)

Thus, the accusations against the Ramchal have not been given any credence within the religious Jewish world for well over two centuries, and are simply considered an unfortunate aspect of history.

Of course, the fact that the Ramchal is not viewed as a controversial figure does not, in of itself, explain why the Mesillas Yesharim became so popular. In fact, the Ramchal himself wrote many works, and while some are fairly popular, none of them comes close to the extraordinary popularity that the Mesillas Yesharim has enjoyed for more than two centuries.

I don't believe there are any definite answers to this question. Clearly, the fact that the Mesillas Yesharim was enthusiastically endorsed by numerous major rabbinic figures over the years has played a large role in its general popularity. However, asides from the fact that this does not explain why the book received such enthusiastic endorsements, it also fails to really explain the work's general popularity as well. There have been many works over the years that have been enthusiastically endorsed by major figures, that failed to really gain general popularity. The main reason people are aware of the endorsements given to the Mesillas Yesharim is that people are reading and talking about the book.

So what was it about the Mesillas Yesharim that set it apart from all the other classic mussar works, none of which enjoys a popularity that even approaches that of the Mesillas Yesharim? In my opinion, there is one major factor, above and beyond all others, that made the Mesillas Yesharim a truly unique work in its time, and which continues to contribute to its immense popularity.

This factor is that, unlike virtually all previous mussar works, the Mesillas Yesharim refrains entirely from both harsh, condemnatory language directed at the reader, and also refrains from lengthy technical discussions. On the contrary, the work continually stresses that every positive step, no matter how small, is actually a major achievement, and that even one who attains to only the lowest of the levels described in the book has done something extraordinary.

With many earlier works, one can walk away with a sense of despair or even fear. (An very religious elderly woman once told me that she could never read Shaarei Teshuva because it was too frightening.) Other works, such as the Chovos Halevovos, are written more in the style of philosophical works than as guides to self-improvement. In both cases, what the reader does not get is the sense of a supportive and understanding mentor that clearly comes through with the Mesillas Yesharim.

In writing the Mesillas Yesharim in this manner, the Ramchal demonstrated a deep sensitivity to the changes that were taking place in society (both Jewish society and society at large). While earlier generations apparently found the older style mussar seforim effective, in the modern world a very different approach was necessary. The Mesillas Yesharim was thus, in many ways, the first modern Hebrew work. (Indeed, the early maskilim were great admirers of the Ramchal, and the Mesillas Yesharim, for this very reason.)

Given this, it is not surprising that the Mesillas Yesharim was a huge "hit" and became the most popular mussar work of all time.

There is one more issue that is raised in the question that needs to be addressed. Anyone who has studied the Mesillas Yesharim will quickly recognize that, of the nine levels he describes, few people ever attain much beyond the first two. That being so, what is the point of studying the later sections?

I recently discussed this topic with my rebbi, who is himself a long-time student of the Mesillas Yesharim. In the discussion, we came to three basic reasons why the later sections of Mesillas Yesharim are relevant to every Jew.

  1. "You can't begin a journey if you don't know where you are going." Meaning, even when you are still on a lower levels, the knowledge of what you are working to eventually achieve on the higher levels still has a major impact.
  2. Spiritual growth is often uneven. There are always some areas in which we are stronger than in other areas. Thus, it is possible that while a person may have only achieved the first or second level in certain regards, he is nevertheless on level 5 or 6 in other areas. A person should not restrict his spiritual growth in one area, while he waits for his weakest areas to "catch up".
  3. It is important for us to understand what true spirituality is, so that we will be able to recognize it (or its absence) in the people around us. Even if we have not achieved the highest levels described in Mesillas Yesharim, if we study them we will at least be able to recognize such greatness when we encounter it in another person, and we will also be able to recognize its absence in those who put on false pretenses of holiness.
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I'm glad we put in the work necessary to get the question to the point where it merited a tour de force answer like this! –  Isaac Moses Dec 12 '12 at 20:47
    
@IsaacMoses Thank you! I'm pretty happy with it myself! –  LazerA Dec 12 '12 at 20:55
    
I think you underemphasize the support Shabbatai Zvi received in his venture. In his hayday, almost everyone was a Sabbatean because b"H we all believed in Mashiach, and this seemed like it. You make it sounds like, "Duh he wasn't Mashiach; who would be so stupid to have believed him? Of course no rabbis thought he might be right." It was a complicated time and I don't think it's our right with 20-20 hindsight to go judge them. If any of these gedolim were closet Sabatteans, it just shows –  Double AA Dec 13 '12 at 4:23
    
they are human and fallible (as they should be, not being angels), while we can continue to learn from what they wrote. Just think what would happen next year if the mikdash is built under Bibi or if the state of Israel is nuked by Iran. Would you blame any Zionists or Satmers for being confused for a few years? Would you look back and call either Ravs Soloveitchik or Teitelbaum kofrim or misconstrue what they had originally said? There's no shame in losing a bet on the wrong horse, particularly if you're not a Navi. –  Double AA Dec 13 '12 at 4:23
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You describe the Mesilas Yesharim as an "understanding mentor," as opposed to the "frightening" Sha'arei Teshuvah. I actually have found that I think that the opposite is true. –  b a Dec 13 '12 at 4:27

Many great Tzadikim have praised the Mesilas Yesharim and have said that all they attained was due to learning from it. This includes the Vilna Gaon, Bnei Yissochor, Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, Koznitzer Maggid, and the Opter Maggid. (See here.) The fact that it was accepted by all, Misnagdim and Chasidim, attests to the greatness of this sefer.

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I think this answer begs the question. The question was "what makes this so widely accepted," and this answer is "because it's widely accepted." You could say that it's widely accepted by the masses because it's been widely accepted by various gedolim, but that just recasts the question as "What quality of this sefer has caused it to be so widely accepted by the gedolim?" –  Isaac Moses Dec 12 '12 at 15:50
    
@IsaacMoses from reading the citations it would seem that the work serves in the capacity as a charm or segulah. Meaning, no one (cited) praises it for being insightful, or breaking new ground or anything content related. They seem to say that just by reading (and rereading) it one can attain lofty levels. I think that's an acceptable answer - it is widely accepted because one can read it and attain greatness simply by doing so, irrespective of the value of its content. –  user2110 Dec 12 '12 at 15:54
    
@nikmasi, if that's the quality that this answer is referring to, it should be explicitly highlighted in the answer. –  Isaac Moses Dec 12 '12 at 15:56
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@nikmasi The citations all clearly state that these great figures attributed their spiritual accomplishments to the study of MY. There is not a hint of any kind of "segula" element in these statements. –  LazerA Dec 12 '12 at 16:05
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@LazerA I disagree, I think the traditional Jewish world is unaware that any controversy exists –  user2110 Dec 12 '12 at 16:05

I think it's popularity and endorsement by the Rabbis is greatly due to two factors.

  1. it shows each person exactly where he is in the road map of spiritual progress and also who are the real tzadikim and who are not (yet) tzadikim.

  2. it describes the correct order to take in the spiritual journey.

This latter point is also extremely important. There is a danger in trying to reach lofty levels of piety without having firm foundations in the basic levels.

Hence, it is a book you can recommend to anyone without fear that he will mistakenly try to jump rungs on the ladder and wind up crashing down or worse that he will float away in the clouds of false "piety" or emotional highs.

These two points are essential foundations for everyone, hence its popularity.

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In the first of your two possible objections: "The author, the Ramchal, has been the subject of controversy, including suspicion of having sympathies to Shabbtai Tzvi (see paragraph 5 for a concise summary) and for believing that he was the messiah (see, for example his ketubah)." I read this two ways: Ramchal believed himself to be "the messiah" or Ramchal believed R. Tzvi to be "the messiah." There is much to commend the notion that "a Messiah" appears in every generation. R. Tzvi's final act, which was to convert to Islam, certainly seemed a cowardly act from our standpoint. There are many who believed that his conversion was done for very different reasons than to save his own life. Be that as it may, R. Moses ben Maimon, suffered tremendous abuse both during his lifetime and for hundreds of years after for his synthesis of Aristotelian philosophy, kabbalah and halacha in his work Mishneh Torah. To answer your question straight out, IMHO its widespread popularity is due to the fact that on the surface it is a masterpiece of ethics and below the surface it is a masterpiece of mystical literature.

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What qabboloh are you talking about in regards to the MT? –  MoriDoweedhYaa3qob Nov 6 '13 at 0:40
    
What other (Kosher) reason? –  Shmuel Brin Nov 8 '13 at 6:21
    
Seems to be a comment until the last sentence. –  Shmuel Brin Nov 8 '13 at 6:22

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