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Friday, September 14, 2007

To an unprecedented degree, this is the era of educational entrepreneurship. Unconventional thinkers have waded into the world of K-12 education…While their efforts constitute a still-minuscule portion of schooling, they are responsible for many of the most exciting developments in 21st-century education.
Fredrick M Hess, Phi Delta Kappan, September 2007

It was quite a surprise when two famous people recently jumped out of the history books to join me in a fascinating conversation.

Here’s the transcript of the encounter between Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) and Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). Although they lived about 600 years apart, it’s clear they share many similar beliefs about the human condition.

Franklin: I am honored to meet the great Rabbi Maimonides. In April 1788, I made a financial contribution to the building fund of Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel synagogue. The congregation’s members mentioned your name many times; always with reverence. They said you were the greatest Jewish leader and thinker since the biblical Moses…

I regret the terrible things that have happened to Jews throughout the centuries. Religion should make people better and improve society. I once wrote that I could never believe in “any thing that should prejudice any one, of any sect.”

Maimonides: Indeed. I once said that religion should keep people “equidistant from extremes ... not irascible or easily provoked to anger ... they should only desire those things which are necessary and indispensable ... should give to charity ... and be not hilarious and mirthful, nor gloomy and melancholy ... the middle course is the wisest.”

Franklin: Exactly! I see why you are so respected. I based my life on 13 virtues. I attempted to follow them, but not always with success.

Maimonides: That is true for every human. God wants us to turn from our evil ways and repent. Thirteen virtues? I, too, posited the exact same number of beliefs. Which were yours?.

Franklin: Temperance, a middle course of food and drink. Silence, so I may learn from others. Order, a set time for life’s activities. Resolution, do what life requires. Frugality, waste nothing. Industry, do something useful. Sincerity, hurt no one by deed or word. Justice, the basis of a good society. Moderation, precisely your “middle course.” Cleanliness, of body and residence. Tranquility, strike a positive balance in life. Chastity, never sexually abuse another person. And Humility, no false pride or hubris.

Maimonides: My list starts with the declaration that God exists, that God is one and unique, without bodily form and is eternal. Prayers are directed to God alone, who gave us prophets of truth, especially Moses and the unique Torah — the collection of all Jewish wisdom and teaching. He is a God who knows our thoughts and deeds, who rewards and punishes. I finished up with a belief in the coming of the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead.

Franklin: You are far more theological than I. But we do have some similar concepts. A month before I died, Yale University President Ezra Stiles asked about my beliefs. I summed it up this way: “I believe in One God, Creator of the Universe, that he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we render to him is doing good to his other children.”

Maimonides: I made reason a core of my belief. In my book, A Guide for the Perplexed, I stressed reason as a foundation for religious belief, but it must be combined with personal piety.

Franklin: I share your love of reason. I wrote, “To follow by faith alone is to follow blindly ... we cannot shut the Eye of Reason.”

Rabbi A. James Rudin: On the record with Maimonides and Ben Franklin.
Kansas City Star

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