Moses Mendelssohn

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Moses, the Son of Mendel


Moses Mendelssohn was born in 1729 and died in 1786.  Because of his brilliant reputation he was appointed court philosopher by Frederick II, the king of Prussia.  At that time Prussia was the most enlightened state in Europe. Jews were welcomed and Frederick, a learned man and musical composer, enjoyed the company of scholars including Voltaire and others. He corresponded with George Washington and made every effort to allow his "subjects" more freedom than anywhere in the then existing world outside of the United States. That Prussian tradition continued into the eighteenth century and the beginning of the 20th century when the arrogance of William II destroyed the Prussian tradition and promoted the advent of Hitler. 

Moses Mendelssohn had three children. Two daughters, Dorothea and Henrietta, who converted to Catholicism and a son, Abraham, who induced his children to become Christians for he believed that "it (Christianity) is the conviction of most well-bred human beings."

It is well known that Moses Mendelssohn's entire progeny left the Jewish fold because his famous grandson, the composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)  was a nominal Christian as were so many successful German Jews during the nineteenth century and until the time of Hitler and his exterminators.

Because this is so well known there are those who regard Moses Mendelssohn as an apostate and one who sought to renounce his Judaism for favors available from the Prussian government. The orthodox have accused him, the rationalist, of abandoning belief in the revelation of Judaism and equally resented his effort to connect the Bible to the German language;  reformers resent his adherence to Jewish rituals; nationalists and Zionists cannot understand his rejection of a Jewish state.

Yet, Moses Mendelssohn, a "Torah true" Jew, became the object of considerable hostility from traditional Jews because he translated the Torah into German. Mendelssohn published this translation in Hebrew script.  This means that the words were German but Hebrew letters were used to spell the German words, thus making the translation accessible to the vast majority of German Jews who could not read the Gothic German then in use. Traditional rabbis feared that this translation would lead to the neglect of Hebrew studies, thus leading to the abandonment of Judaism whether intended or not.  That Mendelssohn did not intend the abandonment of Judaism is certain. That apostasy became frequent after his death is certain as well. The reason for this unintended outcome of Mendelssohn's efforts was that he had become admired by the German Christian upper classes and intelligentsia and had become a role model " .....and encouraged Jews to think that they too could achieve the status to which they aspired."

Thus, it can well be said that Mendelssohn did indeed participate in the re-formation of Judaism in the sense that his contributions reflected the social trends of his time. It is however simplistic and devoid of sociological understanding to either credit or blame Mendelssohn for the secularization of Judaism in the years following his life because  "political, socio-economic and demographic factors," not one person or one writer, can ever be considered responsible for any major social movement.

In fact, Jerusalem, Mendelssohn's defense of traditional Judaism, indicates without a doubt that he devoted his life to living in both the world of the "Enlightenment" and the world of Jewish orthodoxy. Thus, Jerusalem has been called " ...a remarkable synthesis of Mendelssohn's twin commitments , to Judaism and to reason."

It was this double commitment which distinguishes Mendelssohn's contribution to the advancement of secularization in the 18th century from Spinoza's teachings in the 17th century.  For although Spinoza never claimed to be an atheist, his excommunication and his subsequent naturalism resulted in an attack on Judaism by him and his followers. Therefore, Mendelssohn was most concerned in distancing himself from Spinoza, as shown by the famous controversy which erupted after the death of Mendelssohn's friend Lessing who was posthumously identified as a Spinozist, a label Mendelssohn would not accept either for himself or for Lessing.

The reason for the vehemence with which Mendelssohn rejected the possibility that Lessing was a Spinozist  was the belief among many people that Spinoza, no matter his thin defense of revelation, was an atheist.

"Spinoza's philosophy stood for radical scientific naturalism......and the consequences of Spinoza's philosophy, if it were to delete its superfluous religious language, was atheism and fatalism."  Yet, even as Mendelssohn rejected atheism and tried to show how we could rationally conclude that there is a God, that there is immortality of the soul, that there is revelation and providence, Mendelssohn defended Spinoza's rationalism without permitting this attitude to lead him, like Spinoza, to reject religious beliefs as man-made. Thus, Mendelssohn recognized with Spinoza that the consistency and order of the universe is replicated by human reason even while he,  Mendelssohn, held the Jewish ceremonial law as revealed and hence applicable in his own day and at all times.

Unlike Spinoza, who held that the laws of nature were the only laws God had given man, Mendelssohn held that the rabbinic laws were revealed truth. Nothing illustrates Mendelssohn's devotion to traditional Judaism more than his principal work, Morgenstunden or  Morning Hours. Candidly borrowing from Kant, Mendelssohn argues that no object can be real unless it conforms to a concept. Here Mendelssohn also borrows from Descartes and agrees with that writer that "My own thoughts I know to be real while I myself, as the subject in which these thoughts occur, am real in an unqualified sense."

The sum of Mendelssohn's metaphysical arguments are these:  First that there is an external reality to which our senses testify; second, there is cognition consisting of experience, rational knowledge and reasoning; third, there is a close relationship between reason and common sense; fourth, there is a difference between imagination and objective reality so that we can be misled; five, external reality is an association of ideas reflecting cause and effect in accordance with the laws of nature (a Spinozian notion), sixth, that the difference between the ideal and the real is much narrower than usually assumed and seventh, that Kant's Ding an sich, the thing in itself, can only be explained by what a thing effects and how it is affected. This argument would no doubt be understood by sociologists today but falls short of the work of Kant who argued that since we know a thing only in its spatial relations it was quite legitimate to ask what it was in itself. According to Mendelssohn, however, only God knows the "thing in itself." Thus, Mendelssohn held that the endless controversy between idealists and realists was only semantic and not a matter of substance. Mendelssohn also taught that the first source of knowledge is the study of man himself. Like Alexander Pope (1688-1744) before him he believed that "the proper study of mankind is man."

From these preliminary statements Mendelssohn derives his proof of the existence of God. This, he said, is derived from the reality of a sensible world outside ourselves. Mendelssohn seeks then to root his beliefs in common sense. "Experience has taught me,"  he wrote, "that common sense is usually right." He thought that "what no thinking being conceives as possible is in fact not possible, and what no thinking being thinks is real is in fact not real."

Then, as now, there were and are those who find Mendelssohn's adherence to Jewish law contradicts his rejection of ecclesiastical power and his commitment to the principles of the enlightenment. Mendelssohn  insisted on supporting reason at all times but would not permit himself to conclude that such a Spinozist position bore within it the rejection of revealed religion.  Instead he insisted that both reason and rabbinic Judaism  could be supported even though most enlightened Christians held rabbinic Judaism to be an obstacle to the acceptance of Jews in Prussian and general European society. Mendelssohn argued that Jews, born to accept the Law, did not have the authority to abrogate it and that therefore rabbinic law was also revealed and permanent. Yet, he demanded the acceptance of Jews in European society even while observing the details of rabbinic Law. He had achieved this for himself. Now he insisted that his Jewish brethren be given the same privilege.

Mendelssohn believed that acceptance of Jews would come first in Germany and he strove for the development of Jewish culture within the borders of Germany. Mendelssohn loved Germany and German civilization as did so many of his co-religionists who insisted on believing in the humaneness of their German brethren. Mendelssohn sought to develop "Jewish Prussians" rather than Prussian Jews and, for a short time after his death, succeeded. Thus, a limited amount of fraternity between Jews and Christians in the upper classes of German society did develop at the end of the eighteenth century, particularly because there were some leading Christians who sought to facilitate the entrance of the Jews into German social life. Others, again, were vehemently opposed to such a possibility so that there was never a clear cut German attitude towards Mendelssohn's proposals.

Shalom uívracha.

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