Moses Mendelssohn Biography

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786)

is usually labeled a German Jewish philosopher.  However, Mendelssohn was a good deal more than that, as he became the father of modern Judaism.

Born in Dessau to a poor family, his father worked as a scribe of Jewish sacred texts. Moses was self-educated, but also studied with some outstanding teachers, thereby learning mathematics, Latin, French, and English. Moses’ descendants included the world renowned composer Felix Mendelssohn, the painter Philipp Veit, whose mother Brenda was Moses’ daughter, the chemist Paul Mendelssohn, and the founders of the banking house Mendelssohn Inc.

Moses was called Moses Ben Mendel until he changed his name into German and became Mendelssohn.

In Berlin, the capital of Preussen (Prussia), Moses enrolled in the seminary of Rabbi Frankel, where he studied Talmudic law.  In 1775, Moses met Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Lessing was a Christian playwright who had written a drama called Die Juden. Lessing also wrote a play called “Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise). Lessing and Mendelsohn became friends and Lessing brought Mendelssohn to the attention of the King of Prussia, Frederick II. Lessing also published Mendelsohn’s Philosophical Conversations and Pope ein Metaphysiker, which Lessing and Mendelssohn had authoed together.

In 1752,  Mendelssohn married Fromet Guggenheim, who survived him by 26 years. In 1763, the king, Frederick, granted Mendelssohn the right to live in Berlin as a “protected Jew.”  That year, Mendelssohn wrote an essay called “Concerning the Immortality of the Soul.” This resulted in Mendelssohn being named “The German Plato”  or “The German Socrates.”

In 1783, Mendelsohn published “Jerusalem,” which demanded freedom of religion and denounced the interference of government in religion.  The book was translated into every European language.

 Finally, Mendelssohn translated the Bible into German, which made the Torah accessible to German speaking Jews. He also wrote Morgenstuden Oder Vorlesungen Über das Dasein Gottes, or Morning Studies or Lectures Concerning the Existence of God.

Shalom u'vracha.

  Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The American Jewish Community in the 20th and 21st Century (2021).

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