Mendelssohn, Moses (Moshe Ben Mendel Mi-Dessau; 1729–1786)

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MENDELSSOHN, MOSES (Moshe ben Mendel mi-Dessau; 17291786)

MENDELSSOHN, MOSES (Moshe ben Mendel mi-Dessau; 17291786), philosopher of the German and Jewish Enlightenments, leading literary critic in Prussia, biblical scholar, and Jewish communal leader and advocate. Mendelssohn was born to a poor Jewish family in Dessau. His father, Mendel Heymann, was a Jewish religious teacher and scribe. His mother, Bela Rachel Sarah, was descended from an illustrious line of rabbis. As a child, he received a traditional Jewish education, studying the Bible with its commentaries, the Mishna and Talmud, and Jewish legal codes. At age ten, he became a student of the famous Talmudist David Fränkel, and in 1743 followed Fränkel to Berlin when the rabbi received a post there.

In Berlin, Mendelssohn met the Jewish philosophers Israel Samoscz and Aaron Salomon Gumpertz. Under their guidance he studied Latin, Greek, English, and French and read the works of the Enlightenment philosophers Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Christian Wolff, and John Locke. These thinkers formed Mendelssohn's philosophical orientation, from which he never departed. He espoused "moderate Enlightenment"a belief in rational or "natural" theology.

In 1754, Gumpertz introduced Mendelssohn to the young Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, with whom Mendelssohn developed a lifelong friendship. Lessing encouraged the young Mendelssohn to develop his ideas about metaphysics and aesthetics, as well as to write pieces of literary criticism. In 1763, Mendelssohn won a prize competition held by the Berlin Academy of Sciences on the question whether metaphysical truths allowed of the same certainty as mathematical truths. His essay defeated an entry by Immanuel Kant.

In 1767, Mendelssohn published his Phädon (Phaedo), a reworking of Plato's famous dialogue of the same name. This work used Leibnizian-Wolffian arguments to prove the immortality of the soul. The work was a sensation, running into four editions, and was translated in Mendelssohn's own lifetime into Italian, French, Danish, and Russian. Mendelssohn became recognized as a leading philosopher of the German Enlightenment and was dubbed by his contemporaries "the German Socrates."

While as a youth he had published a few pieces in Hebrew seeking to promote enlightenment among his coreligionists, initially Jewish apologetic concerns were not in the foreground. This changed in 1769 when the Pietist Swiss theologian and preacher Johann Caspar Lavater challenged him to either refute Christianity or convert. Mendelssohn defended himself by contrasting the religious tolerance in Judaism with Christianity's theological intolerance, but the "Lavater affair" shook his faith in the ability of Jews to be accepted in Prussian society.

Throughout the 1770s, the German Enlightenment came under increasing attack from the counter-Enlightenment Sturm und Drang ('storm and stress') movement as well as from English empiricism, idealism, and skepticism. Despite being plagued by a nervous debility from the 1770s to the end of his life, Mendelssohn worked tirelessly on three projects: improving the civil status of the Jews, defending Jewish particularity, and defending the German Enlightenment.

In 1779, Lessing wrote his most famous play, Nathan der Weise (Nathan the wise), an apology for religious tolerance. The hero, the Jewish merchant Nathan, was widely seen as having been modeled on Mendelssohn. In 1781, Mendelssohn sought to actualize the tolerant ideals espoused by Nathan by commissioning the Christian German ministerial councillor Christian Wilhelm Dohm to write a book advocating Jewish civil improvement. In 1781 Dohm's Über die bürgliche Verbesserung der Juden (On the civil improvement of the Jews) appeared and was widely debated.

In 1783, Mendelssohn wrote his philosophical masterpiece Jerusalem oder über religiöse Macht und Judentum (Jerusalem or on religious power and Judaism). The book comprised two parts. In the first part Mendelssohn argued that religious institutions had no right to exercise political power. In the second part he offered a philosophical defense of Judaism showing that the applicability of Jewish ceremonial law did not depend on religious coercion. Through the 1770s and 1780s Mendelssohn multiplied his Hebrew literary work, most notably producing a highly regarded translation and commentary on the Pentateuch known as the Biur (Elucidation). In 1783, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi disclosed to Mendelssohn that Lessing, who had died in 1781, had been a Spinozist at the end of his life. Spinozism was then widely equated with atheism, and Mendelssohn understood Jacobi's disclosure as an attempt to undermine the rational theology of the German Enlightenment. This sparked the so-called Pantheism Controversy. In Mendelssohn's contributions to the controversy, the Morgenstunden (Morning hours) and An die Freunde Lessing (To Lessing's friends), he attacked Spinozism and revised his metaphysics and epistemology.

At the end of his career, Mendelssohn aimed to achieve a synthesis of rationalism and empiricism and thereby save the German Enlightenment. In this respect, his project was quite similar to that of his friend and fellow Aufklärer Immanuel Kant, though Kant's critical synthesis was far more philosophically sophisticated and influential.

Mendelssohn is widely considered the father of modern Jewish philosophy. His was the first attempt to articulate a conception of Judaism using modern philosophical concepts. Furthermore, he is seen as the spiritual ancestor of two of the main forms of nineteenth-century German JudaismNeo-Orthodoxy and Reform. His defense of Jewish ceremonial law as "living symbols" of theological truth prefigures Samson Raphael Hirsch's Neo-Orthodoxy, while his defense of the rational, universal foundation of Jewish belief prefigures Reform Judaism. His attempt to develop a German-Jewish symbiosis likewise set the agenda for later German-Jewish thought, and his work on behalf of Jewish civil improvement anticipated later attempts to achieve Jewish emancipation in Europe.

Despite his importance as a philosopher, Judaic thinker, and mediator of German and Jewish culture, Mendelssohn's reputation shrank after his death. His metaphysics and epistemology were thought to have been overshadowed by Kant. His Jewish philosophy was seen to have been an unacceptable compromise between obedience to particularistic Jewish law and espousal of universal religious ideas. His interpretation of Judaism was accused of being inattentive to Judaism's historical development.

Recent scholars have debated the relationship between Mendelssohn's philosophical positions and his Jewish commitments. Some have subordinated his Jewish commitments to his philosophical concerns, and others have done the opposite. Of late, Mendelssohn's defense of religious pluralism on the basis of profound Jewish learning and subtle philosophical thought, along with his espousal of political liberalism, have made him appear a particularly prescient thinker.

See also Enlightenment ; Kant, Immanuel ; Jews and Judaism ; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm ; Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim ; Spinoza, Baruch ; Wolff, Christian .


Primary Sources

Mendelssohn, Moses. Gesammelte Schriften Jubiläumsausgabe. Edited by Alexander Altmann, et al. StuttgartBad Cannstatt, 1971.

. Jerusalem, or On Religious Power and Judaism. Translated by Allan Arkush. Edited with introduction and commentary by Alexander Altmann. Hanover, N.H., 1983. Translation of Jerusalem oder über religiöse Macht und Judentum (1783).

. Philosophical Writings. Translated and edited by Daniel Dahlstrom. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1997. Translation of Philosophische Schriften (1761).

Secondary Sources

Altmann, Alexander. Moses Mendelssohn: A Biographical Study. Tuscaloosa, Ala., 1973. Classic study by the leading Mendelssohn scholar of his generation. The starting point for all subsequent Mendelssohn scholarship.

Arkush, Allan. Moses Mendelssohn and the Enlightenment. Albany, N.Y., 1994. Provocative reading of Mendelssohn as an esoteric deist who sought to transform Judaism into a civil religion.

Breuer, Edward. The Limits of Enlightenment: Jews, Germans, and the Eighteenth Century Study of Scripture. Cambridge, Mass., 1996. Study of Mendelssohn's biblical work that argues that this work must be viewed as both an extension and response to its contemporary Christian biblical scholarship.

Sorkin, David. Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment. Berkeley and London, 1996. A reading of Mendelssohn's Jewish works in the context of the German religious Enlightenment. Claims that Mendelssohn limited speculative metaphysics to make room for Jewish piety and ritual observance.

Michah Gottlieb

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Mendelssohn, Moses (Moshe Ben Mendel Mi-Dessau; 1729–1786)

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