Mendelssohn, Moses

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MENDELSSOHN, MOSES (Moses ben Menahem , acronym RaMbeMaN , or Moses of Dessau ; 1729–1786), philosopher of the German Enlightenment in the pre-Kantian period, early Maskil, and a renowned Jewish figure in the 18th century. Born in Dessau, son of a Torah scribe, Mendelssohn received a traditional Jewish education under the influence of David *Fraenkel, who was then rabbi of Dessau. When the latter was appointed rabbi of Berlin in 1743, Mendelssohn followed him there in order to pursue his religious studies and to acquire a general education. He earned his livelihood with difficulty while simultaneously studying Talmud diligently and acquiring a broad education in literature and philosophy. In addition to his fluent knowledge of German and Hebrew, he acquired knowledge of Latin, Greek, English, French, and Italian. His teachers were young, broadly educated Jews, such as the Galician immigrant Israel M. Zamosc, who taught him medieval Jewish philosophy, the medical student Abraham Kisch, who taught him Latin, and the well-born Berlin Jew, A.S. Gumpertz, who taught him French and English and in general served as a model of a pious Jew immersed in the larger intellectual world. During this period he met the writer and dramatist G.E. *Lessing (1754) and a deep and lifelong friendship developed between them. In 1750 he became a teacher in the house of Isaac Bernhard, owner of a silk factory; in 1754, he was entrusted with the bookkeeping of the factory and eventually he became a partner in the enterprise. Throughout his life he worked as a merchant, while carrying out his literary activities and widespread correspondence in his free time. Only in 1763 was he granted the "right of residence" in Berlin by the king. In 1762, he married Fromet Guggenheim of Hamburg, and they had six children (see *Mendelssohn family). In 1754 Mendelssohn began to publish – at first with the assistance of Lessing – philosophical writings and later also literary reviews. He also started a few literary projects (for example, the short-lived periodical Kohelet Musar) in order to enrich and change Jewish culture and took part in the early Haskalah. In 1763, he was awarded the first prize of the Prussian Royal Academy of Sciences for his work Abhandlung über die Evidenz in metaphysischen Wissenschaften ("Treatise on Evidence in Metaphysical Knowledge"). However, when the academy elected him as a member in 1771, King Frederick ii refused to ratify its decision. In 1769, he became embroiled in a dispute on the Jewish religion, and from then on, he confined most of his literary activity to the sphere of Judaism. His most notable and enduring works in this area included the translation into German and commentary on the Pentateuch, Sefer Netivot ha-Shalom ("Book of the Paths of Peace," 1780–83) and his Jerusalem: oder, Ueber religiöse Macht und Judenthum ("Jerusalem, or On Religious Power and Judaism," 1783), the first polemical defense of Judaism in the German language and one of the pioneering works of modern Jewish philosophy. An active intermediary on behalf of his own people in difficult times and a participant in their struggle for equal rights, he was at the same time a forceful defender of the Enlightenment against the opposition to it which gained strength toward the end of his life. In the midst of a literary battle against one of the leading figures of the counter-Enlightenment, he died in 1786.


Mendelssohn made virtually no claim to be an original thinker in the realm of philosophy. He considered himself to be little more than an exponent of the teachings of the Leibniz/Wolffian school, perhaps contributing a more felicitous and contemporary expression to the demonstrations of God's existence and providence and human immortality that had been propounded by Leibniz and Wolff and their other disciples. Here and there, however, he modestly acknowledged that he was providing a new version of an old argument or even saying something that had not been said before. Mendelssohn first acquired a wide reputation for philosophical acumen with the publication of his prize essay in 1763. The Berlin Academy's question was whether "the truths of metaphysics, in general, and the first principles of natural theology and morality, in particular," can be shown to be as securely established as those of mathematics. Mendelssohn answered that such principles "are capable of the same certainty" but are by no means as easily grasped. After discussing the obstacles to such comprehension, he went on to offer cosmological and ontological proofs for the existence of God. He sought to give the ontological argument an "easier turn" by reversing its usual course and arguing first for the impossibility of God's nonexistence and then against the notion that the most perfect being would enjoy a merely possible existence. In his later works, Mendelssohn continued to reformulate and refine these very same arguments. Following Leibniz, Mendelssohn argued in a number of writings that the combination of divine goodness and greatness known as providence brings into being "the best of all possible worlds." Like his mentor, he could maintain this position only by adducing the evidence of the afterlife. He first examined this question in his most celebrated philosophical work, Phädon, oder ueber die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (Phaedo, or on the Immortality of the Soul, 1767; Eng tr., 1784), which borrows its form but not its substance from Plato's dialogue of the same name. Mendelssohn was encouraged in this project by his correspondence with Thomas Abbt (1738–1760), a professor at the University of Frankfurt, about the destiny of man and the fate of the soul after death. He placed in the mouth of his Socrates arguments that he had admittedly derived from his own recent predecessors, including such thinkers as the natural theologian Hermann Samuel Reimarus and the liberal Protestant theologian Johann Joachim Spalding. Mendelssohn developed his thesis along Leibnizian lines: things that perish do not cease to exist; they are dissolved into their elements. The soul must be such an element or substance, rather than a compound, since it is the soul that imposes a unifying pattern on the diverse and changing elements of the body. Hence it is neither weakened by age nor destroyed by death. However, this line of argument demonstrates only that the soul is imperishable and not that it will retain its consciousness in a future state. This is guaranteed by the goodness of God, who could not conceivably have created rational beings only to deprive them after a brief interval "of the capacity for contemplation and happiness." Nor would God ever have aroused his rational creatures to desire eternal life had He not allotted it to them. It is, moreover, impossible to vindicate divine providence without reference to a future life. In Mendelssohn's later Sache Gottes, his reworking of the Causa Dei, Leibniz's abridgement of his Theodicy, he spelled out most clearly his principal difference with his philosophical mentor's conception of the afterlife. Unlike Leibniz, who had sought to show how most human souls were destined for eternal damnation even in the best of all possible worlds, Mendelssohn maintained that all posthumous punishments would be both corrective and temporary. Divine goodness guaranteed that every human being was destined ultimately to enjoy "the degree of happiness appropriate for him." Following Wolff, Mendelssohn affirmed that the fundamental moral imperative is a natural law obliging all rational beings to promote their own perfection and that of others. Unlike Wolff, he did not elaborate all the ramifications of this natural law. But he clearly saw perfection in much the same terms as Wolff, as an unending process of physical, moral, and intellectual development, leading naturally to the increase of human happiness. In sharp contrast to Wolff, Mendelssohn regarded liberty as an indispensable precondition of the pursuit of moral and intellectual perfection. Only a free person, he argued, can achieve moral perfection. For virtue is the result of struggle, self-overcoming, and sacrifice, and these must be freely chosen. Intellectual perfection, too, can be attained only by one who is free to err. So, in place of Wolff 's tutelary state, Mendelssohn developed a contractarian political philosophy that left individuals largely free to define their own goals. Insisting above all on the inalienable liberty of conscience, he decried any state attempt to impose specific religious behavior or to discriminate against members of any minority faith.

In time Mendelssohn himself came to see weaknesses in the philosophical structure that he had once upheld unquestioningly. Confronted, toward the end of his life, by the irrationalism of F.H. Jacobi and by the new critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant, whom he called the "all-crusher," he felt compelled to acknowledge the insufficiency of rationalist metaphysics. In his fullest exposition of the philosophy to which he owed his allegiance, Morgenstunden, oder Vorlesungen ueber das Dasein Gottes ("Morning Hours, or Lectures on the Existence of God," 1785), he sorrowfully ceased to reaffirm its irrefutable truth. Yet, whatever speculative reason might seem to teach, he now argued, common sense still sufficed to orient people and guide them along the path to the most important truths. Just what Mendelssohn meant by common sense has been a subject of much dispute, both among his contemporaries such as Thomas Wizenmann and Kant himself and among modern scholars. But, however he conceived of this faculty, it is clear that he did not believe that it would necessarily remain humanity's last resort. For, in the "cyclical course of things," providence would no doubt cause new thinkers to arise who would restore metaphysics to its former glory.

Critic of German Literature

During the period in which his first philosophical writings appeared, Mendelssohn also began to publish critical articles in the Bibliothek der schönen Wissenschaften und der freien Künste (1757–60), a periodical edited by the bookseller and publisher Friedrich Nicolai (1733–1811), his closest friend after Lessing. While his first reviews were mainly concerned with philosophical works, he also took up literary criticism which was published in Nicolai's second periodical Briefe die neueste Literatur betreffend, behind which Mendelssohn was a moving spirit. At this time German literature, which was still in an early stage of its development, was struggling for recognition and a position in the cultural life of Germany which was dominated by Latin and French. Nicolai, Lessing, J.G. Herder, and others accomplished a kind of cultural revolution by adopting German as the language in which to express their innovative ideas. Mendelssohn became a natural ally of these writers, who did not identify with the academic and intellectual establishment, which, in turn, looked upon them, "Nicolai's sect," with contempt and suspicion. Like them, Mendelssohn was not a member of the establishment; like them, he sought to renovate his spiritual world and was distinguished for his universal humanist aspirations, which, like them, he chose to express in German. Mendelssohn found himself so much at ease in this cultural milieu that he embarked upon an offensive war in support of the use of the German language, even venturing to criticize King Frederick ii himself for the publication of a book of poems in French. "Will the Germans never be aware of their own value? Will they forever exchange their gold (i.e., their basic thinking) for their neighbors' tinsel?" (i.e., French literature). The aesthetic writings of Mendelssohn attest to the supreme value which he attributed to beauty and above all to poetry. Mendelssohn's philosophic style in German was recognized by all, including Lessing, Herder, and Kant, as one of the best of his time, but his talent for poetic expression was limited, a fact which he admitted himself.

The Dispute with Lavater

Mendelssohn's longstanding effort to keep his Jewishness out of the public eye was brought to an end by Johann Caspar Lavater (1741–1801), a Swiss scholar and Lutheran clergyman renowned for his writings on human physiognomy, who challenged him to clarify his religious position. As a young man, Lavater had met Mendelssohn in Berlin (1763) and had been deeply impressed by his tolerant attitude toward Christianity, his appreciation of its moral value, and his general philosophic approach. In the summer of 1769, he translated into German a section of La Palingénésie philosophique by the Calvinist Charles Bonnet (1720–1793), professor of philosophy and psychology in Geneva, which to his mind had satisfactorily proved the truth of Christianity. Activated by his strong millenarian belief in the necessity of the Jews' conversion, Lavater dedicated this translation to Mendelssohn. He called upon him either to refute it publicly or "to do what wisdom, love of truth, and honor require, and what Socrates would have done had he read the treatise and found it irrefutable." Profoundly distressed by this challenge, Mendelssohn felt compelled to respond to Lavater in public, which he did in a polite and restrained but forceful manner (Schreiben an den Herrn Diaconus Lavater zu Zürich, 1770). Eschewing the two alternatives presented to him by his adversary, Mendelssohn instead explained why his religion and his philosophy as well as his marginal position in the world militated against his participation in interreligious polemics. The Torah, he maintained, was given solely to the people of Israel, who are therefore the only ones bound by it; all other men are only obliged to abide by the law of nature and the religion of the patriarchs embodied in the "*Noachide Laws." A religion that does not conceive of itself as the exclusive path to salvation, Judaism is devoid of any missionary tendencies, discouraging even those who seek to convert. In general, said Mendelssohn, one should not challenge other people's fundamental religious conceptions, even if they are based on error, as long as they serve as the basis for social morality and do not undermine natural law. Finally, as a Jew in a country like Prussia where the Jews enjoyed only a limited amount of freedom, Mendelssohn felt that it was advisable to abstain from religious disputes with the dominant creed. "I am a member of an oppressed people," he said. Mendelssohn thus avoided dealing with the fundamental questions posed by Lavater; he did not publicly attack Christianity nor did he provide a comprehensive philosophical rationale for his adherence to Judaism.

Far from putting an immediate end to the matter, Mendelssohn's missive evoked a new response from Lavater, in which he simultaneously apologized for his intrusiveness and persisted in his conversionary efforts. Mendelssohn, however, once again refused to take the bait and did his best to bring the dispute to an amicable conclusion. Only in his Gegenbetrachtungen über Bonnets Palingénésie ("Counter-reflections on Bonnet's Palingénésie"), which remained unpublished until the middle of the 19th century, and in private letters, some of which were addressed to Bonnet himself, did he lay bare his objections to Christianity and articulate a defense of Judaism. The general debate that swirled around the controversy between Lavater and Mendelssohn continued until the beginning of 1771 and resulted in the publication of a large number of booklets and pamphlets, most of them sympathetic to Mendelssohn. This confrontation nevertheless upset Mendelssohn to such an extent that for over seven years he suffered from a disease that prevented him from pursuing his philosophic studies.

Activities in the Realm of Jewish Culture

In the middle 1750s, at around the same time that his first German-language publications were seeing the light of day, Mendelssohn produced his earliest writings in Hebrew. They consisted of anonymous contributions to Kohelet Musar ("Preacher of Morals"), a periodical he co-edited with Tobias Bock. Although the two men managed to publish only two eight-page issues, their effort nevertheless constituted a revolutionary turning point in the development of Jewish culture. It marked the first occasion on which Jewish intellectuals attempted to introduce into their own culture an innovative form of publication then quite popular and influential in Germany, England, and elsewhere, the "moral weekly." Here some of the ideas of the moderate Enlightenment were first presented to Jewish readers in the Hebrew language known to the community's educated elite and couched in terms familiar to them. Above all, the publication by two laymen of a periodical aimed at the moral improvement of the Jewish population amounted to an unprecedented subversive measure in a world in which the rabbinical elite was acknowledged to be the absolute authority in such matters. The weekly called on the Jews to fill their lungs with the air of natural life, to observe freely the beauty of nature, to nurture their sense of aesthetics and harmony. It proclaimed their right to delight in a world that is, as Leibniz taught, the best of all possible worlds created by God. Man, "God's finest creature," is at the center of nature, and it is unthinkable that the Jew, of all people, should repress his humanistic traits. Man can discover the majesty of the Almighty and His powers by observing the creation of the great architect of the world. Kohelet Musar's transmission of such messages appear to have made no significant impression on the Jewish society of the 1750s but it did pave the way for the publication, decades later, of a much more influential successor, the maskilic journal Ha-*Me'assef.

In the decades following this abortive effort Mendelssohn's writings in the Hebrew language were limited in number. In 1761 he published a commentary on Maimonides' Millot ha-Higgayon ("Logical Terms") and in 1769 or 1770 he published a commentary on the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. The former volume consisted of a republication of Maimonides' introduction to logic and philosophical primer together with an introduction and commentary designed not only to clarify Maimonides' work but to bridge the distance between medieval Jewish philosophy and the regnant philosophy of Mendelssohn's own day. The latter utilized the text of Ecclesiastes to expound in a popular form an essentially Wolffian teaching with regard to two principal tenets of natural religion, providence and immortality of the soul. At the end of the introduction to this commentary, Mendelssohn announced that if it were well received he would attempt to write similar works on Job, Proverbs, and Psalms but he never carried this plan to completion.

What Mendelssohn did instead was to translate books of the Bible into German. As early as 1770, in a letter to Michaelis, he had mentioned the publication of a German translation of Psalms, which would act as a counterbalance to the translations and commentaries written in the spirit of Christianity. After laboring on this work for 13 years, he finally published it in 1783. The principal work among his biblical translations was, however, the version of the Pentateuch that accompanied the Bi'ur, a commentary that he and a group of his associates, including Naphtali Herz *Wessely and Herz *Homberg, collectively composed (Bi'ur, 1780–83; see *Bible: Translations, German). This translation began, by Mendelssohn's own account, as a project for the instruction of his sons, yet he soon recognized its general utility. In his overall introduction to it he explained that it was designed to provide the younger generation of Jewish students with an alternative to the extant Yiddish translations, which failed to do justice to the beauties of the original, and the available Christian translations, which strayed too far from the Masoretic text and traditional rabbinic interpretations of it. Elsewhere, in a private letter to his non-Jewish friend August Hennings, Mendelssohn described the translation as a "first step toward culture" for his nation. The German text of the translation was written, in accordance with the custom that prevailed among German Jews, in Hebrew characters, and the commentary, Bi'ur, in Hebrew. In addition to serving, as David Sorkin has put it, as "a usable digest of the medieval literalist tradition," the commentary provided Mendelssohn with a venue for the articulation of the theological views that he was soon to spell out more systematically in Jerusalem.

Despite its declared conservative aims, the translation project faced opposition from the very moment that Mendelssohn and his collaborator Solomon Dubno published a sample of their work, entitled Alim li-Terufah (1778). Rumors of the protestations of R. Ezekiel *Landau of Prague and actual reports of the opposition of R. Raphael Kohen of Altona soon reached Mendelssohn along with the news of a plan to excommunicate him and a campaign to organize a united rabbinical front against the Bi'ur. Averse to any direct confrontation with his adversaries and fully committed to the principle of free speech, Mendelssohn sought to deter any action by Rabbi Kohen not by silencing him but through behind-the-scenes maneuvers. He prevailed upon his friend August Hennings to arrange for subscriptions to the Bi'ur to be taken out in the name of the Danish king, Christian vii, Rabbi Kohen's sovereign. Hennings' success in this endeavor greatly enhanced the prestige of the maskilic literary project and earned it a measure of immunity from its opponents' machinations.

Immediately after its publication the Bi'ur was adopted as a textbook for biblical instruction at the Freischule (free school) co-founded by the brothers-in-law David *Friedlaender and Daniel Itzig. While Mendelssohn was not directly involved in the founding of this school, he nevertheless supported it and also contributed to its revolutionary new textbook, the Lesebuch fuer jüdische Kinder ("Reader for Jewish Children"), in which he published a translation of Maimonides' 13 Articles of Faith. The last of Mendelssohn's biblical translations to appear in print was his translation of the Song of Songs with commentary, which was published post-humously (1788).

Activities for the Improvement of the Civic Status of the Jews

Prior to the controversy with Lavater, Mendelssohn had not campaigned for the improvement of the civic status of the Jews, but from the 1770s onward he became something of an activist on their behalf. He willingly replied to anyone who came to him for counsel or guidance, endeavoring to assist within the limits of his means any Jew who had been overtaken by misfortune or who had become embroiled in difficulties with the authorities. He also came to the aid of beleaguered Jewish communities, taking advantage of his reputation in order to request help from various renowned personages whom he had befriended. After receiving an appeal for help from the tiny Jewish community of Switzerland in 1775, he enlisted none other than Lavater in a successful effort to forestall imminent anti-Jewish measures. When the community of Dresden was threatened by an expulsion order in 1777, he prevailed upon one of the leading officials of Saxony, who ranked among his admirers, to prevent any action against it. In the same year his brief on behalf of the community of Königsberg enabled it to refute the accusation that the Aleinu prayer was anti-Christian and led to the abrogation of the royal edict requiring the presence of a government-appointed "supervisor" in the city's synagogue during the recitation of prayers. Yet Mendelssohn did not always see eye to eye with the people who requested his assistance. In 1772, when the duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin issued an order to his Jewish subjects prohibiting the religious custom of immediate burial and requiring a three-day waiting period before interment, the local community called upon Mendelssohn to intercede on its behalf. He dutifully composed a memorandum to the duke in which he recommended that the Jews be permitted to maintain their existing custom as long as they obtained medical certification of death prior to burial. At the same time, he maintained in his correspondence with the Jews of Mecklenburg-Schwerin that their resistance to the duke was unwarranted, since the three-day waiting period was reasonable, prudent, and not without ancient precedent and talmudic justification. While his memorandum inspired the duke to replace his earlier edict with a regulation along the lines of his suggestion, his letter to the community met with the disapproval of the local rabbi. More importantly, it also aroused the ire of Jacob *Emden, who accused Mendelssohn of being too ready to relinquish the requirements of Jewish law and to adopt the ways of the Gentiles. Even in the face of Emden's dire warnings that he was increasingly being regarded as someone who was edging toward heresy, however, Mendelssohn did not retreat from his position on this matter.

Mendelssohn's involvement in the public debate on the civic status of the Jews commenced with a request emanating from France. Cerf Berr, the leading figure in Alsatian Jewry, asked Mendelssohn in 1780 to write a memorandum on the question of the rights of the Jews to be submitted to the French Council of State. Believing that it was Gentiles – enlightened Christians who sought an improved society – who should raise this question, Mendelssohn turned to Ch.W. von *Dohm, who participated in the composition of the memorandum and shortly thereafter wrote his Ueber die buergerliche Verbesserung der Juden (Concerning the Amelioration of the Civil Status of the Jews, 1781), which became the classic work in the struggle for Jewish emancipation. Despite his broad sympathy with the aims of this volume, Mendelssohn was not completely satisfied with it in every aspect. He expressed his reservations in his introduction to a German translation of the apologetic tract composed a century earlier by *Manasseh Ben Israel, Vindiciae Judaeorum (1782). Contesting Dohm's negative appraisal of the Jews' economic role, Mendelssohn insisted upon the productivity and usefulness of Jewish merchants and middlemen. He rejected Dohm's recommendation to preserve a limited judicial autonomy for the Jewish community and especially his argument that the community ought to retain the right of excommunication. According to Mendelssohn, the exercise of religious coercion of any kind was utterly unwarranted and incompatible with the spirit of "true, divine religion."

The views of Dohm and Mendelssohn aroused criticism and controversies. Among the critics was J.D. Michaelis (1717–1791), a theologian and professor of Semitic languages, who decades earlier, in his review of Lessing's play The Jews (1754), had denied that a Jew could exemplify a noble person. Now Michaelis argued that the Jews' anticipation of the arrival of the messiah and their return to Zion together with their burdensome laws made it impossible for them to identify completely with their host country or to fulfill civic obligations, such as military service. Mendelssohn retorted that the Jews' messianic hopes would have no influence whatsoever on their conduct as citizens and that they had in any event been expressly forbidden by the Talmud even to think of returning to Palestine on their own initiative. He brushed off concerns that the Jews would be unable to serve in the military by noting that they, no less than the Christians before them, would know "how to modify their convictions and to adjust them to their civic duty."

Mendelssohn's Jerusalem

Among the reactions to Mendelssohn's introduction was a pamphlet, published anonymously in 1782, entitled Das Forschen nach Licht und Recht in einem Schreiben an Herrn Moses Mendelssohn auf Veranlassung seiner merkwürdigen Vorrede zu Menasseh Ben Israel (The Search for Light and Right, an Epistle to Moses Mendelssohn occasioned by his Remarkable Preface to Menasseh ben Israel). Now known to have been authored by a minor writer by the name of August Friedrich Cranz, the pamphlet accused Mendelssohn of having undermined the authority of Judaism with his blanket denial of the legitimacy of any form of religious coercion. "Clearly," Cranz wrote, "ecclesiastical law armed with coercive power has always been one of the cornerstones of the Jewish religion of your fathers… How then can you, good Mr. Mendelssohn, profess attachment to the religion of your forefathers, while you are shaking its fabric, by impugning the ecclesiastical code established by Moses in consequence of divine revelation?" On this occasion, Mendelssohn felt that it was his duty to answer his critic and wrote his Jerusalem primarily in order to do so. But the book ranged far beyond an answer to Cranz to articulate a full-blown philosophy of Judaism, the first to be developed in modern times.

state and religion

In the first part of Jerusalem Mendelssohn expounded a political theory clarifying the grounds for his opposition to religious coercion. His account of "the origin of the rights of coercion" belonging to the state restricted such rights to the sphere of transferable goods. This does not encompass convictions, inalienable by their very nature. Hence the state can never acquire the right to make any religious demands upon its citizens, and its grant of even the smallest privilege or exclusive right to members of any particular religion is entirely devoid of legitimacy. Mendelssohn nevertheless advised the state not to intervene directly but to "see to it from afar" that such subversive doctrines as "atheism and Epicureanism" are not propagated in its midst. And he declared churches no more entitled than states to resort to coercion in matters of faith, since "a religious action is religious only to the degree to which it is performed voluntarily and with proper intent." Only after having thus reiterated and amplified his opposition to religious coercion of any kind did Mendelssohn refer to the claim of The Search for Light and Right that his own adherence to Judaism was incompatible with his liberal principles. Once he had restated Cranz's argument, he acknowledged that it cut him to the heart but did not hasten to refute it. He first explained more systematically and in greater detail than ever before why he remained convinced of the veracity of Judaism and what he considered to be its nature and purpose.


Drawing a fundamental distinction between the supernatural revelation of a religion and supernatural legislation, Mendelssohn identified Judaism exclusively with the latter. The former, he argued, does not truly exist, since God makes known the basic truths of religion – the existence and unity of God, divine providence, and the immortality of the soul – not by disclosing them miraculously to any particular group of people but by granting all men the degree of reason required to grasp them. Revelation could not, in any case, convince any man of the validity of something his reason could not understand. Nor would a just God ever have vouchsafed the truths indispensable to human happiness to some peoples and not to others. What distinguished the people of Israel was not their religion, with which they had presumably been imbued already prior to the Sinaitic revelation, but the unique laws, statutes and commandments that were given to them on that occasion. That God spoke at Sinai is for Mendelssohn a vérité de fait, an established historical fact, because it was indubitably witnessed by the entire people of Israel. The best statement of the quintessence of the legislation He then revealed, according to Mendelssohn, was the one uttered by Hillel the Elder: "Love thy neighbor as thyself. This is the text of the law; all the rest is commentary." But in Jerusalem Mendelssohn devoted his energies much less to an elucidation of the humanitarian dimension of biblical law than to a somewhat tentative explanation of the purpose for the rituals it prescribed.

Although humankind possessed from the outset the capacity to grasp on its own the fundamental truths of natural religion, Mendelssohn wrote, it eventually descended into idolatry. To account for this corruption of religion he resorted to what was, in Alexander Altmann's opinion, "the least substantiated of all theories he ever advanced." The primary cause of the religious deterioration of humankind was, according to this theory, hieroglyphic script. Men initially employed hieroglyphic signs derived from images of animals to symbolize the deity. In the course of time, however, they fell victim to their own misunderstanding and the manipulations of unscrupulous priestly hypocrites and came to regard these signs themselves as deities, to worship them and even to offer human sacrifices to them. In response to this debasement of humankind, Mendelssohn maintained, God ordained the ceremonial law of the Pentateuch. Through its eschewal of all imagery and its concentration on actions this law avoided the hazards of hieroglyphic script. Its main purpose, however, was not prophylactic but positive – to connect vital know ledge with required practices. The ceremonial laws "guide the inquiring intelligence to divine truths, partly to eternal and partly to historical truths" upon which Judaism is founded. God gave the commandments only to Israel, but He did not do so, according to Mendelssohn, for its sake alone. Israel was to be a priestly nation, a nation that "through its laws, actions, vicissitudes, and changes was continually to call attention to sound and unadulterated ideas of God and His attributes. It was incessantly to teach, to proclaim, and to endeavor to preserve these ideas among the nations, by means of its mere existence, as it were."

At the conclusion of Jerusalem Mendelssohn indicated how his account of Judaism was meant to dispel the objections raised by "the Searcher after Light and Right." Composed of religious doctrines acquired by purely rational means and a revealed legislation designed to remind its practitioners of these truths as well as their own people's historical record, Judaism cannot be conceived as a religion authorizing temporal punishments for unbelievers or those who adhere to false doctrines. While it is true that the original constitution of Israel provided for a polity in which religion and state were identical and in which a "religious villain" was a criminal, this "Mosaic constitution" existed only once and has disappeared from the face of the earth. Since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, religious offenses have ceased to be offenses against the state and the Jewish religion "knows of no punishment, no other penalty than the one the remorseful sinner voluntarily imposes on himself." Contemporary Judaism could thus be seen to be fully in accord with Mendelssohn's own liberal principles, even if the original "Mosaic constitution" was not.

Jerusalem evoked little response in the Jewish community. Rabbis and maskilim alike paid only very limited attention to it. In the years following its publication Mendelssohn learned to his dismay that he would find few supporters for the positions he took in Jerusalem. Enlightened thinkers who shared his appreciation of natural religion were alienated by his reaffirmation of revelation and his insistence on the obligatory character of the ceremonial law. The orthodox rejected his absolute denial of the right of religious institutions to wield coercive authority, and the earliest representatives of what Isaiah Berlin called the "Counter-Enlightenment" assailed the very rationalism in which his arguments were rooted.

The "Pantheism Controversy"

Mendelssohn's most consequential brush with the Counter-Enlightenment resulted not from the publication of Jerusalem but from his plan to produce an essay on the character of his lifelong friend, G.E. Lessing, who had died in 1781. Lessing, whose early support had been so crucial to Mendelssohn, had always been an interlocutor whom he cherished, even when they disagreed over matters of great importance, such as the views he had expressed in his Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts (The Education of the Human Race) on the nature of revelation and human progress. Lessing, for his part, had composed shortly before his death his famous play in support of religious toleration, Nathan the Wise, whose eponymous hero was unmistakably patterned after Mendelssohn himself. Upon learning in 1783 from one of his friends, Elise Reimarus, that Mendelssohn was on the brink of returning Lessing's literary favor by writing an essay extolling his deceased friend's character, Friedrich Jacobi, one of the avatars of the Counter-Enlightenment, claimed that Lessing had admitted to him during the last years of his life that he had been a Spinozist. What Jacobi wished to do was not so much to expose Lessing's clandestine heresy as to point to Lessing's intellectual evolution as evidence supporting his own general thesis that reason necessarily leads to nihilism. What he succeeded in doing was to deflect Mendelssohn from his original purpose and to force him to interpret Lessing's alleged Spinozism in a way that warded off any distressingly close association between the thought of the Enlightenment and the philosophy of a man reviled almost everywhere as an atheist. Mendelssohn's arduous efforts to do this in the face of Jacobi's relentless attacks sapped his remaining strength. A few days after he sent to his publisher his last work on this subject, An die Freunde Lessings ("To Lessing's Friends," 1786), he died.

Appreciation and Influence

The Leibniz/Wolffian philosophy that Mendelssohn spent a lifetime defending did not long survive his own demise. Its foundations were undermined by Immanuel Kant – a fact that Mendelssohn recognized toward the end of his life. Nor did the philosophy of Judaism that Mendelssohn outlined in the Bi'ur, Jerusalem, and elsewhere provide a satisfactory understanding of their religion for more than a few of the inquiring minds of the coming generations. Nor, finally, did Mendelssohn's efforts to win equal rights for European Jews yield any immediate results. On the other hand, there is no doubt that Mendelssohn's contribution to Jewish thought served as a reference point, focus, and challenge to later thinkers. From the standpoint of the history of modern Jewish philosophy, or the history of biblical translation and exegesis, Mendelssohn's thinking with regard to the age of emancipation and secularization are of great importance. Thus on topics such as the place of the Jewish community in the modern state, the validity of halakhah, the belief in divine revelation, the relations between religion and community, the question of coercion in religious matters, and the status of the commandments, Mendelssohn not only asked questions, but also proposed answers that were of great significance for modern Jewish thought. Finally, his Bi'ur played an incalculably large role in fostering the development of the Haskalah in Eastern Europe.

Already in his own time Mendelssohn became a legend and in the centuries after his death he became a symbolic hero or villain to Jews of very different stripes. In the 19th century Jewish historians in Germany proudly placed Mendelssohn at the threshold of a new era in the history of the Jews, cementing his image as the founding father of the Haskalah and the patron saint of Germany Jewry. They placed special emphasis on his role as the first harbinger of a favorable turning point in Gentile-Jewish relations in the European states. The deep ties of friendship between Mendelssohn and Lessing were represented as the ideal model of the longed-for future, a symbol of the respectable status and legal equality finally obtained by German Jewry nearly a century after Mendelssohn's death. Above all, this friendship represented in the eyes of German Jewish historians and thinkers the beginnings of a moderate integration of the Jews into German life, a social absorption that stopped short of complete assimilation. For Mendelssohn, as the chroniclers of his life and times correctly noted, knew how to parry all attempts to bring him over to Christianity. The writings of these historians and thinkers, for whom Mendelssohn was a cultural hero of enormous proportions, reflected the predominant image of Mendelssohn in the cultural memory of German Jewry. Mendelssohn was the Jew with whom it was easy to identify, the Jew who brought honor to Judaism, who proved that a modern Jew can simultaneously be a loyal German citizen at home in the German language and German culture and maintain his ties to the Jewish community and Jewish culture. In the eyes of many he was the prototype of the age of Jewish emancipation and integration into the middle class and served as a kind of entrance ticket into the state and society. Thus the historical Mendelssohn became a very precious resource to German Jews, who for many years had again and again to prove in the public arena their fitness to be accepted and to be treated no differently from members of the majority. Mendelssohn became the ideal representative of those who dreamed of German-Jewish relations in far-reaching terms of "symbiosis."

At the very same time that this Mendelssohn myth grew and flourished, the spokesmen of the more conservative camp in modern Jewish society developed a counter-myth. The members of this camp vigorously repudiated the ideas of change and transition in the fate of the Jews that were linked to the historical Mendelssohn and denied the necessity for breaking out of the confines of the traditional, religious Jewish way of life. They looked with alarm on the processes of modernization and dreaded a general collapse of the structure of Jewish life. The increasing focus on studies outside the realm of Torah, particularly philosophy, seemed to them to be the gateway to apostasy. In these people's eyes Mendelssohn loomed as a demonic historical figure, a destructive force responsible for all the crises of the modern era: assimilation, the demolition of the traditional community, the loss of faith, religious permissiveness, and the weakening of the authority of the rabbinical elite. They painted a picture of the past diametrically opposed to that of enlightened, liberal Jewry.

Over the years, both Mendelssohn's admirers and detractors have seen him through a similar lens: both the myth and the counter-myth assigned him the proportions of a giant possessing enormous power to set the wheels of Jewish history in motion. They identified him for better or worse as the man who represented, symbolized, and sparked all the forces of change of the modern era: Haskalah, religious reform, secularization, assimilation, and integration and the rest of the terms that generally describe the processes of modernization that have influenced the Jews over the course of the past two and a half centuries. In recent decades, however, modern scholarship on Mendelssohn has taken a more objective, balanced, and nuanced approach that has consisted of efforts to demythologize him without overlooking his importance. Mendelssohn is no longer considered to have been the founder of the Haskalah movement, which was actually initiated by the members of a younger generation, the most prominent among them being Isaac *Euchel. Scholars now view him less in emblematic terms than as a man whose life was highly complex and full of frustrations, conflicts, dreams, and disappointments.

Collected Works and Translations of Works

The Jubiläumsausgabe of Mendelssohn's collected works (Stuttgart, 1971–2004) now includes 24 volumes. English translations include Jerusalem and other Jewish Writings (by A. Jospe, 1969), Moses Mendelssohn: Selections from his Writings (E. Jospe, 1975), Jerusalem (by A. Arkush, 1983), Philosophical Writings (D. Dahlstrom, 1997).


H.M.Z. Meyer, Moses Mendelssohn Bibliographie (1965); Shunami, Bibl., no. 5, 3953–57; A. Altmann, Moses Mendelssohn: A Biographical Study (1973); A. Arkush, Moses Mendelssohn and the Enlightenment (1994); E. Breuer, The Limits of the Enlightenment: Jews, Germans and the Enlightenment Study of Scripture (1996); S. Feiner, The Jewish Enlightenment (2004); S. Feiner, Moses Mendelssohn (Heb., 2005); J. Hess, Germans Jews and the Claims of Modernity (2002); D. Sorkin, Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment (1996).

[Alfred Jospe and

Leni Yahil /

Allan Arkush and

Shmuel Feiner (2nd ed.)]

Mendelssohn, Moses

views updated Jun 08 2018

Moses Mendelssohn

BORN: September 6, 1729 • Dessau, Anhalt-Dessau, Germany

DIED: January 4, 1786 • Berlin, Germany

German philosopher; writer

Moses Mendelssohn, an eighteenth-century German philosopher, is often referred to as the "father of the Jewish Enlightenment." A philosopher is someone who searches to understand values and reality. He was the author of a large number of literary and philosophical works. Mendelssohn called for reliance on reason rather than on blind faith and mysticism (direct, mysterious communication with God) when seeking religious truth. He also played a major role in unifying Jewish and secular (nonreligious) culture at a time when many European Jews desired education but were excluded from public and professional life. In German literature, he is remembered as the model for the noble title character in Gotthold Lessing's (1729–1781) Nathan the Wise (1779), a dramatic poem that is essentially a plea for religious tolerance. Some Jews call Mendelssohn the "third Moses" of Judaism, following the Old Testament prophet (divine messenger) and Moses Maimonides (1135–1204; see entry), a well-respected scholar of Judaism.

"Let everyone be permitted to speak as he thinks, to invoke God after his own manner."

Early life

Moses Mendelssohn was born on September 6, 1729, in Dessau, a city in what was then the German state of Anhalt-Dessau. Because his father, a poor scribe, or copier of manuscripts and other documents, was named Mendel, Moses took the surname Mendelssohn, which means "son of Mendel." As a child he suffered an illness that left him with a curvature, or curving, of the spine, and throughout his life he spoke with a stammer.

Although Mendelssohn was largely self-taught, he also took part in formal study under a local rabbi named David Fränkel. A rabbi is a person trained in Jewish law, ritual, and tradition who is often the head of a synagogue, or Jewish house of worship. Fränkel taught Mendelssohn the Hebrew Scriptures, or holy texts, commonly referred to by Christians as the Old Testament; the Talmud, which contains traditions that explain and interpret the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures; and the works of Moses Maimonides. One of Maimonides's most important works, Guide of the Perplexed, was reprinted for the first time in two centuries when Mendelssohn was thirteen. The publication of this book signaled a growing interest in Jewish thought.

In 1743 Fränkel received an appointment as rabbi in Berlin, Germany, and Mendelssohn, then fourteen years old, followed him in order to study at his yeshiva, or Jewish school. Mendelssohn's life in Berlin was one of extreme poverty, and although he earned small sums of money by tutoring, he was forced to accept meals from neighboring families. He did, however, receive a very thorough education at the yeshiva. In addition to studying Jewish theology (the study of religion), he became skilled in mathematics, philosophy, astronomy (the study of the stars and planets), and logic. He studied French, English, Italian, Greek, and Latin. He used his small income to purchase a Latin copy of Essay Concerning Human Understanding, a major work by the English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704).

Mendelssohn took a job tutoring the children of Isaac Bernhard, a silk merchant in 1750. He quickly won Bernhard's confidence, and in time Bernhard made the young scholar his bookkeeper, then his partner. In 1754 Bernhard introduced Mendelssohn to the great German philosopher, dramatist, and literary critic Gotthold Lessing (1729–1781). Lessing was one of the important figures of the Enlightenment in Germany. The Enlightenment was a philosophical movement in Europe during the eighteenth century that emphasized reason over blind faith and tradition. These ideas were expressed in Lessing's writings. He was also a strong believer in religious tolerance at a time when Europe's Jews were forced to live in isolated portions of cities and were the victims of widespread discrimination. Jews were denied citizenship and education, barred from most professions, regarded as unintelligent and greedy, and blamed for all sorts of social problems. Lessing's 1749 play The Jews was extraordinary at the time for its depictions of Jews acting morally and kindly.

The relationship between Mendelssohn and Lessing was first established through the game of chess, which they both loved. Soon Mendelssohn found Lessing's views entirely consistent with his own, and the two men became lifelong friends. Mendelssohn also developed a friendship with the renowned German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). Although the two were professional rivals, Kant became one of Mendelssohn's admirers.

Mendelssohn the philosopher

During the 1750s and 1760s Mendelssohn became one of the leading philosophers in Europe and found himself at or very near the center of some of the age's fiercest philosophical debates. After he wrote his first book, Philosophical Conversations, he shared the manuscript with Lessing, who had it published anonymously in 1755 without telling his friend. With Lessing's encouragement, Mendelssohn continued to write philosophical treatises (papers; reports), many of them published anonymously in the 1750s.

In 1759 Mendelssohn began to write essays and letters for a journal called Literaturbriefe. In many of these pieces Mendelssohn defended German philosophy, especially the work of the philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716). Leibniz was a rationalist, but he also believed in a benevolent (kind) God who arranged the world as a harmonious and organized place. Mendelssohn believed that Leibniz had come under unfair attack by English and French philosophers. The French philosopher Voltaire (1694–1778), for example, had savagely ridiculed Leibniz in his most famous work, Candide (1759), and Mendelssohn offered a defense of his countryman.

Mendelssohn encountered trouble in 1760 when he published a highly unfavorable review of a volume of poetry written by the Prussian king Frederick the Great (1712–1786; ruled 1740–86). He was critical of the king's poems because they appeared to deny that the soul was immortal. Mendelssohn also criticized the king for writing in French rather than in German, the language of his own people. In response to this review, the king's censor banned the journal in which it was published.

The Parable of the Ring

Gotthold Lessing's Nathan the Wise is set during the Third Crusade, which was conducted in the early 1190s as part of Christian Europe's effort to retain control of Palestine, the Holy Land, and especially Jerusalem. The play depicts representatives of the warring parties, which include Nathan, a Jewish merchant; Saladin, a Muslim general; and a Knight Templar (a Christian warrior). The parties are shown resolving the differences between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. At the center of the play is the ring parable, which Nathan tells after Saladin asks him which religion is the true one. (A parable is a simple story that illustrates a moral or religious lesson.) Within the parable, a ring is repeatedly passed from father to most-favored son, with the belief that the ring would make the son pleasing in the eyes of God. In time the ring comes to a father who has three sons, whom he loves equally. Accordingly he has two duplicates of the ring made so that he can give one ring to each son. After the father's death, the sons quarrel about who owns the real ring. They take the matter to a judge, who gives the following decision:

    If you will take advice in lieu of sentence,
    This is my counsel to you, to take up
    The matter where it stands. If each of you
    Has had a ring presented by his father,
    Let each believe his own the real ring.
    'Tis possible the father chose no longer
    To tolerate the one ring's tyranny;
    And certainly, as he much loved you all,
    And loved you all alike, it could not please him
    By favouring one to be of two the oppressor.
    Let each feel honoured by this free affection.
    Unwarped of prejudice; let each endeavour
    To vie with both his brothers in displaying
    The virtue of his ring; assist its might
    With gentleness, benevolence, forbearance,
    With inward resignation to the godhead,
    And if the virtues of the ring continue
    To show themselves among your children's children,
    After a thousand thousand years, appear Before this judgment-seat—a greater one Than I shall sit upon it, and decide.

The three rings, of course, represent Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, all gifts from God the Father in heaven.

        Peterson, Daniel C. and William J. Hamblin.

        "Nathan the Wise—An Allegory of Religious Toleration?" Meridian Magazine. 2004. Available online at

Nonetheless, Frederick evidently came to set aside whatever sense of personal insult he had felt. In 1763 Mendelssohn entered a competition held by the Prussian Academy of Sciences. He had become increasingly troubled by the effect that science was having on religious belief. To address this, he wrote an essay in which he argued that certain mathematical problems could be applied to metaphysics, or the branch of philosophy that deals with reality that lies beyond the senses. After the essay won the academy's first prize, Frederick awarded Mendelssohn the status of "Jew under extraordinary protection." As such, Mendelssohn enjoyed the right to live in Berlin undisturbed.

In 1767 Mendelssohn's major work Phädon was published. Mendelssohn wrote the text in response to the age's growing materialism, or focus on the physical world rather than the spiritual one. He structured the book as a philosophical dialogue modeled on Phaedo, by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (427–347 bce; see entry). Phädon, which was written in German, became a huge success. Before long, it was translated into nearly all European languages and gave rise to the "Phädon movement," a number of published treatises on the same topic by various authors. Many people called Mendelssohn the "German Plato" or the "German Socrates." He became a popular figure, and anyone of intellectual stature visiting Berlin would set aside time to pay him a visit.

Controversy with Lavater

Up until this point in his career Mendelssohn had paid little attention to Judaism in his published writings. Indeed, in most of his work he engaged in the same scientific debates that preoccupied virtually all Enlightenment philosophers, regardless of religion. From his early years, he had been troubled by the popularity of Jewish mysticism in Germany, especially a movement known as Hasidism, founded by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1700–1760; see entry). This movement featured a mystical view of Judaism, with followers focusing more on personal experience than on reason and formal education. Mendelssohn, a rationalist, opposed such mysticism, which he believed was a rejection of human reason.

Mendelssohn's largely secular approach to philosophy underwent a transformation, however, after August 1769. That month the Swiss theologian Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741–1801) published a German translation of an essay by the Swiss theologian and naturalist (a person who studies natural history) Charles Bonnet (1720–1793) entitled Christian Evidences. This essay argued that Christianity was superior to other religions. Lavater believed that Christians would only be able to achieve salvation if they somehow managed to convert Jews to Christianity. He was a central figure in a group of religious enthusiasts informally known as Schwärmer, or "fanatics."

In the introduction to Bonnet's text, Lavater, although he greatly admired Mendelssohn, issued a challenge to him: disprove Bonnet's ideas or convert to Christianity. Mendelssohn refused to engage Lavater in public debate. He believed such debate would only heighten religious passions and make the climate of intolerance worse. Instead he published pleas for open-mindedness regarding religion. Other Schwärmer then began to bother Mendelssohn with the same challenge. They believed that if Mendelssohn was an advocate of proving things through the use of reason, he had no alternative but to either defend his views or accept Christianity as the one true religion.

Mendelssohn felt considerable strain as a result of these and other disputes. In 1771 he experienced an illness that left him partially paralyzed. He underwent medical treatment for five years, and during these years he withdrew from public debate and did not publish. He did, however, begin to believe that he could best put his powers of reason to use by opposing the Schwärmer and bettering the condition of Europe's Jews. From the mid-1770s until his death, Mendelssohn devoted himself to issues that affected the welfare of the Jewish community.

The Jewish Enlightenment

Mendelssohn believed that the main problem faced by Jews in Germany and throughout the rest of Europe was that they were isolated. They were separated from the surrounding Christian culture because their children went to Jewish schools and they conducted their affairs in Yiddish, a form of German written in Hebrew and spoken mainly by northern European Jews. To improve the cultural, social, and economic status of German Jews, Mendelssohn took steps to mix them into the surrounding culture. To that end, one of the chief projects that occupied him in his later years was a new translation of the Torah, as well as other portions of the Bible, into German. While preparing the translation, Mendelssohn attracted a number of helpers, all of whom worked on various portions of the project.

The translation was published in 1783. Because of its grace and clarity, this translation has often been considered largely responsible for the standardization of the German language. More importantly, by having scripture written in the local language, German Jews began to see themselves as Germans rather than as aliens wandering in a foreign land. German Jews began to engage themselves in German culture and society by reforming education, studying secular disciplines such as the sciences, and adding their voices to Enlightenment thought. The period of the German Jewish Enlightenment is referred to as the Haskalah, literally, "enlightenment" in Hebrew. In time the movement spread throughout much of Europe.

Mendelssohn continued to publish works that invited debate, which were then as much political as philosophical. People in Europe were paying attention to the struggle of Americans to achieve independence from the British Empire. Growing discontent in France would lead to the French Revolution late in the 1780s. In 1781 Mendelssohn published On the Civil Amelioration of the Condition of the Jews, a plea for religious tolerance and a call for the freedom of Jewish people from the cultural limitations that suppressed them. His most important work during this period was Jerusalem; or, On Religious Power and Judaism (1783). Jerusalem was a forcefully written work that asserted freedom of conscience and the view that the state should play no role in determining the religious beliefs of its citizens. This doctrine would become a part of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which established "separation of church and state" in American government. In Jerusalem, Mendelssohn takes the position that many truths exist. Just as governments may differ depending on the needs of their people, people themselves may differ in their understandings of religious truths according to their own situations.

During his later years Mendelssohn became an outright activist on behalf of Jewish political rights. In time his writings, as well as those of other prominent figures during the Haskalah, began to have far-reaching effects. He campaigned on behalf of the Patent of Toleration, issued in Austria on October 19, 1781. This proclamation called for "better instruction and enlightenment of [Jewish] youth, and its employment in the sciences, arts, and crafts." Joseph II (1741–1790), the emperor of Austria, had come to believe that the only way to improve the condition of Jews was to ensure that they enjoyed the same political rights as other citizens of the empire.

Mendelssohn lived to see the publication of Morning Hours; or, Lectures about God's Existence in 1785. His final work was a book defending Lessing, who had been widely and viciously criticized for The Jews and Nathan the Wise, which called for toleration of Jews at a time when large numbers of people in Europe strongly disliked Jews. Mendelssohn carried the work to his publishers, caught a cold, and died of complications on January 4, 1786. He left behind his wife, Fromet Gugenheim, whom he had married in 1762. The couple had six surviving children, several of whom went on to distinguished careers.

Mendelssohn's views faced intense criticism during his lifetime and afterward, from both Jews and non-Jews. Mendelssohn is widely regarded as the spark behind modern Reform Judaism, which does not accept many of the traditional Jewish beliefs, such as that God gave Moses the Torah, but does adhere to the central practices of the religion. As such, conservative Orthodox Jews feared that Mendelssohn's reforms would alienate Jews from their traditional culture and law. They were partially right. In response to the Haskalah, many European Jews discontinued their practice of Jewish law. Many converted to Christianity, including all of Mendelssohn's children and his grandson, the pianist and composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847). Many immigrated to the United States, while others initiated the Zionist movement, which eventually led to the formation of a Jewish state in Israel. Judaism in Europe was forever changed because of the work of Moses Mendelssohn.

For More Information


Altmann, Alexander. Moses Mendelssohn: A Biographical Study. Oxford, UK: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1998.

Isaacs, Abram S. Step by Step: A Story of the Early Days of Moses Mendelssohn. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2005.

Sorkin, David. Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996.


"Mendelssohn." (accessed on June 2, 2006).

"Moses Mendelssohn." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. on June 2, 2006).

Peterson, Daniel C. and William J. Hamblin. "Nathan the Wise—An Allegory of Religious Toleration?." Meridian Magazine. 2004. (accessed June 2, 2006).

Schoenberg, Shira. "The Haskalah." Jewish Virtual Library. (accessed on June 2, 2006).

Shavin, David. "Philosophical Vignettes from the Political Life of Moses Mendelssohn." The Schiller Institute. (accessed on June 2, 2006).

Mendelssohn, Moses

views updated May 29 2018


MENDELSSOHN, MOSES (17291786), German-Jewish philosopher and public figure of the Enlightenment period. Born in Dessau, the son of a poor Torah scribe, Mendelssohn received a traditional education that, rather exceptionally, included the study of the philosophy of Moses Maimonides. In 1743 Mendelssohn followed his teacher to Berlin to continue his Jewish studies. There he was able to acquire considerable knowledge of contemporary mathematics, philosophy, poetry, and classical and modern languages. The German dramatist and critic G. E. Lessing encouraged Mendelssohn to publish his first German essays and used him as the model for the tolerant and modest Jew in his play Nathan the Wise. In 1763 Mendelssohn received first prize from the Prussian Royal Academy of Sciences for a treatise on evidence in metaphysics; in the same year he was granted the status of "protected Jew" with rights of residence in Berlin. Mendelssohn supported himself successively as family tutor, bookkeeper, manager, and partner of a Berlin Jewish silk manufacturer; his home became a gathering place for Berlin intellectuals. In the nineteenth century members of the Mendelssohn family (most of whom converted to Christianity after Moses' death) achieved considerable financial, academic, and artistic prominence.

General Metaphysical and Religious Writings

Mendelssohn's philosophical position was derived from the English philosophers John Locke (16321704) and Shaftesbury (16711713) and especially from the German rationalists Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (16461716) and Christian Wolff (16791754). The publication of Mendelssohn's Phädon (1767), a work on the immortality of the soul and named after Plato's dialogue, established his reputation among the enlightened public. Drawing on Leibnitz's theory of monads, Mendelssohn argues that souls are primary, imperishable elements that impose unity on the changing features of the body. Continued personal consciousness of the soul after death is guaranteed by God, inasmuch as divine wisdom and goodness would not allow the soul to relapse into nothingness without fulfilling its natural impulse to self-perfection. Morgenstunden, oder Über das Dasein Gottes (Morning hours, or lectures on the existence of God, 1785), the most methodical of Mendelssohn's major works, moves from a discussion of epistemological issues to the importance of a belief in God, providence, and immortality for man's happiness, to a formal ontological proof of God's existence.

Jewish Writings and Activities

In the mid-1750s Mendelssohn collaborated in a short-lived Hebrew weekly and published a commentary to Maimonides' treatise on logic. He was forced to speak out as a Jew, however, after 1769, when he was publicly challenged to explain why he, an enlightened man, did not convert to Christianity. In a reply to the Swiss pastor, Johann Kasper Lavater, Mendelssohn rejected the implication that his loyalty to Judaism was inconsistent with his innermost enlightened religious convictions and devotion to rational inquiry. In the 1770s Mendelssohn used his influence with liberal Christians to deflect threatened anti-Jewish measures in Switzerland and Germany. In connection with efforts to protect the Jews of Alsace, Mendelssohn encouraged Christian Wilhelm von Dohm to write his classic defense of the civic betterment of the Jews but demurred from Dohm's support of limited judicial autonomy for Jews and the right of Jewry to excommunicate recalcitrant Jews.

Mendelssohn's translation of the Pentateuch into German was published in 1780. It was accompanied by a commentary (the Bi'ur ) that draws on both traditional exegesis and modern literary aesthetics. Often reprinted, the translation drew the ire of some traditionalist rabbis but served as an important bridge to modern culture for many young Jews in the nineteenth century.

Jerusalem, or On Religious Power and Judaism

Mendelssohn's principal contribution to Jewish thought was the result of yet another challenge by a Christian, this time concerning an alleged inconsistency in his supporting the abolition of excommunication while remaining loyal to biblical law, which condones coercion. Mendelssohn's reply, Jerusalem, oder Über religiöse Macht und Judenthum (1783), was one of the first works in German to plead for freedom of conscience in religious matters, separation of church and state, and (indirectly) civil rights for the Jews. According to Mendelssohn both states and church have as their final goals the promotion of human happiness. The state is permitted to enforce specific actions, whereas the church's task is to convince its followers of their religious and ethical duties through persuasion alone. To the question of the continued authority of Jewish law, which was adumbrated by Spinoza in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Mendelssohn replied that the ceremonial law stemming from the Hebrew Bible is binding solely on the Jewish people; Judaism is a religion of revealed legislation, not of revealed beliefs. The existence and unity of God, the reality of divine providence, and the immortality of the soul are to be affirmed on the grounds of natural reason, not miracles or supernatural revelation. Mendelssohn acknowledges the importance of Spinoza in the history of philosophy but vigorously rejects Spinoza's pantheism. Spinoza's primary concern was the noninterference by the state or religious authorities in the intellectual freedom of the philosopher and scientist. Mendelssohn, while still affirming the continued authority of Jewish law, was concerned with freedom inside one religion as well as freedom of religion for minority communities.

Mendelssohn argued that the identification of church and state in biblical Israel ceased with the destruction of the ancient commonwealth; laws remaining in force are personal religious duties that preserve the universal principles of Jewish faith against lapses into idolatry and polytheism. These laws will not lose their force until God arranges another indubitable supernatural revelation to the Jewish people to supersede that of Mount Sinai. Loyalty to the Jewish law, however, does not prevent Jews from assuming the legitimate duties of citizenship in an enlightened society.

The Place of Mendelssohn in the History of Jewish Thought

Although Mendelssohn's synthesis of philosophical theism and traditional religious observance was viewed as outdated by the next generation of Jewish thinkers influenced by Kant and Hegel, Mendelssohn could be seen as forebear of the conflicting trends of nineteenth-century German Jewry: Reform, for his openness to change; and Neo-Orthodoxy, for his insistence on the binding nature of Jewish ceremonial law. Mendelssohn's disciples among the writers who collaborated with him in the Bi'ur were prominent in the Jewish Enlightenment (the Haskalah) that emerged in Prussia in the 1770s and later spread to eastern Europe. Mendelssohn was revered by the Enlighteners (maskilim ) for having moved from the ghetto to modern society without abandoning the Jewish tradition or the Jewish people. In the 1880s, however, at the end of the Haskalah period, Mendelssohn was assailed for having paved the way to the loss of Jewish distinctiveness and, therefore, to assimilation. In retrospect, his thought and life can be seen to have posed some of the fundamental issues of Jewish religious survival in secular, liberal society.


The standard edition of Mendelssohn's writings is Gesammelte Schriften Jubiläumsausgabe, 7 vols., edited by Fritz Bamberger and others and incompletely published between 1929 and 1938; a completed edition in 20 volumes is being prepared under the editorship of Alexander Altmann (Stuttgart, 1971). The most recent English translation of Jerusalem is by Allan Arkush, with an introduction and commentary by Alexander Altmann (Hanover, N.H., 1983). Useful is Moses Mendelssohn: Selections from His Writings, edited and translated by Eva Jospe (New York, 1975). The magisterial biography of Mendelssohn is Alexander Altmann's Moses Mendelssohn: A Biographical Study (University, Ala., 1973). On Mendelssohn's role in the intellectual history of Judaism, see Michael A. Meyer's The Origins of the Modern Jew: Jewish Identity and European Culture in Germany, 17491824 (Detroit, 1967), chap. 1; Julius Guttmann's Philosophies of Judaism, translated by David W. Silverman (New York, 1964), pp. 291303; and H. I. Bach's The German Jew: A Synthesis of Judaism and Western Civilization, 17301930 (Oxford, 1984), pp. 4472).

New Sources

Arkush, Allan. Moses Mendelssohn and the Enlightenment. Albany, 1994.

Berghahn, Cord-Friedrich. Moses Mendelssohns "Jerusalem:" ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Menschenrechte und der pluralistischen Gesellschaft in der deutschen Aufklärung. Tübingen, 2001.

Sorkin, David Jan. Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment. Berkeley, Calif., 1996.

Robert M. Seltzer (1987)

Revised Bibliography

Moses Mendelssohn

views updated May 14 2018

Moses Mendelssohn

The German philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) was a major figure of the German Enlightenment. An intellectually emancipated and cultured German as well as a faithful Jew, he was referred to as the "German Socrates" and as the "Jewish Socrates."

Moses Mendelssohn was born on Sept. 6, 1729, in Dessau. He suffered from curvature of the spine. His father was a Torah scribe. The young man followed traditional Talmudic studies under Rabbi David Frankel, who introduced him to the thought of the medieval Jewish thinker Maimonides. In 1743 Mendelssohn's teacher received an appointment to Berlin, and the young student accompanied him. During the next years Mendelssohn's intellectual training expanded to include Latin, French, and English as well as mathematics and science.

At 21, Mendelssohn began a chain of fortunate associations. He became a tutor to the family of Isaac Bernhard, and he rose successively to bookkeeper and partner in a silk manufacturing firm. This position made him financially independent and left him free to follow his studies. Bernhard also introduced him to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the writer and dramatist. Lessing and Mendelssohn began a lifelong friendship and active collaboration. The noble and enlightened Jew in Lessing's famous comedy Nathan the Wise is modeled after the philosopher. Lessing encouraged Mendelssohn in his writing and arranged for the publication of his first essays and his translation of Jean Jacques Rousseau's Discourse on Unequality (1756). With Friedrich Nicolai, Mendelssohn edited a radical and popular magazine, Letters on Literature, which made Mendelssohn well known. In 1762 Mendelssohn married, and he and his wife eventually became the parents of six children. Two of his sons established a famous banking house, and the world-renowned composer Felix Mendelssohn was the philosopher's grandson.

In 1764 Mendelssohn competed against Immanuel Kant and won the Berlin Academy prize with an essay, "Evidence of Metaphysical Science." His main philosophic reputation stemmed from his influential treatises on esthetics and on the philosophy of religion. In 1776 he published a work on immortality. The Phaedo was modeled on Plato's dialogue of the same name. This book became the most popular work in German philosophy. Mendelssohn's writing skill was also reflected in his translation of the Pentateuch from Hebrew into German (1778-1783) as well as in Morning Hours (1785), a volume dealing with the existence of God.

The remainder of Mendelssohn's important work stemmed from two specific controversies. He was challenged by Christian writers either to convert or to explain the compatibility of his philosophy with Judaism. In a response to the Swiss theologian J. K. Lavater (1769) and in Jerusalem (1783) Mendelssohn attempted to interpret Judaism as a religion of reason available to all enlightened humanitarians. After Lessing's death, Lessing was attacked as an atheist, and Mendelssohn produced a series of writings in defense of his friend. Mendelssohn died in Berlin on Jan. 4, 1786.

Further Reading

The only work of Mendelssohn to appear recently in English translation is Jerusalem and Other Jewish Writings (1969). Secondary literature includes Hermann Walter, Moses Mendelssohn: Critic and Philosopher (1930), and a chapter on his philosophy in Jacob B. Agus, The Evolution of Jewish Thought: From Biblical Times to the Opening of the Modern Era (1959). □

Mendelssohn, Moses (RaMbeMaN)

views updated May 23 2018

Mendelssohn, Moses (RaMbeMaN) (1729–86). Jewish Enlightenment philosopher. His original interest was in the development and spread of German culture—the Christian writer, G. E. Lessing, was a close personal friend; but after 1769, when he became involved in a dispute on the Jewish religion, he confined his writing to Jewish matters. His early philosophical works dealt with aesthetics and human psychology. In 1763, his Abhandlung ueber die Evidenz in Metaphysischen Wissenschaften, on the philosophy of religion, won the first prize of the Prussian Royal Academy of Science, but as a Jew, he was rejected for membership of the Academy. He became involved in a religious dispute with the Swiss clergyman, Johann Lavater. His response to Lavater's attack was published as Schreiben an den Herrn Diaconus Lavater zu Zuerich (1770). This prompted widespread debate and caused Mendelssohn to concentrate his activities on improving the civic status of the Jews and on devising a philosophical justification for his belief in Judaism. His Jerusalem: Oder, verber religioese Macht und Judenthum (1783) summarized his thoughts. In that spirit, he prepared Jews to live in the midst of German life, translating the Pentateuch into German (transliterated into Hebrew letters) and adding to it a rationalizing Hebrew commentary. He is regarded as the forerunner of Reform Judaism.

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Moses Mendelssohn

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