Whatever Happened to Moses Mendelssohn?

By Allan Nadler
Monday, December 6, 2010

The great German-Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1781) was and remains a perplexing, rather sad, enigma. One of Jewish history's most original philosophers—the expression, "From Moses to Moses there arose none like Moses," initially coined to honor Maimonides, was extended by admirers to accommodate this third Moses—he was also a valiant pioneer of European Jewry's struggle for acceptance into the larger society. Yet within a generation after his death he was already an obscure figure, and is now almost entirely forgotten except by academic historians. Despite having been crowned the "Father of the Haskalah" (the Jewish Enlightenment), the alleged father founded no movement or religious denomination and left behind no true ideological heirs.

A new short biography by Shmuel Feiner, the world's leading expert on the Haskalah, seems intent on revitalizing Mendelssohn's memory for contemporary Jews. Whether or not it succeeds in this effort, the book unwittingly helps to explain the puzzle of his lost legacy.

Mendelssohn's emergence as a brilliant young philosopher in 18th-century Berlin was greeted with mixed feelings. Many in privileged Gentile circles were bewildered, and a few—most notably the playwright G.E. Lessing—were inspired by the sheer strangeness of this first Jew ever to achieve such high prominence among them. The bewilderment, while mostly benign, occasionally turned ugly, and infamously so in 1769 when Mendelssohn's ostensible friend, the Swiss poet and scientist Johann Kaspar Lavater, publicly and humiliatingly challenged him either to refute Christian doctrine or be baptized. Mendelssohn—who never wavered in his adherence to traditional Jewish observance—managed to acquit himself well enough to end the quarrel, but the incident ushered in a series of painful conflicts in the life of a man who cherished the quiet neutrality afforded him by his intimate circle of fellow philosophers.

Undoubtedly one of the most painful of such episodes occurred in 1771, when Mendelssohn was summoned by King Friedrich II to appear at the monarch's magnificent summer residence in Potsdam in order to meet the foreign minister of Saxony, who had expressed great curiosity about the "Socrates of Berlin." Mendelssohn's very entry into the palace was an unprecedented milestone for Prussian Jewry, which still suffered under the severe restrictions of the king's anti-Jewish legislation. His dramatic arrival was memorably captured by the Polish-German painter Daniel Chodowiecki.

And yet, despite its splendor, the timing of the event was far from ideal, and what transpired at it has been greatly exaggerated by romantic hagiographers. The summons required Mendelssohn to travel to Potsdam on Simhat Torah; consulting Berlin's leading rabbi, he was absolved of the duty to observe the holiday's proscriptions under a rabbinical doctrine allowing minor transgressions for the sake of preserving the always fragile civic peace enjoyed by Diaspora Jews. As if this were not awkward enough, Friedrich himself, just a few months earlier, had vetoed Mendelssohn's induction into the Royal Academy of Science solely on the grounds of his Jewishness. While in Potsdam, Mendelssohn saw neither hide nor hair of the intolerant monarch.

Compounding the hurts from without were buffetings from within the Jewish community. And here a brief consideration of Mendelssohn's two major Jewish works goes a long way toward explaining his lost legacy.

The first is the Biur (1780), Mendelssohn's German translation of and commentary to the Torah. The counterintuitive aim of this project, which rendered Scripture in a language largely unknown to its intended readers, was to enable them to learn that language while engaged in sacred study. Feiner assesses both the translation and the accompanying commentary as a success, but this is highly contestable. As he neglects to note, the most revealing thing about the enterprise was that the text was published entirely in Hebrew characters—since so few Central European Jews at the time could even read a German text.

But if so, why the need for a translation? Mendelssohn maintained that it would modernize the study of the Torah while simultaneously liberating Jews from their dependence on translations into Yiddish, a language he detested. To this, his contemporary Ezekiel Landau, the chief rabbi of Prague, while respectful of Mendelssohn personally, responded that the real effect of introducing the Biur into the Jewish schools of Bohemia would be to force teachers "to spend most of the time explaining German grammar, and consequently the young student will remain devoid of Torah learning." Feiner, who unfairly dubs Landau a "fanatic," believes his fear was unfounded, but a compelling argument can be made to the contrary.

A different problem lay in the commentary, in whose composition Mendelssohn had the collaboration of leading figures of the Haskalah. While focusing on the grammatical and philological plain sense of the text, the commentary refuses in principle to yield any ground to the emerging critical-historical study of the Bible. Moreover, in cases where the rabbinic tradition is irreconcilable with the plain meaning of the text, Mendelssohn always defers to the former. Thus, the work sent a maddeningly mixed message. On the one hand, unsurprisingly, the Orthodox denounced it at birth; on the other hand, its strict adherence to traditional exegesis would, within less than a generation, make it useless to the leaders of the German Reform movement. Even had it been more open to modern methods of Biblical study, its very form—German in Hebrew transliteration—rendered it archaic by the early 19th century.

Then there is Jerusalem (1783), Mendelssohn's late-life summary of his philosophy of Judaism, heralded by Feiner as his "most important, influential, and enduring work." Yet it, too, was a product of its fleeting time, a pained response to public pressure from Mendelssohn's deist German friends to abandon his commitment to traditional Jewish law in the name of fidelity to his own principles of religious freedom and rationalism. In Jerusalem, Mendelssohn endeavors to reconcile these two equally passionate commitments. The result is a moving personal testimony, but the balance he strives to establish is at best terribly awkward. Ultimately, it would require Jews to bifurcate their very existence—by adapting fully to European culture and thought in public while restricting their parochial religious practices and beliefs to the synagogue and home.

As Feiner notes, this problem in Mendelssohn's thought was evident long before he wrote Jerusalem, and had already led him into troubling gestures of accommodation. Bowing to Gentile pressure to jettison particularist beliefs, he had, for instance, repudiated the notion of a messianic national Jewish return to the land of Israel, asserting that this was one of those "contradictory religious opinions" that a Jew reserves only "for  synagogue and prayer."

Little wonder, then, that the much later catchphrase coined by the Hebrew poet, Judah Leib Gordon, "Be a Jew in your tent and a man on the street," has so often been misattributed to Mendelssohn; it pithily captures the argument at the center of Jerusalem, a book that the historian Michael Meyer has aptly characterized as "above all a personal defense of Mendelssohn's own existence and the goals of his life." It is precisely for this reason that Jerusalem was doomed to have little, if any, impact upon the generation of Mendelssohn's own children, to say nothing of subsequent generations of German Jews.

Many in those subsequent generations adopted a thoroughly Reformed Judaism. Many others chose to be baptized as Christians. In a tragic but telling irony, all of Mendelssohn's grandchildren ended up in the latter category. Among them was the famous composer Felix, who was advised by his father to drop the Mendelssohn name since, thanks to their progenitor's notoriety, "there can no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than there can be a Jewish Confucius."

And here we come to the heart of the Mendelssohn enigma, and to the extreme divide between the acclaim accorded him by modern Jewish historians—he is the subject of many hundreds of academic studies—and his almost total obscurity in the consciousness of even most informed Jews. For Israelis in particular, the issue is not that he denied the national identity of the Jews outright, but that he would have had it something that dared not speak its name in public. (In today's Jerusalem, the capital of a country packed with avenues and boulevards named after Jewish historical figures both major and obscure, there is no Moses Mendelssohn Street.) As for Diaspora Jews, they have long taken for granted the fruits of Mendelssohn's and others' lifelong struggle to attain tolerance and civic rights for his people, while his willingness to accept all kinds of social limitations in exchange for such basic human rights must appear, in today's light, disappointing if not craven.

Unfairly damned in his own day by the Orthodox as a Reformer, which he was not; ignored by the Reformers as a relic of old-world piety on account of his idiosyncratic and seemingly irrational insistence on full halakhic observance; scorned by Yiddishists for his disdain of their beloved language, and by Zionists for what they regarded as a shamefully closeted and muted nationalism, Mendelssohn, despite Shmuel Feiner's noble efforts at rehabilitation, sadly speaks for no Jews today.

Allan Nadler is professor of religious studies and director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University.


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