- LAST REVIEWED: 15 July 2016
- LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0012
- LAST REVIEWED: 15 July 2016
- LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0012
A leading rationalist philosopher of the German Enlightenment and a figure in the early Haskalah, Moses Mendelssohn (b. 1729–d. 1786) is often described as the “founder” of modern Jewish thought. Born in the rural town of Dessau, he received a traditional Ashkenazic Jewish education before moving to Berlin at the age of fourteen, eventually finding employment in the household of a wealthy Jewish owner of a silk factory. Mendelssohn would later become a partner in this business enterprise, remaining involved even as he pursued the literary career and communal activities for which he is remembered today. After arriving in Berlin, he acquired a variety of European languages and began to study the writings of non-Jewish thinkers, and his first German publications on philosophy and literature appeared during the 1750s. By the late 1760s, he had become known as the “German Socrates” and was a leading figure in German intellectual life, gaining a reputation as a defender of the rationalist philosophy associated with G. W. Leibniz, and composing influential works in fields such as metaphysics and aesthetics. The 1750s and early 1760s also saw Mendelssohn publish his first writings on Judaism, which—directed primarily at Jewish readers—included a short-lived Hebrew journal and a Hebrew commentary on Maimonides. Mendelssohn’s first published German work on Judaism appeared several years later, in 1769, when he responded to a public call to convert to Christianity with a defense of his loyalty to the Jewish tradition. He would continue to write on Judaism both for Jewish and non-Jewish audiences throughout his career, with his two most influential works appearing in the early 1780s: The Book of the Paths of Peace (often known as the Bi’ur), which included a German translation of, and Hebrew commentary on, the books of the Pentateuch, and Jerusalem, or on Religious Power and Judaism, which—responding to another call to abandon Judaism—defended the compatibility of the Jewish tradition with Enlightenment philosophy and the modern state. Complementing these literary efforts were Mendelssohn’s extensive political activities: he frequently came to the assistance of Jewish communities that found themselves in conflicts with local authorities, and he played a central role in emerging debates regarding the role of Jews in non-Jewish society. Mendelssohn died in 1786, in the midst of a bitter dispute—known as the Pantheism Controversy—regarding the value of Enlightenment rationalism, and his personality and writings came to assume a central place in modern Jewish consciousness. While for some Jews he became a hero worthy of emulation, for other Jews he became a symbol of modernity’s flaws.
Scholars have long sought to reconstruct and evaluate Mendelssohn’s treatment of Judaism—more specifically, to clarify the content, and to assess the success, of his attempts to reconcile his philosophical commitments with his loyalty to the Jewish tradition. Bamberger 1981 and Altmann 1987 cast doubt on the coherence of Mendelssohn’s arguments, with Bamberger ascribing the tensions the author discovers toward the apologetic nature of Mendelssohn’s writings on Judaism, and Altmann linking the problems the author identifies to the complex nature of Mendelssohn’s psychology. Meyer 1967 also offers a negative assessment of Mendelssohn’s achievement, surveying his life and writings and suggesting that he failed to adequately address the challenges confronting modern Jews. Recent scholarship has gone a step further, asking not only whether Mendelssohn’s reconciliation succeeds but also whether reconciliation was, in fact, his goal—whether he actually believed that traditional Judaism could be reconciled with Enlightenment thought. While Arkush 1994 argues that Mendelssohn may have been a covert deist who denied the possibility of reconciling traditional Judaism with modern liberalism, Sorkin 1996 portrays Mendelssohn as a sincere defender of Judaism and revelation who drew on medieval and Enlightenment sources; Gottlieb 2011 stakes out a “middle position” between these readings, affirming the sincerity of Mendelssohn’s arguments while acknowledging his divergence from earlier thinkers. Other commentators have called attention to previously neglected dimensions of Mendelssohn’s work, with Breuer 1996 highlighting Mendelssohn’s engagement with the premodern and modern study of scripture, and Hilfrich 2000 emphasizing Mendelssohn’s concern with issues surrounding language and representation.
Altmann, Alexander. “Moses Mendelssohn’s Concept of Judaism Re-examined.” In Von der mittelalterlichen zur modernen Aufklärung: Studien zur jüdischen Geistesgeschichte. By Alexander Altmann, 234–248. Tübingen, West Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1987.
Concise overview of Mendelssohn’s philosophy of Judaism, by his most influential 20th-century interpreter. Focusing primarily on the content and background of Jerusalem, Altmann identifies a variety of tensions between Mendelssohn’s philosophical commitments and conception of Judaism and suggests that these tensions may reflect the complex nature of this thinker’s psyche.
Arkush, Allan. Moses Mendelssohn and the Enlightenment. SUNY Series in Judaica. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.
Explores Mendelssohn’s theology and politics, focusing on his German writings. According to Arkush, Mendelssohn did not intend to provide a substantive defense of the Jewish tradition but, rather, sought to create a new form of Judaism appropriate to life in a liberal state. Moreover, Mendelssohn may have been a covert deist, believing in the existence of God but secretly rejecting biblical revelation. See also Spinoza, The Enlightenment, Natural Religion and Moral Philosophy, and The Pantheism Controversy.
Bamberger, Fritz. “Mendelssohn’s Concept of Judaism.” Translated by Eva Jospe. In Studies in Jewish Thought: An Anthology of German Jewish Scholarship. Edited by Alfred Jospe, 343–360. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1981.
English translation of “Mendelssohns Begriff vom Judentum,” published in 1929. Bamberger argues that Mendelssohn’s views on Judaism emerged not as a natural outgrowth of his philosophical commitments but rather as a response to challenges by non-Jewish thinkers; indeed, the problems that plague Mendelssohn’s position reflect the apologetic and contingent nature of his writings.
Breuer, Edward. The Limits of Enlightenment: Jews, Germans, and the Eighteenth-Century Study of Scripture. Harvard Judaic Monographs 7. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.
Examines Mendelssohn’s approach to the Bible. While noting the innovative dimensions of his thought, this study presents Mendelssohn as a conservative figure who resisted threats to the Jewish textual tradition emerging from modern biblical scholarship. Suggests that Mendelssohn often attempted to deflect attention from such threats rather than provide substantive responses to these challenges. Also see Classical and Medieval Jewish Thought, the Enlightenment, and the Bible.
Gottlieb, Michah. Faith and Freedom: Moses Mendelssohn’s Theological-Political Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Explores Mendelssohn’s theology and politics, focusing on his relationship with Maimonides and Spinoza, as well as the Pantheism Controversy. Gottlieb stakes out a “middle position” between Arkush 1994 and Sorkin 1996, arguing that Mendelssohn sought to fashion a form of Judaism appropriate to modern life but nevertheless should be read as a sincere defender of the Jewish tradition. Also see Classical and Medieval Jewish Thought, Spinoza, and the Pantheism Controversy.
Hilfrich, Carola. “Lebendige Schrift”: Repräsentation und Idolatrie in Moses Mendelssohns Philosophie und Exegese des Judentums. Munich: Fink, 2000.
Study of Mendelssohn’s views on language, Judaism, and politics, drawing on his Hebrew and German writings. Hilfrich reads Mendelssohn as developing a theory of representation that resists a variety of dangers, such as the emergence of idolatry, the annihilation of diversity, and the loss of freedom.
Meyer, Michael A. The Origins of the Modern Jew: Jewish Identity and European Culture in Germany, 1749–1824. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1967.
Overview of Mendelssohn’s context, life, thought, and legacy. Chapters 1 and 2 focus on Mendelssohn himself, presenting him as a conservative and “temperate” reformer and concluding that he provided only an “ephemeral solution” to the challenges confronting modern Jews. Chapters 3 and 4 focus on Mendelssohn’s students and children.
Sorkin, David J. Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
One of the first studies to integrate Mendelssohn’s Hebrew and German writings. Unlike Arkush 1994, Sorkin argues that Mendelssohn was a sincere defender of the Jewish tradition who used Enlightenment thought to preserve and conceptualize revealed religion. Mendelssohn exhibits strong affinities with the 18th-century religious Enlightenment and medieval Jewish Andalusian tradition. See also Classical and Medieval Jewish Thought and Jews and Society.
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