New Mendelssohn Exhibit Sparks Debate

Conference on Enlightenment thinker, new book highlight thorny issues of faith, identity.

08/30/11
Staff Writer
Photo Galleria: 

The effort to redefine an Enlightenment ‘assimilationist.’

Many Jews have heard of Moses Mendelssohn, the German Enlightenment thinker, but few have embraced him. For at least a century, he has been ridiculed in virtually every corner of Jewish life.

Orthodox Jews have portrayed him as the harbinger of assimilation. Reform Jews said he was too beholden to religious law. Zionists thought that if he had lived in the 20th century instead of the 18th, he’d see that creating a Jewish state was more important than defending the rights of Jews in a non-Jewish one.

“For a long time his reception has been mixed,” said Michah Gottlieb, a professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. “The reaction has as much to do with how he was being used as to what he actually said.”

But Gottlieb is trying to change that. He is one of several scholars who are refashioning Mendelssohn — the father of the Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskalah — for a new generation, arguing that few Jewish thinkers have tried harder to make their faith relevant in a modern, secular age — even if he sometimes failed.

The renewed interest comes at a time when religion has been increasingly attacked in the name of Enlightenment ideas, and the idea of multiculturalism has been bloodied in public discourse. As Jews find themselves increasingly fractured along ideological lines, too, scholars like Gottlieb insist Mendelssohn offers a much-needed riposte.

“Mendelssohn has something to say to Jews today as well as something about the broader debates about religion and politics,” said Gottlieb. “The very fact that Mendelssohn sees tolerance as a religious value and religion as not being coercive is very attractive today.”

The author of the recent book “Faith and Freedom: Moses Mendelssohn’s Theological-Political Thought” (Oxford University Press), Gottlieb has organized an exhibit about Mendelssohn that kicks off with a symposium of leading Mendelssohn scholars at the Center for Jewish History later this month. The goal is not only to revive Mendelssohn’s reputation among Jews, but among the general public as well.

Particularly regarding New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, he says, Mendelssohn and his fellow German Enlightenment figures offer a powerful rebuke.

“There are people who assume that the Enlightenment is fundamentally in favor of secularism,” Gottlieb said, noting that Hitchens has added to that perception. “But several scholars have looked at Mendelssohn as a counter to this. He saw religious belief not just as working alongside the ideals of the Enlightenment but actually bolstering them.”

Of course, scholars themselves still debate what Mendelssohn meant, and why he still matters. Many of them will be at the Sept. 18 symposium, titled “A Continuing Conversation: Moses Mendelssohn and the Legacy of the Enlightenment,” to hash out the details. The events are presented by the Center for Jewish History and Leo Baeck Institute, and co-sponsored by the Skirball Department for Hebrew and Judaic Studies at NYU. 

One school of thought claims that Mendelssohn was essentially a closet assimilationist. By arguing that Judaism shared the same universal values as Christianity, and that Jewish beliefs fundamentally aligned with Enlightenment ideals like reason and tolerance, it maintains, Mendelssohn opened the door to a watered-down and indistinct faith.

But others argue that in Mendelssohn’s attempt, most famously, to translate the Hebrew Bible into German, he was simply trying to keep Judaism relevant. He may have attacked rabbinical authority, they argue, but he never denied the centrality of religious law, and he took issue with clerical power for an important reason: to help Jews integrate into modern society.

“I find myself somewhere in the middle,” said Shmuel Feiner, a leading scholar of the Jewish Enlightenment who teaches at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He is also author of the recent biography, “Moses Mendelssohn,” part of Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives Series, and will be at the symposium. “The most important thing in his life was to fight against religious fanaticism and raise the flag of religious tolerance.”

Leora Batnitzky, a professor of modern Jewish thought at Princeton, was less charitable. “In the end,” she said, “I think that Mendelssohn makes Judaism something that can be dispensed with. I don’t think he meant to,” she added, “but that’s where his thoughts led.”

Mendelssohn’s earlier critics have used what happened to his children — four of six converted to Christianity — as evidence for the ultimate futility of his project. But Batnitzky takes a different line. In the failure of Jews to integrate into the German state, she sees evidence of a larger problem: how does one maintain a Jewish identity in a secular society?

“The fact that he doesn’t come up with a fully satisfying answer is evidence of how difficult the problem is,” she said.

In Mendelssohn’s time, European Jews were still political outsiders. Monarchs gave rabbis virtual autonomy to govern their communities in exchange for protection; otherwise Jews essentially had no rights.

Mendelssohn tried to bargain with the Prussian king, arguing that Jews would give up a degree of autonomy if they were granted full rights as observant Jews — something he insisted Jews remain. As an intellectual, however, he usually made his arguments in philosophical terms, not political ones.

“What Mendelssohn tried to do is show the compatibility of belief in Judaism with loyalty to secular culture,” said David Sorkin, a professor of modern Jewish history at the CUNY Graduate Center, who takes the view that Mendelssohn earnestly tried to make Judaism relevant in modern times. “He saw no contradiction between them” — meaning modern values and Jewish beliefs.

Mendelssohn came from a deeply religious family. He was born in Dessau, in 1729, to an impecunious Torah scribe and a mother who was the descendant of a prominent line of rabbis. A gifted Torah scholar, Mendelssohn followed his rabbi David Frankel to Berlin, where Frankel had been named the city’s chief rabbi. Mendelssohn was never ordained, but he remained a scrupulous student of Judaism his entire life.

But by the time he was in his 20s, he had befriended many of the German Enlightenment’s non-Jewish stars, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing chief among them. Through these circles — not through a formal university education, which, as a Jew, he was not entitled to, and never received — Mendelssohn was introduced to secular thinkers like Socrates and Spinoza, Locke and Leibniz.

By his 30s, Mendelssohn had become a key figure in the German Enlightenment himself. He won a prestigious essay contest put on by the Royal Academy of Science, beating out Kant, and later penned an international best seller, “Phaidon,” which updated Plato’s dialogue on Socrates.

“He made Greek ideas accessible to a German audience,” explained Liliane Weissberg, a professor of German and comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania. She will be at the symposium, and is one of a growing number of scholars who are trying to make Mendelssohn a more prominent subject of scholarship on the German Enlightenment.

Mendelssohn, who died in 1786, is still mostly studied by scholars of Jewish history. But many insist that he was of crucial importance to the German Enlightenment as well — not only as a model of religious pluralism, but also for his role in popularizing Enlightenment ideals. His translation of Greek texts earned him the moniker “the German Socrates,” and Weissberg describes him as a new breed of 18th-century celebrity: a public intellectual.

Yet even as his renown grew among Germans and he attained legal privileges only given to prominent Jews, he remained a staunch defender of Judaism. At the peak of his powers, anti-Enlightenment clergymen and critics frequently attacked him, often on account of his faith. He never apologized, even suggesting that Judaism was more attune to modern society than Christianity.

To those who said an unyielding commitment to reason led only to atheism and nihilism, he countered that, on the contrary: it led to the recognition of a benevolent God upon which the entire moral universe depended. Human intellect was a gift from God, moreover, and the best way for man to verify moral truths was through serious philosophical study. By applying one’s intellect, you were not only employing God’s gift, but using it in the service of discerning his truths.

To those who argued that he reduced all religion, Judaism included, to universal moral codes, he said, not so: each faith offered a unique path to understanding God, a being that nonetheless embraced all humanity.

Judaism, he argued, was especially well suited to promote the Enlightenment: its emphasis on daily religious practices served as a constant reminder of the movement’s ideals. This was different from Christianity, he went on, which emphasized dogmatic belief alone.

“What distinguishes Judaism is not so much its beliefs but its practices,” said Jerome Copulsky, a professor of modern Jewish thought at Goucher College, summarizing Mendelssohn’s views. But he added that Mendelssohn’s importance is not in his specific arguments, many of which are simply not relevant today. What matters is the overall tenor of his work.

“He was not the greatest thinker of the Enlightenment, but he may have had one of the greatest temperaments. What Mendelssohn was against was religious fanaticism,” he said, adding, what “he was trying to do was find a way to be a Jew and be modern at the same time.”

Among scholars, there is a tendency to view Mendelssohn as a symbol of a modern, but essentially secular, Jewish identity. But few interviewed missed the irony in this: Mendelssohn was what we would consider today a Modern Orthodox Jew — traditionally observant, yet trying to partake fully in the secular world.

Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and a scholar of modern Jewish thought who will appear at the symposium, commented on this point. He said those who regard Mendelssohn as a secularist symbol of how to maintain Jewish identity, however defined, in a modern world, would have to ignore much of his writing — the bulk of which tried to rationalize belief in God.

Eisen argued that in Mendelssohn’s mind, the modern world was all God’s creation, and “that is not something that today’s secularists are going to accept.”

Jonathan Karp, a professor Jewish history at SUNY-Binghamton who will be on Eisen’s panel, put it this way: “Modernity in the 18th century is different from what it is now.” And because of those differences, he went on, we should be skeptical of drawing too many parallels, especially between Mendelssohn’s idea of religious tolerance and what some see as a corollary: multiculturalism.

“What’s different is that in the 18th century there was a single standard for claiming equality” — everyone’s ability to reason, Karp said. But today, multiculturalism is not based on that belief. We simply regard all cultures as equal of respect, even if their core values are at odds with our own. “It’s too strong to say that he’s for multiculturalism, but he’s struggling to find a degree of tolerance and diversity.”

Gottlieb, the organizer of the exhibit and symposium, hopes the current debates about multicultarism will at least make Mendelssohn a case worth studying. “Today, there’s a tendency to see multiculturalism as leading only to the retreat into our own little communities. But Mendelssohn sees these communities as harmonizing and coalescing together.”

Ultimately, Mendelssohn forces us to ask the question: “How does one balance multiple identities?” Gottlieb said. “I think that’s an extremely important question in our current political and cultural environment, and I think it’s one Mendelssohn raises.”

The exhibition, titled “A Continuing Conversation: Moses Mendelssohn and the Legacy of the Enlightenment,” opens at the Center for Jewish History on Monday, Sept. 12. The symposium of Mendelssohn scholars will be held on Sunday, Sept. 18, from 12:30 p.m.-5:45 p.m., and costs $20 ($8 for seniors and students). The Center for Jewish history is located at 15 W. 16th St. For more information call (212) 294-8301.

Last Update:

09/01/2011 - 16:33

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.