Moses Mendelsohn and the Religious Enlightenment

Category: Enlightenment, Truth
Last Updated: 14 Apr 2020
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“His life our standard, his teaching our light” Isaac Euchel wrote about Moses Mendelssohn. Moses was a model for Jews in Germany during the late 1770’s, and a dominant figure in the emergence of the Haskalah. The Haskalah borrowed many forms and categories from the already existing European Enlightenment, but its contents were largely derived from medieval Jewish philosophy and biblical exegesis.

Within the novel, Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment, David Sorkin conveys how Moses made the German Enlightenment compatible with Judaism, and shows Moses to be a more consistent thinker than previously believed; his views on Judaism, natural laws, and natural rights developed early and remained consistent throughout his lifetime. Sorkin accounts Moses’ contributions to Jewish thought in three successive phases: philosophical, exegetical, and political. First, in the philosophical phase, Sorkin reveals the foundations of Moses’ thought.

At an early age, Moses read the bible, memorized passages, studied Hebrew grammar, and wrote biblical poetry. All of these activates later were key in the Haskalah. In 1743, at fourteen, Moses moved to Berlin, which was at the center of the German Enlightenment, and theorist Christian Wolff was a dominating influence. Wolff’s focus was to natural theology, where he accounted that God's existence and attributes were the basis for theology and ethics. Influenced by Wolff, Moses sought to apply these Wolffian concepts to Judaism.

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Moses used his own version of Wolffian philosophy as a means to articulate his full belief in revealed religion. For example, he alluded that God was the source of all perfection and thus the source of metaphysics and natural theology. He thought that Enlightenment philosophy and Judaism complemented each other, and that philosophy served Judaism as an instrument of self-articulation. As a result, he began to write philosophical works in German, and Jewish works in Hebrew. Most important during the start of his career, he introduced a distinction between practical and theoretical in philosophy, which was also influenced by Wolff.

Moses stressed a Jew’s primary obligation is “torah and good deeds”, not philosophical contemplation. To Moses, revelation set distinct limitation on theoretical knowledge, so he concentrated no practical knowledge, which was usually later seen in the form of commentary, since commentary was seen as the legitimate form through which truth is approached. Moses’ early Hebrew works were commentaries in which he attempted to renew the tradition of philosophy in Hebrew, again using ideas from Wolffian philosophy. His first work, The Kohelet Musar, was the first modern journal in Hebrew.

Another subject he addresses is the concept of an ideal personality, which was in terms of ones individuals’ relationship to God and his fellowman. To Moses, the ideal is the “man of faith” who combines religious study, honest occupation, family, and trust in god. Also, in Moses’ early works, he argued the importance of the study of the Hebrew language and the bible. In a commentary on Maimonides’ Logical Terms, he insisted without Torah and tradition, we are “like a blind man in the dark”, and the true path to knowledge is the combination of torah and logic.

Continuing the Wolffian beliefs, Moses asserted that although things might look accidental to man, to God they are all necessary. His early works such as The Kohelet Musar and Logical Terms were both commentaries that embodied Wolfian principles. However, The Book of the Soul, was different in the regard that it was a freestanding philosophical work that Moses withheld from publication. In Moses’ early works, Sorkin notes that the lack of any original content is significant. According to Sorkin, the conclusion of Moses’ philosophical career was with the Lavater affair in 1769-1770.

By the end of the 1760’s, Moses’ philosophical position was established and would remain until the end of his life. He created a public dualism by publishing philosophical works in only German, and commentaries on Jewish subject in Hebrew. The Lavater affair contested Moses to support all of his fundamental ideas. Johann Caspar Lavater, a Swiss Protestant pastor infamously challenged Moses to refute the arguments of the theologian, Charles Bonnet, or convert to Christianity, which Lavater referred as a “Golden Bridge” to Christianity. However, this posed a public challenge to Moses as a philosopher and as a Jew.

In response, Moses publically defended toleration on religious and philosophical grounds, but in private, he wrote counterattacks and criticized Christianity. This task was not simple, and he again used Wolffian principles help justify that Judaism was in perfect harmony with natural religion and reason. Sorkin interprets that Moses drove Lavater to end the affair, and made him isolate from the public, and Sorkin named this "the triumph of toleration”. Although Moses overcame Lavater, the affair also had grave consequences on Moses personally; the affair aggravated his physical and psychological condition.

He was a hunchback, and developed a nervous debility, which was linked to his deformity, prevented abstract thinking and grew much worse during this Lavater affair. The next period of Moses’ career, Sorkin names Exegesis, where he focused on making the bible vital to the Haskalah. First, Moses created a commentary on Ecclesiastes that is part of “wisdom literature,” and thus was able to reiterate his preference of practical knowledge. He constructed a defense of Jewish exegesis on the basis of language, and strived to show how there are multiple meanings, which are reasonable.

He said, “there are four methods of interpreting our holy torah-the literal, homiletical, allegorical, and esteric”, proving that words can bear multiple intentions. Also, in his commentary, Moses introduced divisions that did not follow the traditional chapters and verses in the bible, because he argued that traditional divisions were intended for the “convenience of the reader”. Another interesting aspect Moses brought up in Ecclesiastes, was that the idea that truth was universal and neutral, whatever its origins, meaning he deemed it permissible to use non-Jewish exegesis.

Lastly, in this commentary, language was of importance because Moses used German translations in Hebrew characters, giving equivalents with entire sentence. Sorkin believes he did this to him, Hebrew was the ideal medium for the spread of the practical knowledge, in which laid the essence of Judaism. This Ecclesiastes commentary placed him at the head of the Haskalah’s efforts to revive biblical exegesis. Next, Moses worked for thirteen years on his translation on the Psalms, with the goal of producing an exegesis document of natural religion, translated in German, and would be source of practical knowledge for Jews and Christians.

Sorkin brings attention to how Moses uses the term “edification” in reference to the Psalms, which emphasizes his desire for an exegesis that would encourage universal religiosity. In the Psalms, Moses asserts that the sublime is a form of art, and the highest form of beauty. Moses thus disagrees with the idea that God is “the most sublime being” because he believed that the sublime was not natural, but artistic, existing as a human creation. Furthermore, he affirms that the sublime’s aesthetic impact is admiration, and its spiritual impact is edification.

Unfortunately, the translation of the Psalms was only a success among the Jews, and others stated that, “nothing could be further from the truth. ” Sorkin viewed this as a confirmation that Moses’ best medium is commentary, not translation. During the same thirteen years that Moses translated the Psalms, he also translated, commented, and wrote an extensive introduction to the Pentateuch, titled Book of the Paths to Peace. This translation aimed to convey a literal meaning of the text through a fluent German translation. While Moses remained the key contributor, he had four Maskilim participate, and this made a shift in the Haskalah.

This book is divided into three themes: practical knowledge, literal meaning, and the use of history. In the first part of the Book of Paths to Peace, Moses viewed the Pentateuch as the primary source of practical knowledge for the Jews. Sorkin noticed he repeatedly argues “virtue must be made into a “second nature” by the continual exercise of moral judgment. Moses asserted that compared to the rest of humanity Israel had a special role, because those who reside in there all “believe” and the bible is a handbook of practical knowledge.

Also, in the Pentateuch, Moses wrote “man is by nature and social and will not achieve success without help from others of his kind”. Interesting, Moses stressed that God created everything, and he that he is beyond nature, and thus “science” had no place in a commentary on Creation, which further showed his resistance to theoretical knowledge. Sorkin again demonstrated how Moses kept consistent in his views, since practical knowledge already played in other works. The next portion emphasized the literal meaning as the focus of exegesis.

Due to the bible being the primary source of practical knowledge, the need to make its literal meaning known was vital for Moses. His basic premise was that the Bible had a unique oral quality that made it the most effective means of transmitting practical knowledge. He stressed the importance of grammar, and believed only with knowledge of grammar, does Gods’ word both literal and homiletical make sense, because grammar is essential to the tradition of Jewish scriptural transmission.

It is this tradition that prevents the Jews from being “like a blind man in the dark,” and Sorkin points out that Moses used the same metaphor here as he did with Logical Terms. Moses believed that due to the structure of biblical poetry, that it was the most successful method for teaching practical knowledge. The last portion of the Book of the Paths to Peace, Moses established and defended his belief in Judaism through history. History helped establish Moses’ faith. Sorkin alluded that Moses was historical without being historicist, because he recognized history in the Pentateuch rather than the Pentateuch as a product of history.

Sorkin notes that viewing history in this fashion was integral to the Haskalah and typical of the religious enlightenment. The Book of the Paths to Peace eventually had wide acceptance, even though some attacked the book. The book was meant to instruct Jewish youth, but since Moses used complex German, it forced students to concentrate on that language instead of the contents. Lastly, The final phase Sorkin accounts for in Moses’ life is his political activism. Moses was politically involved almost his entire career as a thinker and writer.

Now, he focused on the state and individual rights from the viewpoint of a Jew living in hardships. Continuing the Wolffian philosophy, he emphasized a politics based on ideas of natural rights to promote legal equality. Initially, Moses arrived in the political arena by being an intercessor. Sorkin found this unsurprising since Moses was a philosopher and writer. Communities sought Moses in times of conflict, and usually Moses’ intercession was successful. For example, the Duke in the community of Mecklenburg prohibited the Jewish practice of early burial.

Moses was asked to help, so he served as an intercessor, and the duke granted the Jews the privilege of religious liberty. However, Moses took this matter further, by trying to renew the ritual practice, just as he tried to renew the traditions of philosophy and exegesis. In 1777, Moses transitioned from the politics of intercession to the politics of emancipation, when he responded to the community of Dresden’s problem of Jew’s facing high taxation or expulsion. Moses’ letter asserted that Jews were being excluded from society because of their religion.

His work, The Ritual Laws of the Jews was seen as an integral part of his Jewish thought, and referred to as a handbook on practical knowledge. Later, Moses took on dealing with Jewish rights. Sorkin implies that Moses’ advocacy of rights was fundamentally new, yet there was also substantial continuity with his earlier thought. Moses demonstrated that history plays an even more important role in his political thinking than in his biblical exegesis since human liberties were the issue rather than divine work. In order to understand Jews’ situation in terms of rights, Moses translated Rousseau’s Discourse.

Moses maintained a balance between individual rights and absolutist state, and asked Christian Wilhelm Dohm to write a tract advocating emancipation of the Jews, and it was widely influential. Moses wrote an elaborate preface to the translation of Rousseau’s Discourse, which was divided into three parts, and titled Vindiciae Judaeorum. In the preface, it was the first time he publicly advocated “civic acceptance” or equal rights. An occurring theme in the preface was Moses expressing what he did not agree with Dohm’s memorandum, specifically with Dohm’s ban of excommunication.

Moses deemed that religious excommunication invaded on civil rights because it involved the political authorities. Since he denied religion’s right to excommunicate, he was set apart from the mainstream of that scholarship. A month after he published Vindiciae Judaeorum, he also published his translation of the Psalms. The Psalms received little attention, while Vindiciae had a huge impact. A pamphlet appeared criticizing Moses’ work, but it was published as a famous Austrian statesman in order to be taken seriously, but truly, a minor writer August Cranz wrote it.

Cranz posed more of a challenge to Moses’ faith than the Lavater’s affair; Moses had to realize that Christianity was the true religion and prepare to convert or admit Judaism was imperfect and in need of fundamental reform. Moses reacted to Cranz’s pamphlet by creating Jerusalem, or On Religious Power and Judaism, which Sorkin views as Moses’ fullest elaboration of his views on rights and the nature of Judaism. Jerusalem is divided into two parts; part one addresses Cranz’ contention that in “repudiating the ban of excommunication, he had repudiated Judaism.

Moses argues mainly on the basis of natural rights. Moses’ theory of church and state is rooted in his idea of benevolence. He thought the best state was one whose members were able to govern themselves through education, and the institution capable of providing such education was religion. Moses also went back to Wolffian principle of metaphysics by asserting that liberty of conscience was crucial for the achievement of man’s eternal vocation. In part two, Moses addressed Cranz’s view that Moses left Judaism, and abandoned religion altogether.

Moses answered using philosophical views, and switched between his exposition of Judaism and a digression of a specific subject to advance his argument, and to continue his method of writing German philosophy in German, and Judaism in Hebrew. He argued on the basis of revealed legislation. He stated that Judaism is a religion of revealed legislation, not of revealed beliefs. He asserted that only through a second revelation, comparable to the one at Sinai, could God establish the authority necessary to introduce changes into the practice of the law.

The two parts of Jerusalem, fit closely together, since many of the themes developed in part one are discussed in part two. To conclude Sorkin’s argument, Moses was a traditional Jewish figure who sought to renew traditional philosophy and Biblical exegesis in Hebrew. Sorkin successfully displayed how Moses made the German Enlightenment compatible with the Haskalah, and stayed constant with his philosophy throughout his life. It is only normal that after reading Sorkin’s Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment that certain parts were more striking than others.

Not only are certain aspects of the book especially intriguing, but also, I do not agree with certain theories that Moses posed. Also, I cannot help but compare the Haskalah to the European Enlightenment that preceded it. First, it is miraculous how one person can make a difference in others lives. Moses lived during a time where Jewish communities were suffering from not having equal rights in society. Jews were denied education, certain occupations, citizen status, and were the first ones to be held responsible for problems or crimes.

The fact that Moses, with his short stature and hunchback, still had the confidence and ability to make reforms in society is unbelievable. Sorkin only mentioned Moses’ deformity once, and it is of graver importance than that. People who are blessed without any deformities take for granted how easy their life is, and I believe that more acknowledgements should be given to Moses for enduring such a struggle. Also, in Sorkin’s reference to Moses’ deformity, he also mentioned a nervous debility that was linked to his abnormality, which prevented conceptual thinking, and grew worse after the Lavater affair.

The fact that this was only mentioned once, and in one quick sentence gives the impression that this was not a serious issue. However, if such a physiological condition occurred in Moses, one would think that since all of his works entailed abstract thinking, since he was a philosopher, that this would have severe consequences on his career. Yet, Moses was able to produce numerous works after the Lavater affair and many of them were highly praised. It makes one speculate, if Sorkin’s information about Moses’ nervous disability is completely accurate.

Another part of the book that caught my attention was the aftermath of Christian Wilhelm Dohm’s publication of On the Civic Amelioration of the Jews, even though he was doing Moses a favor by writing it, and it provoked a major debate that made the rights of Jews a public issue, which is what Moses wanted. However, Sorkin displayed many aspects that Moses did not agree with what Christian wrote. For instance, Moses took issue with the notion that artisanry and farming are the sole sources of wealth, and with the ban of excommunication. Moses affirmed that no one could legitimately claim to exercise authority over another’s belief.

Sorkin’s writing gave the impression that Moses was angry with Christian for putting certain beliefs in writing. This caught me by surprise because I was under the impression that Christian and Moses were good friends. The fact that Christian agreed to write this document, even though Moses was asked to write it, implied that they were in agreement with what was to be written. The way that Sorkin addressed this conflict in the book further suggests that Christian went against what Moses asked of him, and used this as an opportunity to voice his own opinions on the issue of Jewish emancipation.

Furthermore, in a way, one can view Christian as being a catalyst for Cranz’s challenge. The connection is that Christian published work that Moses felt the need to counter in Vindiciae Judaeorum, and thus gave rise to Cranz challenging Moses. Additionally, I discovered that certain areas in the book negated Moses’ entire goal of the Haskalah. First, it is important to recall that prior to the rise of the Haskalah, most Christian thinkers thought Judaism was an irrational dark religion that did not allow for the age of Enlightenment. Hence gave rise to the premise that Jews were incapable of reaching such intellectual levels.

Interestingly, Sorkin and Moses both acted in ways that confirm this idea. First, Moses published philosophy in German and commentaries in Hebrew. This action can be seen as if he was making it harder for Jews to reach an enlightened state. By publishing philosophy in German, which most Jews could not read, he further separated them from society. Also, not only were his philosophical works in German, but also they were in such a high level of German, that was very rare for a Jew to be able to write at this level. This also made it harder for Jews to understand his German works.

Another instance is seen when the translation of the Psalms was only a victory among the Jews, and while non-Jews stated, “nothing could be further from the truth. ” Sorkin viewed this as a confirmation that Mendelssohn’s best medium is commentary, not translation. Two things are happening in this situation. First, the reaction from society demonstrates that indeed the Jews are not as intelligent as the non-Jews because they thought Moses’ commentary was brilliant, when the majority of the population thought it was not legitimate to be a valid translation.

Second, Sorkin’s account that Moses’ best means is commentary, shows that Sorkin is agreeing with the statement that his translation did not contain enough truth, thus putting Moses in the category of not being able to obtain enlightened thought. Next, in comparison to the European Enlightenment, the Haskalah is very different, even though it emerged because of the Enlightenment. The European Enlightenment held faith in the power of human reason to illuminate the world, rather than divine revelation. It encouraged an attitude of critical reflection, rather than an acceptance of received wisdom.

Also, the Enlightenment was in sync with the Scientific Revolution in the early 1770’s and created the concept that science is a form of knowledge (Western Civilizations). In contrast, Moses affirmed that the best state was one whose members were able to govern themselves through education, and it was through religious institutions that are most capable of providing such education. This thinking is completely opposite of the Enlightenment, because their goal was to forget about religious teachings, and only learn from science, and other forms of confirmed reason.

Another example that is contrasted to the Enlightenment is when Moses pleaded that a general disquisition on “science” had no place in a commentary on Creation. Members of the Enlightenment used the theory of evolution to explain the creation of the universe, which is all based on science. Also, using Wolffian beliefs, Mendelssohn asserted that although things might look accidental to man, to God they are all necessary, implying that everything on Earth happens for a reason.

Again, this is not in accord with the Enlightenment philosophy because they do not refer to a God creating the future of the world, instead they sought evidence and valid truths to prove their beliefs that all is created through science and man labor. Interestingly, there are similarities between Moses Mendelssohn and Immanuel Kant, who was a key figure of the European Enlightenment. Moses became a member of Wednesday Society, which was devoted to political subjects.

He often gave lectures; his most common lecture was “What is enlightenment? Similarly, Immanuel Kant became known by answering the question: What is Enlightenment? ” written as a response to the Reverend Zollner. Kant also proposed to eliminate certain church and state restrictions, just as Moses did in Jerusalem. Although a huge difference is Kant believed religion infringed on one’s ability to full reason, while Moses saw religion, specifically Judaism as an integral part of the Haskalah, it is important to notice the comparisons between the two, especially since they are regarded as holding such different ideologies (Perspectives on the Past).

Overall, Moses Mendelssohn was a principal figure in the creation of the Haskalah. He was a model Jew, and made many contributions to Jewish life during the end of the eighteenth century. After reading the novel, Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment, I now have a better understanding and respect for Moses Mendelssohn and the Haskalah. David Sorkin succeeded in providing information that accurately describes Moses’ philosophical works and showed how Moses made the German Enlightenment compatible with Judaism.

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Moses Mendelsohn and the Religious Enlightenment. (2017, Mar 18). Retrieved from

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