Moses Mendelssohn: Sage of Modernity

Shmuel Fein­er; Antho­ny Berris, trans.
  • Review
By – September 1, 2011
Moses Mendelssohn lived in two worlds — the mod­ern intel­lec­tu­al world of the Enlight­en­ment and the obser­vant world of tra­di­tion­al Judaism — and strove through­out his life to unite them. In this brief biog­ra­phy Shmuel Fein­er, a schol­ar of the Jew­ish Enlight­en­ment and pro­fes­sor of Mod­ern Jew­ish His­to­ry at Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty , paints a sym­pa­thet­ic pic­ture of this mod­est man who achieved wide recog­ni­tion for his ground­break­ing thought but whose life was marked by the strains imposed on him as a Jew.

Born poor in the town of Dessau, Mendelssohn was a promis­ing stu­dent who at four­teen fol­lowed his teacher to Berlin. Head­ed for the yeshi­va, the only advanced edu­ca­tion avail­able to Jews, Mendelssohn encoun­tered new influ­ences, includ­ing Mai­monides’ recent­ly repub­lished Guide to the Per­plexed, out of print since the 12th cen­tu­ry. Gal­va­nized by Mai­monides’ belief in rea­son and intel­lect as the path to truth and knowl­edge of God, Mendelssohn soon began study­ing phi­los­o­phy and sci­ence, mod­ern lan­guages, and even Latin so that he could read John Locke. With no for­mal edu­ca­tion or uni­ver­si­ty con­nec­tions, Mendelssohn won first prize in a Roy­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ence com­pe­ti­tion and was lat­er elect­ed a fel­low. His work brought him into the cir­cle of lead­ing thinkers of the day, from Immanuel Kant to Got­thold Ephraim Less­ing, a life­long friend and the play­wright who mod­eled his Nathan the Wise on Mendelssohn.

Although dubbed the Ger­man Socrates, wel­comed into aris­to­crat­ic homes, and hon­ored both in Berlin and beyond, Mendelssohn nev­er escaped per­son­al affronts or tran­scend­ed the lim­i­ta­tions forced on him by his reli­gion. Friedrich II, the king of Prus­sia, vetoed Mendelssohn’s elec­tion to the Roy­al Acad­e­my, a bit­ter blow, and did not fol­low Joseph II of Aus­tria in loos­en­ing some restric­tions on Jews. An obser­vant and com­mit­ted Jew, Mendelssohn fought off humil­i­at­ing pub­lic appeals to con­vert and rec­og­nize the supe­ri­or­i­ty of Chris­tian­i­ty.

In exten­sive quo­ta­tions from Mendelssohn’s many works, Fein­er pro­vides an intro­duc­tion to Mendelssohn’s open, human­ist thought and hopes, as well as his abid­ing fear that Jews would nev­er attain full civ­il stand­ing with­out sac­ri­fic­ing their reli­gious tra­di­tion. Mendelssohn’s let­ters often reveal his dis­ap­point­ments and the bur­den he car­ried as spokesman for the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty to both the gov­ern­men­tal author­i­ties and intel­lec­tu­al elite, defend­ing Judaism even as he attempt­ed to purge it of rab­binic author­i­ty and insu­lar­i­ty. Fein­er is par­tic­u­lar­ly sen­si­tive to Mendelssohn’s desire for a life of study, enriched by fam­i­ly and his salon of like­mind­ed friends and thinkers, even as he was thrust time and again into the pub­lic are­na. A vol­ume in Yale’s series Jew­ish Lives, Moses Mendelssohn meets the series’ goal of explor­ing the breadth and com­plex­i­ty of Jew­ish expe­ri­ence.” Chronol­o­gy, index, select bibliography.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

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