Sei sulla pagina 1di 18

David Sorkin



The distinguished historian of European Jewry, Jacob Katz, now Pro-

fessor Emeritus at the Hebrew University, has observed on more than
one occasion that whereas European Jews were emancipated in the
nineteenth century, Jewish history only began to be emancipated a
century later. There is much to this observation. From its origins in
the early nineteenth century the writing of Jewish history was an
apologetic enterprise confined to seminaries and Hebrew colleges. Its
practitioners were in the main independent scholars and rabbis (es-
pecially in Central and Western Europe), lawyers and political activists
(especially in Eastern Europe). Deprived of the advantages the great
European universities might have afforded, the discipline instead be-
came the battleground for the competing ideologies within European
Jewry: emancipationists and Zionists, autonomists and socialists. This
situation began to change in the inter-war period: Cecil Roth was
appointed at Oxford, Salo Baron at Columbia, Harry Wolfson at
Harvard; the foundation stone was laid for the Hebrew University in
Jerusalem; YIVO was established in Wilna, and the Czarist archives
were thrown open. Yet these appointments were of exceptional in-
dividuals made possible by ad hominem endowments, and the ap-
pointees were not full citizens of their respective institutions; the new
university in Jerusalem was a mere fledgling and the developments
in Eastern European were sadly ephemeral. The true integration of
Jewish history (and Jewish studies in general) occurred with the rapid
growth of Israeli universities in the 1950s and 1960s and the ex-
panding curriculum of North American universities since the 1970s.
The process is obviously still underway, but in principle the discipline
now has a recognized place in the university curriculum.
What have been the implications for the discipline? Academic
historians today have a common reaction when reading the work of
their extramural predecessors: respect for the sheer erudition—often
the result of Yeshiva training combined with a classical European
education, but discomfort with the parochial vision, for Jewish history

Modem Judaism 14(19*4): 121-138 O 1994 by The Johns Hopkins Univerjity Press
122 David Sorkim

frequently unfolds in relative isolation. The result is that in the past

two decades scholars have attempted to restore Jewish history to the
"context" of the larger society, examining in minute detail the series
of relationships—economic, social, political and cultural—through
which Jews at once created their own history as a minority group and
participated in that of the broader society.
Such study of the "context" of Jewish history breaches only the
outer perimeter that ghettoized the discipline. The inner perimeter
that remains intact is the assumption, usually tacit, that Jewish history
is somehow singular—that its peculiar nature either resists the cate-
gories historians use for other peoples or requires that those categories
be so significandy modified as to be qualitatively different. To try to
breach this inner perimeter it might be salutary to complement the
study of "context" with "comparison," supplementing questions of
influence and relationship widi ones about homologous trends, par-
allel changes and common developments. Jewish historians might ask
what Jewish history can teach other historians about issues of general
interest—whether a period, a cultural movement, a social and political
process or altogether neglected topics—exploring how die Jewish var-
iation on a dieme illuminates the variation, by showing the family of
examples to which it belongs, but also illuminates the dieme itself, by
adding the instance of a significant minority group. If the study of
"context" integrates die Jews into the broader society and culture,
"comparison" promises to integrate Jewish history into the discipline
of history.1 The case of Moses Mendelssohn can illustrate the value
of comparison as a complement to the study of context.
Moses Mendelssohn numbers among those rare figures who are
a legend in their own lifetime and a symbol diereafter. Yet so rare a
status has distinct liabilities. Two relendessly eventful centuries of
history have shaped the myriad versions of the legend and symbol as
well as the diverse uses made of them. Those two centuries dominate
our field of vision and obstruct our understanding of his diought.
The legend and symbol present Mendelssohn in terms of two
faces. The one is the man of the German Enlightenment, the Avfkl&rer,
immortalized in die appellation "die Socrates of Berlin," after die
publication of his socratic dialogues on die immortalizy of die soul,
die Ph&don, in 1767. The odier is die ideal Jew, Moses Dessau, en-
shrined in die phrase, "from Moses unto Moses diere was none like
Moses," which made him the Jewish diinker of modern dmes, die
legitimate successor to die medieval Moses Maimonides. In die in-
numerable descripdons and analyses of die two faces since Mendels-
sohn's death, die inescapable quesdon has been die reladonship
between diem. The answers to diis quesdon comprise a veritable index
to modern Jewish diought, since such an answer has been integral to
Mendelssohn and Religious Enlightenment 123

virtually every Jewish philosophy and ideology. The answers range

between two extremes.
The one extreme is that Mendelssohn's faces were of a piece and
at peace, that he was the exemplary modern Jew in his ability to
harmonize European culture with Jewish belief and observance. Isaac
Euchel took this position in his study of Mendelssohn published in
1788 (appropriately, it was the first book-length biography of any
figure to be written in modern Hebrew). Euchel called Mendelssohn
"singular in his generation, and unique in his nation" (yakar be-doro,
yahid be-amo) and made him a model for all Jews: "His life should be
our standard, his teaching our light."2 In the mid-nineteenth century
Meyer Kayserling could celebrate him as the creator of a German-
Jewish symbiosis, the man who "wished to foster jointly Judaism and
German education (deutsche Bildung)," who, as a "sincere religious Jew
and a German writer" presented "a noble model for posterity".3 The
other extreme is that the two faces were ill-suited and at odds, making
Mendelssohn the false prophet of assimilation and de-nationalization.
The late nineteenth-century Hebrew publicist Peretz Smolenskin put
this graphically:
R. Moshe ben Menahem held to the view of the love of all humanity,
and his household and friends followed him. But where did it lead
to? Almost all of them converted.4
In the same spirit the twentieth-century philosopher Franz Rosen-
zweig wrote: "From Mendelssohn on . . . the Jewishness of every in-
dividual has squirmed on the needle point of a 'Why. "5 Between these
two extremes are numerous variations, including such memorable
ones as that of the poet Heinrich Heine, who saw Mendelssohn as the
"reformer of the Jews" who "overturned the Talmud as Luther had
the papacy;"6 or that of the theologian Solomon Ludwig Steinheim
(1789—1866) who wrote that Mendelssohn was "a heathen in his brain
and a Jew in his body."7
Whether one renders Mendelssohn a hero, a villain or something
intermediate, the intractable difficulty of the relationship between his
faces remains. Even Mendelssohn's recent authoritative and ardent
biographer, the late Alexander Altmann, conveyed an unmistakable
ambivalence in trying to comprehend it. Altmann called Mendelssohn
the "patron saint of German Jewry" by virtue of his participation in
German culture, his uncompromising loyalty as a Jew, his formulation
of a modern philosophy of Judaism, and his advocacy of Jewish civil
rights. Yet Altmann could not make this assertion unequivocally.
In many ways Mendelssohn was the first modern German Jew, the
prototype of what the world came to recognize as the specific char-
acter, for better or worse, of German Jewry."*
124 David Sorkm

'For better or worse." This phrase reminds us how two centuries of

history haunt any investigation of Moses Mendelssohn, and especially
the effort to utilize the legend and symbol to penetrate the underlying
reality. To offer a preliminary answer to the question of the "two
faces," this paper will make two arguments from "context," i.e., Men-
delssohn vis-a-vis the Enlightment and the Haskalah, and then one
argument from "comparison."
It is noteworthy that Mendelssohn kept pace with the Haskalah
and Aufklarung, indeed, that he had a hand in altering both. Though
most writers and intellectuals change with the times, Mendelssohn's
case was unusual insofar as he was involved both as "the Berlin Soc-
rates" and as Moses Dessau but also in that, for the Haskalah, he was
its only member (masfut) to make the transition from its early phase
to its later one.
Mendelssohn grew up under the influence of the early Haskalah.
The Haskalah was an effort to correct the historical anomaly of a
Judaism out of touch with central aspects of its textual heritage as
well as with the larger culture. Throughout most of the Middle Ages
in Europe, and especially during many periods of heightened religious
creativity, Jews had sustained a balanced view of their own textual
heritage as well as a beneficial and often intense interaction with the
surrounding culture. In the post-Reformation or Baroque period, in
contrast, Ashkenazi Jewry had increasingly isolated itself in a world
of talmudic casuistry (pilpul; hUuhm) and Kabbalah, neglecting the
Bible, Jewish philosophy and the Hebrew language within, and the
vast changes in the general culture without. The Haskalah began by
reviving those intellectual traditions that promoted a reasonable (as
distinct from a mystical or casuistic) understanding of Jewish texts
and diereby made it possible to draw upon European science and
philosophy. It was a tendency within mainstream Judaism: only in the
last decade or two of the eighteenth century did it become a faction.9
Dessau was one locus of the early Haskalah. The famous Wulfnan
press issued a steady stream of Hebrew books on philosophy and
Hebrew grammar, including the first republication in two centuries
of Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed, which transcended the curric-
ulum of Talmudic dialectics and kabbalah. David Frankel, the rabbi
whom Mendelssohn followed to Berlin, approved and in some cases
arranged support for such publications: his own landmark study of
the Palestinian Talmud also departed from that curriculum. As a
youth in Dessau, Mendelssohn read the Bible, Hebrew grammar, and
philosophy, especially Maimonides (he often attributed his deformity
to the rigors of that study). When he arrived in Berlin, Mendelssohn
found a circle of young Jews (Zamosc, Gumperz, Kisch), who were
studying science and philosophy in addition to Jewish subjects. These
MendeUsohn and Religions Enlightenment 125

men became Mendelssohn's tutors and guides. What made Mendels-

sohn exceptional among them was not his studies, but his success. He
alone became a figure of standing in Jewish and European culture.10
When Mendelssohn reached Berlin in the 1740s, the German
Enlightenment was in transition. Christian Wolff, the philosopher of
the age, was a the height of his influence; for that very reason the
ground below him was shifting. Under the impact of the scientific
revolution, Wolff had devised a philosophical method that aspired to
the certainty of science. The method tried to deduce from a few self-
evident logical principles (e.g., contradiction, sufficient reason) an
entire philosophy whose truths would be linked one to the next as if
in an unbroken chain. These truths were to have the coherence of
mathematics, and Wolff tried to make them comprehensive as well,
applying his method to all fields of philosophy: logic, metaphysics,
ethics, politics, psychology, law and nature. Because of the premises
of his philosophy, Wolff left two major areas untouched: aesthetics
and theology." That was the ground that began to shift. At mid-
century the Wolffians who tried to extend the master to these two
areas began to alter his system. Not surprisingly, "the Socrates of
Berlin" devoted his best efforts to these areas.
But what sort of change was there? The German Enlightenment
at mid-century was preoccupied with questions of aesthetics and re-
ligion. One set of debates concerned how judgments about beauty
and pleasure are made, and what their relationship is to morality.
The discipline of aesthetics as we now understand it was emerging
from under the mantle of metaphysics. Wolff had held beauty and
everything connected with it to be inferior to truth and intellect; his
successors began to valorize it. These debates continued for many
decades, and were one source of the German literary renaissance of
Lessing, Goethe, and Schiller.
By the 1770s a new set of political and social concerns began to
absorb the Enlightenment. The new "civic journals" which purveyed
information on government policies (geographic, military, economic)
and personalities, broke the government monopoly on political in-
formation and encouraged the emergence of "public opinion." An
associational life also developed in conjunction with such journals.12
This development can be seen in the intellectual associations in
which Mendelssohn participated. The Berlin "learned coffee house"
(1755-56) was a forum for philosophical and scientific issues. Men-
delssohn contributed a paper on probability (which he had someone
else read, though to everyone's amusement, the author's identity was
revealed when the reader mistook a zero for an "o" and Mendelssohn
corrected him), and discussed determinism with another of the dub's
members.15 Almost thirty years later (1783), Mendelssohn became a
126 David Sorkm

member of the Berlin "Wednesday Society" (Mitwochgesellschaft). In

this forum Mendelssohn gave lectures on "What is Enlightenment,"
"On the Freedom to Express One's Opinion," 'On the Principles of
Government," "On the Best Constitution," etc.M
These two associations testify to the change in Mendelssohn as
the "Socrates of Berlin" (This does not imply that he stopped writing
metaphysics; he did not). What about Moses Dessau? He made a
similar pilgrimage. His Hebrew writings of the 1750s and 1760s were
typical of the early Haskalah in promoting a reasonable understanding
of Judaism through the revival of philosophy and the renewal of
Hebrew studies. His Bible translations and commentary of the 1770s
and early 1780s were an attempt to apply these views. In the 1780s
he made the transition to the full Haskalah of ideology and politics
in his discussion of the Jews' legal situation and the theory of eman-
cipation. During these phases the Haskalah also underwent a social
development: in the early period (1750s and 1760s) there were only
isolated individuals; by the 1770s there was a distinct circle of mas-
kilim; and by the 1780s a literary society and a journal (Me'asrf) had
That Mendelssohn kept pace with the Aufklarung and Haskalah
does not sufficiently answer the question of the relationship between
the two faces. Another argument from context is required. For Men-
delssohn, Enlightenment philosophy and Judaism supplemented
and explained each other, yet each retained its integrity and respec-
tive sphere. Judaism's basis in revelation set clear limits to the scope
of philosophy, and philosophy presupposed and depended upon
revelation. Philosophy in turn served Judaism as a means of self-
articulation and restoration. As a result of this relationship, Men-
delssohn's religious ends were always conservative or restorative,
however novel or innovative his means.
Mendelssohn was one of those thinkers who, in extending Wolff's
thought into new areas in the 1750s and 1760s, changed it. Men-
delssohn adhered to the central notions of the Wolffian-Leibnizian
position. He believed that this was "the best of all possible worlds" in
that God had freely chosen it. He believed in man's free will, yet also
in the pre-established harmony between the individual constituents
of the world—the so-called "monads." The key concept in all of this
was "perfection" (VoUhommenheit). God's existence could be proven
from the possibility of a perfect being (the ontological proof) and
man's ethical life was a striving to attain the highest possible perfection
inherent in his being. For Mendelssohn the first law of nature was
"make your and your fellowman's internal and external condition, in
proper proportion, as perfect as you can."16
Mendelssohn's main innovation was in aesthetics. By introducing
Mendelssohn and Religious Enlightenment 127

a hierarchy of pleasures, in which the aesthetic ranked below the

metaphysical, he made way for notions of the autonomy of art ("the
stage has its own morality"), and new concepts of aesthetic perception
(i.e., "mixed feelings") and artistic creativity (the artist creates what
nature has not) which left the metaphysical foundations of his phi-
losophy intact.".
Though an eloquent exponent of the Wolffian philosophy, Men-
delssohn was also critical of it. He complained that Wolff's Latin works
would have been more useful as a philosophical dictionary than as a
system.18 He also thought Wolff's attempt to give philosophy irre-
fragable certainty by adopting the mathematical method had been
More important than his criticism of Wolff was Mendelssohn's
insistence on the limitations of philosophical knowledge. He rejected
as sheer arrogance the claims of any philosophy to omniscience, crit-
icizing Leibniz's critics for virtually deifying the philosopher.10 He
thought the problem of an infinite world, for example, must be left
to revelation.21 Instead, Mendelssohn pursued those issues pertinent
to a natural philosophy, that is, one which presupposed God and His
perfection but otherwise avoided revelation and all related issues.
Thus Mendelssohn preferred German to French philosophy because
it valued believing thinking over free thinking.2* For the same reason
he chose to place his dialogues on immortality, the Phddon, in the
mouth of a pagan philosopher: in that way he could avoid the issue
of revelation. (Socrates had the additional advantage of being a non-
scholastic philosopher).25 Similarly, all moral issues had a metaphysical
foundation for Mendelssohn, since they were grounded in God's free-
dom." In addition, he held a nomian view of ethics: an ethical life
meant honoring God by following His law." "Observance of duties
towards God (is). . . the only way to make our souls more perfect."*6
In his natural philosophy the precise dictates of the law went un-
In his Hebrew works Mendelssohn provided the revealed philos-
ophy that completed, and was the counterpart to the natural one. He
used Wollfian categories to articulate it, and here he delineated the
contents of law and the role of belief. He first did this in two brief,
if significant works in the 1750s and 1760s.
In the Kohelet Musar (literally: Preacher of Morals) Mendelssohn
used the form of a journal popular in Germany at the time, the "moral
weekly" (actually a monthly that appeared on the same day of the
week and was modelled on the English Toiler and Spectator). Men-
delssohn had written for such a journal in the mid-1750s (der Cha-
meleon). The moral weekly was an intimate forum in which a fictional
narrator used letters, essays, reports of incidents and conversations
128 David Sorkin

to discuss philosophical, ethical and cultural issues in an informal

manner.27 Mendelssohn used this forum to address Yeshivah students
and others entirely at home in the world of rabbinic scholarship and
Jewish learning, on many of the same issues as in his German phi-
losophy: the relationship between nature as a source of enjoyment
and as a source of belief ("physico-theology"); how one justifies the
obvious moral inequities of this world (theodicy); or the ethical nature
of friendship—how love of man is related to love of God.28 In handling
these issues Mendelssohn repeatedly employed the same method. He
first stated the issue using Wolffian categories; then gave an example
to which the categories were applied, usually drawn from Jewish texts;
he went on to quote rabbinic passages that agreed with the Wolffian
analysis; and ended with the Wolffian conclusions to be drawn from
it. To take one example: in considering the ethical nature of friend-
ship, Mendelssohn used the Wolffian definition of love as taking plea-
sure in another's increased perfection. The example he used was the
friendship of David and Jonathan in the Bible. He showed that in
human love, pleasure arises from the achievement of perfection; in
the love of God in contrast, since He is the embodiment of all per-
fection, pleasure arises out of obedience to His law. Mendelssohn then
cited a passage from the Babylonian Talmud to confirm this view.29
Significant here is the seamless transition from Wolffian categories
and natural philosophy to the revealed philosophy of Judaism. Also
significant is that whereas the German moral weekly purveyed natural
philosophy, Mendelssohn used it to offer a revealed, if entirely rea-
sonable Judaism.
The second Hebrew work was Mendelssohn's commentary on
Maimonides' "Logical Terms." Maimonides' account of logical ter-
minology was at once an introduction to logic and a philosophical
primer.50 Mendelssohn republished it with an introduction and a com-
mentary. His aim was to revive the philosophical tradition in Judaism.
Addressing the same audience here as in the Kohelet Musar, he de-
fended philosophy as an entirely pious pursuit that is necessary to
correct belief. Without logic one can neither fathom God's creation
nor distinquish right from wrong.51 Mendelssohn argued that to think
without an awareness of logic is equivalent to using language without
knowing grammar.32 (Mendelssohn anticipated the charge that phi-
losophy is a Greek invention foreign to Judaism. Maimonides' piety
cannot be questioned, since he had neutralized the impact of Greek
wisdom. "He swallowed the pit but spit out the peel.")53
Although Mendelssohn here set the same limits to philosophy he
did in his German treatises, he now discussed the revelation that
surpassed and complemented it. He asserted that without Torah and
Mendelssohn and Religious Enlightenment 129

tradition we are "like a blind man in the dark."" The true path to
knowledge is the combination of Torah and logic.55 However far man's
understanding can go in comprehending God and divine truth, it is
only possible through the application of God-given reason to God's
Torah and tradition. Only the prophet who has direct revelation can
dispense with logic.5* Mendelssohn therefore recommends that stu-
dents study logic an hour or so per week in support of their traditional
textual studies.57 Mendelssohn manifestly regarded logic as a means
and not as an end.
Maimonides' indisputable piety and his succinct exposition served
Mendelssohn's purposes, with one important exception. Maimonides'
method and philosophy were distinctly medieval. His work might lead
the uninitiated student backward to medieval Jewish philosophy, but
it could not lead him forward to eighteenth-century philosophy. Men-
delssohn's commentary was to be the bridge. At the end of each of
the fourteen chapters of his treatise, Maimonides provided a list of
the terms he had introduced. Mendelssohn used these as a philo-
sophical lexicon: next to each Hebrew term he gave the equivalent in
German and in Latin (in Hebrew characters). He thereby attempted
to renew philosophical discourse in Hebrew, performing the same
function for Hebrew that Wolff had for German some four decades
earlier. In his early German philosophical treatises Wolff had invented
German equivalents for accepted Latin terms.58
Mendelssohn did not rest content with creating an up-to-date
philosophical vocabulary. He also introduced the substance of
eighteenth-century philosophy. Wherever Maimonides had used Ar-
istotelian or platonic notions, Mendelssohn corrected it with the eight-
eenth-century Leibnizian-Wolffian view.59 (The distaste for scholastic
philosophy Mendelssohn revealed in his German writings is apparent
here as well: he is especially critical of those medieval philosophers
who endlessly commented on the master without adding anything of
their own.)40 In addition, Mendelssohn seized every opportunity to
introduce Wolfnan categories. At one point in his treatise Maimonides
mentioned the idea of luck (mezulat ha-adam). Mendelssohn pounced
on this chance phrase, employing the same method as in the Kohelet
Musar. He expounded the Wolfnan conception of theodicy; then
quoted a rabbinic source and Maimonides' own Guide of the Perplexed;
and concluded with a peroration of Wolfnan concepts.'"
This same use of novel means for pious ends also holds for Men-
delssohn's work in subsequent periods. His biblical commentaries and
translations of the 1770s and early 1780s used the best of contem-
porary aesthetics and Bible study, science and philosophy as well as
drawing on medieval Jewish philosophy, exegesis and grammar. At
130 David Sorkim

the same time Mendelssohn defended the integrity of the Masoretic

text and the validity of traditional rabbinic interpretation, and offered
a translation thoroughly in keeping with Jewish tradition.42
In his political writings he recapitulated the relationship between
his early philosophical writings in German and Hebrew. The first part
of his Jerusalem is a natural political philosophy, in which he used the
key concepts of eighteenth-century political thought to delineate the
principles of a state separated from the church which could accord
equal treatment to its subjects regardless of their religious beliefs. The
second part is a revealed politics. Mendelssohn argued that Judaism
is a "divine legislation" based on the symbolic acts of the command-
ments (the mitxuot). It is no longer a political constitution but rather
a ceremonial law which makes no claim to a monopoly over revealed
knowledge and does not qualify the Jews' unconditional right to eman-
cipation. Mendelssohn accordingly thought that Judaism should be-
come a voluntary religious community with no powers of coercion
over its members. Here again, Mendelssohn embraced the novel
means of emancipation in a secular state for the pious end of pre-
serving an unaltered Judaism.43
Analyzing the development of Mendelssohn's thought and the
relationship between the Enlightenment and his Jewish thinking lo-
cates him squarely in an historical context. Yet the connection between
Aufklarung and Haskalah is still inadequate. That relationship must
also be understood in terms of a neglected aspect of eighteenth-
century cultural and religious history that emerges from comparison.
Connecting the face of the enlightened philosopher with that of the
believing Jew was the interface of what might be called the religious
If one looks at the relationship of religion to the Enlightenment
from the side of the established religions, it is apparent that all of
them had influential representatives who welcomed the new science
and philosophy of the Enlightenment as a means to renew and rein-
vigorate faith. This attempt to put the Enlightenment in the service
of revealed religion was at the heart of the religious Enlightenment.
As a movement it represented a kind of golden mean. For Protestants
this was usually so in two senses: at first as a middle way between an
older orthodoxy and a form of "enthusiasm" or inspirational faith,
later between the secular enlightenment and belief. (Thus in England
after the Act of Toleration a moderate Anglicanism used key notions
of the Enlightenment—Lockean reasonableness, Newtonian science,
ideas of natural religion and toleration—to provide a broadly Ar-
minian alternative to rigid Calvinism on die one side and Inner Light
enthusiasm on die odier. Subsequendy it served as a middle ground
between Deism and unreconstructed orthodoxy.) For Catholics in
Mendelssohn and Religious Enlightenment 131

Central Europe and Italy it meant a middle ground between Baroque

piety, scholasticism and Jesuitism on the one side and a highly charged
reform movement like Jansenism on the other, that enabled them to
recover neglected aspects of their textual heritage as well as absorbing
modern science and philosophy. What these representatives of reli-
gious enlightenment sought was a way to reconcile faith and reason
by enlisting substantial portions of Enlightenment thought.44
To place Mendelssohn in this comparative framework, which re-
lieves him of the onus of spurious singularity, we must return to the
philosopher Christian Wolff. In the 1740s Wolff's followers extended
his philosophy in two directions: aesthetics and theology. It is in the
extension of Wolfnanism to theology that we find the emergence of
a German Protestant version of the religious enlightenment. Enlight-
enment science and philosophy entered the theological faculties of
the German universities (Halle, Leipzig and Gottingen) through
Wolff's philosophy, offering a breath of fresh air in the suffocating
quarrel between Lutheran scholasticism and Pietism.
It was certainly auspicious that one of the first books Mendelssohn
read in German was a treatise by the foremost theological Wolffian
in Berlin. In his Considerations of the Augsburg Confession (1733), Johann
Gustav Reinbeck tried to chart a middle course between the ration-
alist's exclusive reliance on reason and the orthodox believer's exclu-
sive reliance on Scripture. He tried to show that reason could
demonstrate the truths of natural religion and revelation confirm
them. Thus he proved the existence of God using the ontological
argument and principle of sufficient reason in chapter one, while in
chapter two he showed it from Scripture. Other truths were only
partially susceptible to proof, "from the light of nature and of rea-
son."46 He proved as much as reason allowed about God's attributes
(e.g., God as spirit), then carried on with scriptural citation.47 For the
mysteries of creation, revelation was the primary source. Reason could
demonstrate the possibility of creatio ex nihilo, but Scripture provided
the rest. For the mysteries of the Trinity, revelation was the exclusive
source, yet following Wolff, Reinbeck insisted that revelation con-
tained nothing at variance with reason.
This work had an obvious affinity to Mendelssohn's own. For a
young man who had cut his philosophical teeth studying Maimonides,
the early encounter with an eighteenth-century Christian effort to
reconcile philosophy and belief had a lasting influence, which can be
seen in number of ways.
In the second half of his Considerations on the Augsburg Confession,
for example, Reinbeck had offered a sustained vindication of philos-
ophy's service to theology which the key arguments of Mendelssohn's
Logical Terms would unmistakably parallel. Reinbeck argued that phi-
132 David SoHan

losophy, as the "science of the possible," is an indispensable aid in

achieving correct belief.48 It first teaches us to use reason to scrutinize
the truths of nature. It then leads us to the truths of Scripture, helping
us to understand the objects behind the words and thus enables us
to formulate distinctions and categories.49 Physics and mathematics
are similarly essential to comprehending the central scriptural pas-
sages that treat nature.50 Finally, philosophy helps us to fathom that
the truths of nature and the truths of scripture are in absolute agree-
ment.51 While emphasizing the utility of philosophy, Reinbeck set it
clear limits (as Mendelssohn would). Since philosophy has distinct
boundaries in regard to natural matters, a fortiori in divine ones. Phi-
losophy not only presupposes, and through its investigations confirms
revelation, but also accepts miracles and respects mysteries.5* Reinbeck
made the argument common to the theological Wolffians that ultimate
theological issues were not contrary to reason (contra rationem) but
beyond it (supra rationem). f
Mendelssohn can be seen as a Jewish counterpart to the theolog-
ical Wolffians, extending the master's system and altering it (as he
had in aesthetics) to articulate and renew Judaism. This is evident for
example, in his defence of Judaism. The theological Wolffians had
faced one major problem. Wolffs method asked for certainty using
strict mathematical criteria. Was there certainty in Scripture and rev-
elation that would enable them to use Enlightenment philosophy to
re-articulate and defend the faith? They found an answer in history.
Scripture provided an indisputable account of historical facts. The-
ological Wolffians such as Siegmund Jacob Baumgarten began to in-
vestigate Scripture as an historical document, thereby altering the
master just as had their counterparts (including Siegmund's brother,
Alexander Baumgarten) in aesthetics. Wolff had deprecated history
as mere fact without certainty. They now valorized it.53
In his understanding of Judaism as a "divine legislation", for
example, Mendelssohn employed the same intellectual strategy. He
used the public revelation of law to the entire nation at Mount Sinai—
as distinguished from the mere miracles of a prophet—as a source
of certainty that grounds Jewish practice and belief. "Here I have a
matter of history on which I can rely with certainty."54 Mendelssohn
addressed the same problem and solved it in a similar way to the
Protestants. (Mendelssohn's views became public only in his Jerusalem
of 1783, yet he had formulated them during the Lavater controversy
in 1769-70. His metaphysical outlook and his view of Judaism re-
mained largely unchanged after the seminal decade of the 1760s).55
Further comparison confirms Mendelssohn's standing as the
preeminent Jewish representative of the religious Enlightenment. In
his political thought, Mendelssohn argued that church and state
Mendelssohn and Religious Enlightenment 133

should be separated; that religion should be constituted as a free

association of teachers and auditors since it is not based on a contract
and has no right of coercion over its members; and that for this very
reason the rabbis should renounce the ban. Mendelssohn made this
argument using the doctrine of "collegial theory," which reconciled
natural law with belief by seeing the church as a voluntary association
of individuals who had an inalienable right to freedom of conscience
and toleration. Originated by Dutch collegians in the seventeenth-
century, the theory was adopted by German Protestant theological
enlightenment thinkers in the first half of the eighteenth century, by
German Reform Catholics in the 1780s. "Collegial theory" had the
great advantage of advocating toleration without relativizing faith.
Mendelssohn was not alone, then, either in his arguments or in his
method of making them. He spoke a language of faith and natural
law common to the religious Enlightenment in Central Europe.56
Comparison also illuminates his relation to the textual tradition.
Mendelssohn and the early maskilim attempted to revive medieval
Jewish philosophy as a reasonable means to interpret the Jewish tex-
tual heritage as well as to exhume neglected aspects of that heritage—
the Bible, philological and philosophical Biblical exegesis and Hebrew
language. Reform Catholics did much the same. Just as the maskilim
considered Maimonides more reasonable than Talmudic casuistry and
mystical speculation, so many Reform Catholics thought Aquinas
more reasonable than the "senile scholasticism" of Suarez. Reform
Catholics at mid-century not only turned to the philosophy of Chris-
tian Wolff but also returned to the medieval sources of Catholic phi-
losophy. Reform Catholics also revived the study of neglected texts—
Scripture, patristics and church history, under the slogan "to the
sources" {adfontes). These endeavors distinguished Catholic and Jew-
ish religious enlightenment thinkers from their Protestant counter-
This affinity of Jewish and Catholic enlightenment thinkers also
appeared in respect to vernacular translations of sacred texts. Reform
Catholics and maskilim argued for use of the vernacular under the
influence of the Enlightenment which posited that true belief required
full understanding. Mendelssohn translated and commented on the
Bible because he wanted it to be understood properly, the German
translation serving the Hebrew original. For much the same reason,
Ignaz Felbiger, the premiere Reform Catholic pedagogue in Central
Europe, translated the Bible into German for schoolchildren (1767).58
Finally, comparison casts Mendelssohn's two faces in a new light.
The religious Enlightenment's most gifted and influential represen-
tatives were active in both secular and religious pursuits. The Bishop
of Gloucester, William Warburton, wrote works on theology and ec-
134 David Sorkm

clesiastical politics, but also edited Pope and Shakespeare;59 the Italian
Ludovico Muratori wrote on church reform and devotion but was
also a pioneer in the writing of Italian history.60 S. J. Baumgarten,
the theological Wolffian, wrote theology, hermeneutics and exegesis,
but also had a considerable reputation as a secular historian.61 If
Mendelssohn is compared to such figures, his "two faces" no longer
seem singular. Rather, he appears as the preeminent Jewish repre-
sentative of the religious Enlightenment, a status which explains his
ability to pass through the various stages of the Enlightenment and
Haskalah, and his use of novel means for conservative ends.
One goal of studying individuals or groups mainstream historians
have neglected or ostracized, beyond its intrinsic validity, is to modify
our perceptions of the larger society or culture. Jewish history pro-
vides fertile ground for such an endeavor. Comparison enhances un-
derstanding not only of Moses Mendelssohn but also of the religious
Enlightenment. On the one side it emerges that he was not a singular
figure in Europe but one among many eminent thinkers of the reli-
gious Enlightenment. On the other it emerges that the religious En-
lightenment was not a Protestant, a Catholic, or even a Christian, but
a European phenomenon. If applied to Jewish history, the method
of comparison will yield many examples of this sort. Once armed with
sufficient examples of this kind, Jewish historians will be able to breach
the "inner" perimeter, the assumption of singularity, and Jewish his-
tory will, perhaps, finally be emancipated.


I would like to thank Dr. David Cesarani for inviting me to present an

earlier version of this paper at the Wiener Library and Institute of Contem-
porary History, London, and Frances Malino for her dose reading of it.
1. For recent accounts of the state of scholarship on modern Jewish
history see Paula Hyman, "The Ideological Transformation of Modern Jewish
Historiography," in Shaye J. D. Cohen and Edward L. Greenstein eds., The
State of Jewish Studies (Detroit, 1990), pp. 143-57; and Jonadian Frankel,
"Assimilation and the Jews in Nineteenth-Century Europe: Towards a New
Historiography?" in J. F. Frankel and S. Zipperstein (eds.). Assimilation and
Community: The Jews m Nineteenth-Century Europe (Cambridge, 1992), pp. 1—
37. For the historiography of German Jewry see the three introductory articles
in Leo Batch InstituU Yearbook, Vol. 35 (1990): Michael A. Meyer, "Recent
Historiography on the Jewish Religion in Modern Germany," pp. 3—16; David
Sorkin, "Emancipation and Assimilation—Two Concepts and their Appli-
cation to German-Jewish History," pp. 17—33; and Moshe Zimmermann,
Mendelssohn and Religious Enlightenment 135

"Jewish History and Jewish Historiography—A Challenge to Contemporary

German Historiography," pp. 35—52. For an attempt at comparison see my
"From Context to Comparison: The German Haskalah and Reform Cathol-
icism," Tel Aviver Jakrbuch fur deutsche Geschichte, Vol. 20 (1991), pp. 2 3 - 4 1 .
2. Isaac Euchel, ToUdot Rabemu he-Hakham Moshe ben Menahem (Berlin,
1788) p. 113.
3. Meyer Kayserling, Moses Mendelssohn. Sem Leben und seine Werke (Leip-
zig, 1862), pp. 284, 484.
4. "Am Olam," in Ma'amarim, 3 vols. (Jerusalem, 1925-56), 1:41.
Quoted in Isaac E. Barzilay, "Smolenskin's Polemic Against Mendelssohn in
Historical Perspective," Proceedings of the American Academy ofJewish Research,
Vol. 53 (1986), pp. 11-14.
5. "Die Bauleute," Klemere Schriften (Berlin, 1937), p. 110. Translation
in Nahum N. Glatzer (ed.), Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought (New York,
1953), p. 238.
6. Heinrich Heine, "Zur Geschichte der Religion und Philosophic in
Deutschland," in Heinrich Heine: Beitrdge zur deutschen Ideologie (Frankfurt,
1971), p. 65.
7. S. L. Steinheim, Moses Mendelssohn und seine Schule (Hamburg, 1840),
p. 37. Quoted in Michael A. Meyer, Response to Modernity: A History of the
Reform Movement in Judaism (New York, 1988), p. 69.
8. Alexander Altmann, "Moses Mendelssohn as the Archetypal German
Jew," in Jehuda Reinharz and Walter Schatzberg (eds.), The Jewish Response
to German Culture (Hanover, 1985), pp. 17-31 esp. pp. 17-18.
9. For this view of the Haskalah, see David Sorkin, "From Context to
Comparison: The German Haskalah and Reform Catholicism," pp. 23—41.
10. For the Wulffian press see Menahem Schmelzer, "Hebrew Printing
and Publishing in Germany, 1650-1750," Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook, Vol. 33
(1988), pp. 3 7 1 - 2 ; and Moritz Steinschneider, "Hebraische Drucke in
Deutschland," Zeitsehrift fur die GeschichU derjuden in Deutschland (1892), p.
168. For Franckel see Max Freudenthal, "R. David Franckel," in M. Brann
and F. Rosenthal (eds.), Gedenkbuch zur Ermnerung an David Kaufmann (Bres-
lau, 1900), pp. 575-589. For Mendelssohn's childhood see Alexander Alt-
mann, "Moses Mendelssohns Kindheit in Dessau," Bulletin des Leo Baeck
Instituts 40 (1967), pp. 237-275. For the Berlin period see Alexander Altmann,
Moses Mendelssohn: A Biographical Study (Philadelphia, 1973), pp. 15-25.
11. Lewis White Beck, Early German Philosophy: Kant and His Predecessors
(Cambridge, Mass. 1969), pp. 276-296.
12. For an overview of the late Enlightenment ("Srjfitaufklilrung") see
James J. Sheehan, German History, 1770-1866 (Oxford, 1989), pp. 144-206,
and Richard van Dfllmen, Die Gesellschaft der Aufkldrer. Zur bQrgerUchen Eman-
zipation und aufklarerischen Kultur in Deutschland (Frankfurt, 1986). I am in-
debted to Shmuel Feiner (Bar-Ilan University) for suggesting the point that
Mendelssohn was the only mashl to pass through the Haskalah's various stages.
13. Altmann, Moses Mendelssohn, pp. 74-77.
14. Ibid., pp. 653f; and James Schmidt, "The Question of Enlightenment:
Kant, Mendelssohn and the Mitwochgesellschaft,"yournai of the History ofIdeas
50 (1989), Vol. 2, pp. 269-291.
136 David SoHan

15. On the development of the Haskalah, see Sorkin, "From Context to

Comparison," pp. 27—41.
16. Moses Mendelssohn, GesammelteSchriften.Jubilaumsausgabe, ed. F. Bam-
berger et. al. 22 vols. (Stuttgart, 1971- ) (hereafter JubA), Vol. 2, p. 317.
17. Beck, Early German Philosophy, pp. 326-7.
18. "Gedanken" (Aus der Wochenschrift Der ChamcUeon) JubA, Vol. 2,
p. 121.
19. "Abhandlung fiber die Evidenz in Metaphysischen Wissenschaften,"
JubA, Vol. 2, pp. 271,329.
20. "Philosophische Gesprache,"/uM, Vol. 1: pp 24-25.
21. Ibid., p. 22.
22. "Uber die Empfindungen," JubA, Vol. 1, p. 43; cf. Vol. 1, p. 62, For
a similar passage in the "Philosophische GesprSche" see JubA, Vol. 1, pp.
23. "Phadon",/uM Vol. 3, pp. 16 and 128.
24."Abhandlung uber die Evidenz," JubA, Vol. 2: p. 322.
25. "Sokrates Gesprflch mit dem Euthydemus uber die Gottesfurcht und
Gerechtigkeit," (Aus der Wochenschrift Der Chamdleon) JubA, Vol. 2, pp. 1 4 4 -
26. "Abhandlung Qber die Evidenz," JubA, VoL 2: p.317. cf. Vol. 2, pp.
27. Wolfgang Martens, Die Botschaft der Tugend (Stuttgart, 1968).
28. For an excellent discussion of this work see Meir Gilon, Kohelet Musar
le-Mendelssohn al Reka Tekufato (Jerusalem, 1979).
29. I have used the critical edition in Gilon. See "Sha'ar Daled," pp. 171—
30. On Maimonides' treatise see Israel Efros, "Maimonides' Treatise on
Logic" Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research (1937—38), pp.
3—65; and Raymond L. Weiss, "On the Scope of Maimonides' Logic, Or, What
Joseph Knew," in Ruth Link-Salinger (ed.), A Straight Path: Studies in Medieval
Philosophy and Culture. Essays in Honor of Arthur Hyman (Washington, D.C.,
1988), pp. 255—65. I am indebted to my colleague Daniel Frank for bringing
these sources to my attention.
31. "Biur Milot ha-Higayon," JubA, Vol. 14, pp. 28-29.
32. Ibid., pp. 28, 52.
33. Ibid., p. 29.
34. Ibid., p. 28.
35. Ibid., p. 48.
36. Ibid., pp. 49, 51.
37. Ibid., p. 30.
38. See, for example, "Das erste Register, Darinnen einige KunstwOrter
Latcinisch gegeben werden," in Vernunftige Gedancken von Gott, der Welt und
der Stele des Menschen (Frankfurt and Leipzig, 1729), pp. 672-678. On Wolffs
role in the creation of a German philosophical language see E. A. Blackall,
The Emergence of German as a Literary Language, 2nd ed. (Ithaca, 1978), pp.
39. JubA, Vol. 14, p. 80.
40. Ibid., pp. 84, 94, 117.
Mendelssohn and Religions Enlightenment 137

41. Ibid., p. 99.

42. For the Bhtr vis-a-vis the masoretic text and rabbinic interpretation
see the recent excellent study, Edward Breuer, "In Defense of Rabbinic Tra-
dition: The Masoretic Text and its Rabbinic Interpretation in the Early Has-
kalah," (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1990). For Mendelssohn's use of
general knowledge see Peretz Sandier, Ha-Bhir le-Torah shel Moshe Mendelssohn
ve-Siato (Jerusalem, 1940).
43. JubA, Vol. 8, pp. 99-142. On the Jerusalem, see Altmann, Die Trostvolle
Aufkldrung: Studien zur Metaphysik und polituchen Theorie Moses Mendelssofms
(Stuttgart, 1982), pp. 164-213.
44. For a brief account of the religious Enlightenment, see Sorkin, "From
Context to Comparison."
45. Betrachtungen uber die in der Augsburgischen Confession enlhallene und damii
verknUpfU Gdttliche Wahrheiten, 2 vols. (Berlin & Leipzig, 1733), Vol. 1, pp.
xxi. On Reinbeck see D. A. Tholuck, Geschichte des Rationalismus: Geschichte des
Pietismus und des ersten Stadiums der Aufkldrung (Berlin, 1865), pp. 142—43.
That Reinbeck's work was one of the first Mendelssohn read in German, see
Altmann, Moses Mendelssohn, pp. 25—26.
46. Betrachtungen, Vol. 1, p. 9.
47. Ibid., Vol. l . p p . 115-93.
48. Ibid., Vol. 2, p. 6.
49. Ibid., Vol. 2, pp. xl-xliii.
50. Ibid,. Vol. 2, pp. xliii-xlv.
51. Ibid., Vol. 2, pp. viii-ix, and xxxii.
52. Ibid., Vol. 2, pp. xviii, and xxxv—xxxvii.
53. See, for example, his biblical hermeneutic (first edition 1742) Unterricht
von Auslegung der heiligen Schrift, 3rd ed. (Halle, 1759). On Baumgarten and
his turn to history see Martin Schloemann, Siegmund Jacob Baumgarten: System
u. Geschichte in der Theologie des Ubergangs zum Neuprotestantismus Forschungen
zur Kirchen—und Dogmengeschichte. vol. 26, (Gdttingen, 1974). Also Walter
Sparn, "Auf dem Wege zur theologischen Aufklarung in Halle: von Johann
Franz Budde zu Siegmund Jakob Baumgarten," WolfenbHUeler Studien zur
Aufkldrung, Vol. 15 (1989), pp. 71-89.
54. "Gegenbetrachtungen" JubA, Vol. 7, pp. 87-88; cf. JubA, Vol. 8, pp.
55. Bamberger stresses this point in his introduction to the metaphysical
works. See JubA, Vol. 1, p. xxvi.
56. For a brief comparison of Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish uses of
collegia] theory, see David Sorkin, "Jews, the Enlightenment and Religious
Toleration: Some Reflections," Leo Baech Institute Yearbook, Vol. 37 (1992), pp.
11—15. The standard work on Protestant collegial theory, with some reference
to Catholics, is Klaus Schlaich, Kollegial-theorie: Kxrche, Recht und Stoat in der
Aufl&rung (Munich, 1969). For Mendelssohn see Alexander Altmann, "Moses
Mendelssohn on Excommunication: The Ecclesiastical Law Background," in
Die Trostvolle Aufkldrung (Stuttgart, 1982), pp. 229-243.
57. On the renewal of scholasticism see Karl Werner, Geschichte der kath-
olischen Theologie. Sett dem Trienter Condi bis zur Gegenxvart (Munich, 1866), pp.
179f. On the revival of neglected sources see Josef M uller, "Zu den theolo-
138 David Sorkm

giegeschichtlichen Grundlagen der Studienreform Rautenstrauches," Tub-

mger Theologische Quartalschrift 146 (1966), pp. 62-97.
58. For contemporary discussions see, for example, Beda Mayr, Prufung
der bejahenden Grunde welche die Gottesgelehrten anfOhren; Ober die Frage: Soil man
sich in der abendlandischen Sprache bedienen (Frankfurt u. Leipzig, 1777); and
Benedikt Werkmeister, Beitrdge zur Verbessenmg der kathoUschen Liturgie in
Deutschland (Ulm. 1789). For an overview at these issues see Sebastian Merkle,
"Die katholische Beurteilung des Aufklarungszeitalters," in Ausgewdhlte Reden
u. Aufsdtze (Wurzburg, 1965), pp. 380-92; Eduard Hegel, Die Katholische Kirche
Deutschlands unter dem Einfluss der Aufklarung des 18. Jahrkunderts (Rheinisch-
westfalische Akademie der Wissenschaften Vortrage, 1975, pp. 17-21; Leon-
ard Swidler, Aufld&rung Catholicism, 1780-1850: Liturgical and other Reforms in
the Catholic AufldSrung (Missoula, 1978).
59. A. W. Evans, WarburUm and the Warburtonians (London, 1932).
60. Franco Venturi, "History and Reform in the Middle of the Eighteenth
Century," in J. H. Elliott & H. G. Koenigsberger (eds.), The Diversity of History:
Essays in Honor of Sir Herbert Butterfield (London, 1970).
61. Schloemann, Baumgarten: System u. Geschichte, pp. 97—213.