Moses Mendelssohn, Good, and the Felicity of Humanity

moses_mendelson_p7160073This quarter I am taking a course called Introduction to the Study of Religion. One of the main texts for the course is an anthology of letters by Moses Mendelssohn. For those who do not know, Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) was a Jewish philosopher. He is considered the found of modern Jewish philosophy. Particularly unique about Mendelssohn was his role in the German enlightenment. He was both an accomplished Jewish scholar through Jewish texts and a leading figure in the German enlightenment. In other words, he wrote for the small group of people who subscribed his religious tradition and the broader discussions relating to the enlightenment outside of Jewish traditions.

For scholars, the question has been in a similar vein: “was Mendelssohn able to achieve a coherent synthesis between his Jewishness and his Germanness, between his commitment to Judaism and to the Enlightenment? (XVII)”. The question is relevant for today. For, it questions the relationship between religion and state on a personal level.

In one of his letters, he discusses the relationship between good and institution. In summary, Mendelssohn argues that if an institution produces good, he should support it. Even if it produces good and is based on a tradition which he wholeheartedly opposes, he is obliged remain silent about it so that it continuous producing good. On the other hand, if an institution ruins the felicity of humans, it should be directly attacked. That is his obligation.

His principle is well reasoned and should be considered before any action against any institution is taken. For myself, it is enlightening and something which I will consider in all of my decisions. Yet, it is too abstract. As an ideal, it can move society in a good direction. As a concrete reality, though, it does not exists. Sometimes, what accidentally produces good, or even intentionally produces good, is also producing evil, actions detrimental to the felicity of other humans.

I offer this critique in hopes that either (1) Mendelssohn already addressed this nuanced complexity or (2) someone, perhaps myself, can develop a more concrete principle under the influence of his more abstract principle. In other words, I wonder how this principle can be used, and to what extent, in the reality of life.

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4 thoughts on “Moses Mendelssohn, Good, and the Felicity of Humanity

    • Well, I technically have not started yet. All of done is read the books for a few of my class.

      I am in the MA in Hebrew Bible program. This quarter, I’ll be taking Hebrew, Akkadian, Intro to Religious Studies, and Intro to Hebrew Bible. I look forward to it!

      What are you involved with at the moment?

      • I am in my second year of a three-year MA. The MA itself is actually two years, but I am taking a third year because I am earning two graduate certificates concurrently, in Jewish Studies and Islamic Studies. My major interest is the Bible and interfaith dialogue, so I am focusing especially on sacred texts and their interpretation in each tradition. My major major interest is Bible and Qur’an, but the Qur’an does parallel some rabbinic folklore, so I am finding that knowing how to navigate Talmud and Midrash are very helpful! Like you, I am focusing on Hebrew Bible. Just can’t get into NT scholarship. But I like biblical poetry too much.

        Not to be blunt, but wouldn’t Intro to Hebrew Bible be a little… boring for you? After all you did major in it as an undergrad. Akkadian does sound fun though!

        The biggest surprise for me about graduate biblical studies is how little bible you actually read. In my program we spend a lot more time learning tools and methods than we do just reading/interpreting the texts in the original languages. I think the idea is that you can read the texts on your own time, but the methods need to be taught. But I do miss the kind of courses I did in my classics program where we would pay close attention to the text without necessarily having some kind of theoretical agenda to pursue. Of course, your program might be different, and given you’re at Chicago you will probably get into a lot more of the ANE stuff than my program does. Best of luck as you start!

        On Sat, Sep 24, 2016 at 7:56 AM, The Biblical Review wrote:

        > willhartbrown commented: “Well, I technically have not started yet. All of > done is read the books for a few of my class. I am in the MA in Hebrew > Bible program. This quarter, I’ll be taking Hebrew, Akkadian, Intro to > Religious Studies, and Intro to Hebrew Bible. I look forward t” >

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