“Moses Mendelssohn: Enlightenment, Religion, Politics, Nationalism” edited by M. Gottlieb

This review was completed by a fellow student at the University of Chicago, Joel Swanson. Joel is an MA student at the University of Chicago Divinity School, with a focus on modern Jewish thought. Joel is interested in the intersections of phenomenology and Jewish theology, and in the unique insights that the rabbinic hermeneutic tradition can contribute to our understanding of postmodern philosophy. He has also worked as a domestic violence counselor and on political campaigns. Joel is a graduate of Swarthmore College with Highest Honors, where he was awarded the Jesse H. Holmes Prize for the best work of original scholarship in religion. When he completes his MA degree, he hopes to earn a PhD.

Moses Mendelssohn: Enlightenment, Religion, Politics, Nationalism. Edited by Michah Gottlieb. CDL Press, 2016, 368 pp.

Late in his life, Moses Mendelssohn found himself forced to defend the daily Jewish prayer Aleinu in a public contretemps with the Christian community of Königsberg. Two verses in the prayer, translated as “For they worship vanity and emptiness, and pray to a god who cannot save,” were widely viewed by Christians as an attack on Jesus, a reading based upon the testimony of a fourteenth century Christian convert from Judaism. As a result, in 1703 King Friedrich of Prussia signed an edict forbidding the recitation of these two verses of the Aleinu, and appointing Christian inspectors to enforce this ban. Seventy years later, David Kypke, an orientalist appointed as the inspector of the Königsberg Jewish community, filed a complaint alleging that the Jews purposely mumbled their recitations of the prayer, and therefore that he could not be sure they were not reciting the offending verses. The Jewish community of Königsberg prepared a response to these allegations, and naturally, it fell to Moses Mendelssohn to serve as the emissary to the Christian community and deliver this response.

The dispute is pregnant with cultural meaning, and in fact it may be seen as a synecdoche for Mendelssohn’s career as a whole. The eminent German Jewish philosopher, who spent his career arguing that there was no contradiction between Enlightenment philosophy and adherence to traditional Jewish law, was forced into an apologetic position, forced to serve as the public representative of the Jewish community before the German Christian elite. Mendelssohn responded to Kypke’s charges with an essay arguing that the offending verses of Aleinu are in fact not attacks on Christianity at all, but instead refer to the pagan peoples that the ancient Israelites encountered in Canaan. Mendelssohn’s argument in defense of Aleinu was at its core a pluralistic one. He maintained that while ancient Israelites needed to distinguish themselves from the idolaters outside, modern Jews have no such need, and in fact do not consider Christians idolaters at all, merely followers of a different religion with a different path toward truth. According to Mendelssohn, Jews continue to recite the Aleinu not to attack other religions as idolatrous, but as a warning against the temptation of idolatry that lurks within all monotheists. Mendelssohn’s defense of Aleinu is a masterful use of emerging Protestant notions of pluralism and interiority to defend a particular Jewish tradition.

There’s only one problem, according to Gideon Freudenthal in his essay “Idolatry Everywhere, Idolaters Nowhere.” Mendelssohn’s argument, as theoretically compelling as it may have been, was simply not true. As much as Mendelssohn wanted to advance a reading of Aleinu as part of a pluralist message against the idolater within us all, this is simply not how most Jews throughout history understood the prayer. Most Jews, says Freudenthal, did in fact see these two verses in the Aleinu as an attack on Christians, and no amount of creative rewriting of history on Mendelssohn’s part could change this. In order to defend Judaism before Christian authorities, Mendelssohn wound up redefining his own tradition.

Freudenthal’s essay and the twelve other pieces that comprise Moses Mendelssohn: Enlightenment, Religion, Politics, Nationalism all probe this seemingly irreconcilable division in Mendelssohn’s life and thought. Mendelssohn tried to be all things to all people, to stand as both the Enlightenment philosopher enthralled with Leibniz and the German rationalist tradition, who maintained intellectually fruitful relationships with luminaries such as Lessing and Kant, and the faithful Jew who saw himself as the corrective to Spinoza’s errors, who wanted to remain faithful to his own tradition and its own unique halakhic laws. He wanted to make a case that Jews could fully engage with the intellectual debates of their day, without abandoning their own normative religious commitments. He wanted to believe that doing Enlightenment philosophy would not inevitably lead to excommunication, as it did for Spinoza. Most of all, he wanted to argue that the choice between Jews abandoning their own Jewish law to integrate into Prussian society as equals or remaining segregated in their own self-governing shtetls was a false dichotomy, that Jewish civil emancipation and continued adherence to Jewish law could comfortably coexist.

These tensions intrinsic to Mendelssohn’s philosophical and political projects mean that many different readings of his oeuvre are possible. Indeed, Mendelssohn wrote for so many different audiences that he may even have approved of widely divergent understandings of his own works. If one wants to emphasize Mendelssohn’s Hebrew language works, to place him in a distinctly Jewish philosophical lineage dating back to Maimonides, as does David Sorkin, then his works license such a reading. Edward Breuer and Warren Zev Harvey’s essays also contribute to this project, demonstrating the uniquely rabbinic and Jewish precedents for Mendelssohn’s political thought and showing that even when Mendelssohn seemed to diverge from Jewish tradition, he always remained informed by it. If, on the other hand, one wants to see Mendelssohn as part of a secularizing Enlightenment project, which inevitably weakened the normative claims of every historical religion, as does Shmuel Feiner, then Mendelssohn’s works can license that reading, as well.

These divergent interpretations of Mendelssohn’s projects hinge upon which of Mendelssohn’s works one chooses to focus upon; he wrote Enlightenment philosophy in German for a Christian audience and Jewish commentary in Hebrew for his own community. Elias Sacks attempts to integrate these two halves of Mendelssohn’s output with an innovative argument that Mendelssohn believed wholeheartedly in both the intellectual “anarchy” created by modernity and its emphasis on the free use of reason, and in the need to maintain Jewish law as a way to ground oneself amidst this chaos. For Sacks, Mendelssohn’s famous redefinition of the Jewish law as a living script grounded in action and not in belief or doctrine allows Jews to affirm the truth or falsity of a wide array of philosophical beliefs without losing their grounding in a particular tradition. Lawrence Kaplan, on the other hand, raises the question of whether Mendelssohn’s reputed commitment to Judaism was in fact just a political tactic to hide his actual belief in the eighteenth century creed of deism. Kaplan sees Mendelssohn as a strategic thinker, who knew that he needed to maintain at least a rhetorical commitment to Judaism in order to remain effective as a spokesperson for his community. Yet Kaplan also argues that this tension remained unresolved in Mendelssohn’s work, and that the attempt to maintain his hidden deism while publicly aligning himself with Judaism led to contradictions that Mendelssohn himself knew could never be resolved.

Rachel Manekin looks at this same question of whether Mendelssohn should be seen as more naturalist or more Jew through a historical lens, reviewing Mendelssohn’s relationship to the Catholic monarch Joseph II of Austria. Manekin gives a detailed account of debates over how to integrate Jewish marital laws into Joseph II’s reforms of Prussian civil law. She concludes that Mendelssohn’s contributions to this debate may be seen as attempts to preserve Jewish particularity while still subjecting Jews to the authority of the Prussian civil state. The fact that Mendelssohn faced great opposition from both sides in this effort, from both Jewish and Prussian authorities, is perhaps the greatest testimony to the limitations of his project.

Several essays in the volume bring Mendelssohn in dialogue with other thinkers to elucidate his thought. Ursula Goldenbaum challenges the dominant reading of Mendelssohn as a weaker thinker than his interlocutors such as Jacobi and Lessing, a misreading that she attributes to the hegemony of Leo Strauss. Goldenbaum argues that it is only by understanding Mendelssohn’s true debt to Leibniz, a debt which she thinks Strauss underplays, that we can see the underlying unity in Mendelssohn’s thought. Bruce Rosenstock, on the other hand, is more sympathetic to Strauss’s critique. Rosenstock looks at Kierkegaard’s reading of the famous pantheism controversy to illuminate the difference between a paradoxical view of religion and an enlightened view. Rosenstock uses Kierkegaard’s sympathy toward Jacobi’s public challenge to Mendelssohn as a lens to examine the limits of enlightened religiosity, and the need for religious thinkers to take an untranslatable leap into a belief that can only be explained paradoxically. Michah Gottlieb compares Mendelssohn and Spinoza’s views on the legitimacy of state censorship, pointing out that Mendelssohn adopted Spinoza’s basic argument that belief is an internal state that cannot be coerced by the external state. Yet Mendelssohn was more circumspect than Spinoza about state power, and he denied that a single state religion promoted by the sovereign could ever be legitimate. Mendelssohn contradicted himself on several occasions on the question of whether censorship of certain dangerous opinions such as atheism may ever be legitimate, suggesting that he never reached a single definitive conclusion on just how far freedom of conscience should extend.

Robert Erlewine uses Hermann Cohen’s later works to examine the impact of Mendelssohn’s attempted fusion of German and Jewish cultures. Erlewine demonstrates how Cohen’s readings of Mendelssohn grew more sympathetic over time, as Cohen himself worked to maintain a mission for the Jews as a distinct, separate community that nonetheless had a significant role to play in the broader historical sweep of the German nation. Cohen, like Mendelssohn, wanted the Jews to engage with German culture without entirely assimilating to it. Of course, the tragic events that occurred just decades after Cohen’s death demonstrate the limits of Cohen’s attempted synthesis of Judaism and Germanism. Yitzhak Melamed takes this critique further, applying a postcolonial lens toward the entire Enlightenment project, which he sees as totalizing, absolutist, and denial of basic human differences. Melamed suggests that in its attempt to reduce all human knowledge to a single faculty of reason, the Enlightenment inevitably leads to creating hierarchies of more and less reasonable cultures; indeed, he goes so far as to suggest that this mindset led directly to genocides against “lower cultures” like the Maori in New Zealand. Melamed’s critique is a valuable one that deserves to be taken seriously, but in this context it feels rushed, and this essay would be more effective situated at the end of the volume, rather than as the second chapter. Melamed’s critique remains incisive and valuable nonetheless; no evaluation of Mendelssohn’s thought can ignore the tragic denouement to the German Jewish experience, and judged in hindsight, it is hard to argue that Mendelssohn’s attempted reconciliation of Judaism and Germanism could ever be wholly successful. Talal Asad argues that the only two possibilities for the minority in the face of Enlightenment subjectivity are “complete assimilation or the status of despised difference,” and the outcome of German Jewish history must be seen as lending credence to this critique.

Moses Mendelssohn: Enlightenment, Religion, Politics, Nationalism offers valuable insights on Mendelssohn’s project, and points toward new methodological lenses to approach his work and additional thinkers to bring into dialogue with his oeuvre. If, in the end, the volume provides no definitive answers to the eternal questions of whether Mendelssohn was more deist or Jewish believer, more Enlightenment universalist or Jewish particularist, more philosopher or more rabbi, then this is because Mendelssohn’s work as a whole resists such easy answers. Mendelssohn could never stand on one side or the other, because the moment he picked a side, he could no longer fulfill his mission as the emissary of the Jewish community toward the Prussian elite. Mendelssohn’s defense of the Aleinu prayer demonstrates that he himself realized this. In addition to advancing a detailed theoretical argument for why the two offending verses are not in fact attacks on Christians, he also proffered a simple denial that the Jewish community of Königsberg was in fact reciting these verses. One might think that these two points are in contradiction with each other. If the law required that the Jews not recite two verses of the Aleinu, would not a simple denial that they were in fact reciting these verses have been the most effective response? And by going through a convoluted argument that reciting these verses was not in fact an attack on Christianity, was not Mendelssohn undermining his own denial? The fact that Mendelssohn insisted on doing both – on arguing both that Jewish tradition was wholly compatible with Enlightenment pluralism and that Jews would follow Prussian civil law even when their own particular tradition conflicted with it – shows both why Mendelssohn’s synthesis could never be truly successful, and why scholars continue to debate the tensions within his thought more than two centuries after his death.


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