If you are interested in the rise of Yahweh throughout ancient Israelite history, this is a great article to read.
This weekend, I started analyzing the narrative about the burning of the Khandava Forest. One thing which came to the surface was how I should understand the conflict between the gods and team Arjuna-Krsna. In the case of this passage within the Mahābhārata, the conflict is seemingly Arjuna, Krsna, and Agni (Fire) against Indra and the gods. Yet, when we consider the textual and oral context of the Mahābhārata, another important factor comes into play.
By the period in which the Mahābhārata was being compiled, the Rigveda was an normative text. Predating the Mahābhārata, the Rigveda is a series of poems composed c. 1500 BCE. In it, one of the predominant gods is Agni. Agni is also the Fire god present in the burning of the Khandava forest. This is important because in a few of the English translations of the Rigveda which I have quickly examined, the first hymn in the first book is about Agni, the god of Fire. And because the Mahābhārata was composed in a period when Vedic traditions from the Rigveda were known, it is reasonable to suggest that Fire (Agni) in the Mahābhārata evoked memory of a very ancient deity.
Likewise, Indra is one of the most important figures in the Rigveda. During the Vedic period, he was one of the main gods. Thus, we may assume that any mentions of Indra evoked memory of a deity who was known to be very ancient.
According to Britannica, Agni was second only to Indra. In light of this information, it offers an interesting perspective from which to read the burning of the Khandava forest. It draws emphasis away from conflict between team Krsna-Arjuna and team Indra. It re-focuses emphasis upon the ancient, internal conflict between Agni (Fire) and Indra, important members of the ancient pantheon as presented in the Rigveda.
After I tease out my analysis of the narrative structure, I hope to consider how this approach to the text may be fruitful.
*These thoughts are in no way meant to be complete. This blog is merely an extension of my brain. Writing these on a public sphere is a chance for me to draft and test my ideas before further exploring them. Also, please forgive the lack of proper citations. Feel free to check the entry for Agni on Encyclopedia Britannica or the dating for the composition of the Rigveda.
This is a snippet from my translation of an Akkadian marriage contract.
“If Bashtum has said to Rimum, her husband, “You are not my husband,” they will throw Bashtum into the river.” – Marriage contract written in Akkadian
Previously, I briefly discussed a few of my interests in reading the Mahābhārata. One of these was the potential to learn methods from the History of Religions. Consequently, I could utilize the methods for new approaches to the Hebrew Bible and Near Eastern material. Although I haven’t figured out how to do this yet, I have been fascinated by the parallels between the history of scholarship on the Mahābhārata and the history of scholarship on the Hebrew Bible. Also, some of the ideas are strikingly similar.
One of the earliest scholars of the Mahābhārata was Adolf Holtzmann, Sr. Holtzmann argued that, originally, the losing party was actually the victor. So, in the current state of the Mahābhārata, the Pandavas are the victors over the Kaurava. This recension, though, is a modification of the original story in which the Kaurava are the victors over the Pandavas. Those involved in biblical scholarship may recognize a similar trend in biblical scholarship. Many biblical scholars highlight the conflict between Northern Israel (Samaria) and Judah. Likewise, there is much conflict between surrounding people groups. Within biblical texts, there are many conflicting accounts which have been reworked in order to account for the incongruities.
Another major scholar of the Mahābhārata was E. Washburn Hopkins. Hopkins wrote in 1895, around the period as major biblical studies figures: Gunkel and Wellhausen. Hopkins intensely analyzed the Mahābhārata in terms of meter, philosophy, and languages. He concluded that within the Mahābhārata is an original epic. The current state of the Mahābhārata, though, was agglutinated with many “pseudo-epics.” Needless to say, Wellhausen argued similarly in the same time period. Unlike Mahābhārata studies, though, biblical studies continued intensely throughout the 20th century. Mahābhārata studies slowed substantially at the onset of the 20th century. Of course, both fields, Biblical Studies and the History of Religions, developed in substantially different ways.
Clearly, study of the Mahābhārata and Hebrew Bible in the modern period come from very similar roots. These roots ultimately grew in very different directions. Perhaps by considering why each field developed how it did, we can shed new light on both the Hebrew Bible and Mahābhārata by utilizing new methods. After all, the field of Biblical Studies and the History of Religions seem to be distant cousins.
Buitenen, J. A. B. van. 1973. The Mahābhārata. Book of the beginning: University of Chicago Press, 1973. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed January 10, 2017).
One of my courses at the University of Chicago is an English reading of the Mahābhārata, taught by Wendy Doniger. As a scholar interested in Near Eastern and Levantine history and literature, the Sanskrit epic is outside of my area of specialty. Yet, with the growing importance of interdisciplinary work in academia, the Mahābhārata takes on a new meaning for me. Rather than merely being a Sanskrit epic from another region of the world (India), the epic offers a plethora of opportunities to do comparative literature. In order to do so, I am focusing on a few aspects of the Mahābhārata as I read through John D. Smith’s abridged translation of the text.
First, I am intrigued by the use of ritual, especially sacrifice. For example, the Ugrasravas the Suta, the storyteller, comments on the actions of the Brahmins. He notes there equality to Brahma as it relates to ritual and sacrifice: “every one of you is Brahma’s equal! Noble ones, radiant as sun or fire, I see that in this sacrifice of yours you have purified yourselves by bathing, said your prayers, and made the fire-offerings, and now you are sitting at your ease” (2). Ugrasravas implies that the Brahmins are equal because of their rituals. The rituals included purification by bathing, prayer, and fire-offerings. I am interested in tracing the perception(s) of the efficacy of ritual. Once compiled, I wonder how the diversity of understandings might intersect with, or diverge from, conceptual idea of sacrifice within Mesopotamia, ancient Israel, and the Levant.
Second, I am interested in examining the Moses-like account from the Mahābhārata. Although I’ve yet to reach that story within the Mahābhārata, the basic account is that a character is placed into a river. He ends up being raised in a level of society higher than that to which he was born. What I want to think about is how the employment of the motif compares to Cyrus, Sargon, and, of course, Moses. Perhaps it will yield some interesting results and offer a new perspective on the spread of the motif (or autonomous developments?) throughout the ancient world.
Thirds, I am interested in the intersection of narrative and philosophy/wisdom. Perhaps by reading the mix of narrative and wisdom in the Hebrew Bible, as we see in the Mahābhārata, some intentional aspects and nuances of the Hebrew Bible will become more apparent. This could even be applied to other Near Eastern literature, especially Near Eastern epics like Enuma Elish.
In short, I look forward to how this semester will influence my scholarship. I hope I continue having opportunities to consider non-Near Eastern and Biblical material. By doing so, I may strengthen my own inventory of tools for future consideration of texts. Naturally, this may assist in re-constructing history more precisely.
Religion in the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Edited by Diana Edelman, Anne Fitzpatrick-McKinley, and Philippe Guillaume. Tubingen, Germany: 2016, Mohr Siebeck, pp. 390.
Following in the footsteps of the volume entitled Assessing Biblical and Classical Sources for the Reconstruction of Persian Influence, History, and Culture (click here for my review), Religion in the Achaemenid Persian Empire seeks to explore more broadly the question of toleration and cultural exchange. In particular, the various articles demonstrates how the popular tendency of Persian tolerance is better understood a political strategy.
The book is divided into two parts, “Trends in Emerging Judaism” and “Other Religious Trends in the Persian Empire.” Both titles are self-explanatory as to their respective content. As will become apparent throughout reviews of each contribution, the volume offers a wealth of approaches. These various approaches are important to ongoing scholarship, as they offer alternative approaches, new data, and new conclusions to old problems. In an academic atmosphere where interdisciplinary work is becoming more important, this volume is refreshing.
James Anderson begins by positing two types of dialectics in order to account for competing perspectives of monotheism (“Yahweh alone”) and polytheism (“Yahweh… alongside other gods). These dialectical tensions are paradoxical and directional. The aforementioned were applied as rhetorical strategies by priestly-scribes in Yehud during the Persian Period, Anderson suggests. While his idea that priestly-scribes created dialectical tensions as a rhetorical strategy, his argument lacks well-developed textual analysis. Absence of this is problematic because even he carefully notes the limited evidence. When the argument is more developed, it may be more convincing.
Philip Davies applies the theory of “translatability” to monarchy. For “any presentation of a state’s patron deity as king… is a claim about the state itself and its ruler” (27). Notably, Davies is careful to recognizes the intercultural currents between regions and regional autonomy of thought. As an approach to the influence of Persian religion and empire upon Yehud, he offers an intriguing approach; however, it may be fruitful as well to consider “translatability” outside the period of Persian Yehud. Even so, Davies’ contribution is an important development and consideration in the impact of Persia upon religion in Yehud.
Russel Hobson argues “the cultural memory of the Yehudite Yahwists from the Persian period reflects a renewed interest in the ethnic divisions of the Transjordanian region” (52). Hobson approaches the issue by tracing both developments in text and archaeological evidence for regional population. Being geographically grounded, Hobson’s argument is important because it connects archaeological evidence, cultural memory, and textual evidence into a coherent theory of Yehud culture and ideas of ethnic divisions during the Persian period.
Philippe Guillaume considers the Zoroastrian calendar in order to shed light on emerging Judaisms during the Persian period. He notes, first, the relationship between the Zoroastrian calendar, which attributes the calendar and time itself to Ahura Mazda. Likewise, Genesis roots the calendar in creation and makes Yahweh the “origin of time.” Second, he argues that Mesopotamian elements in the Avestan calendar are due, in part to the the overthrowing of Nabonidus. Following Cyrus’ victory over Nabonidus, the Avestan calendar with its Mesopotamian elements reached Palestine sometime between the reign of Cambyses and Xerxes. Based on this, Guillaume asserts that the Biblical week, the “Semitic week,” is the legacy of Zoroastrianism and derived from it. One of the major issues with Guillaume’s contribution, interesting as it is, is the lack of any framework. He fails to offer any sort of clear framework for his argument in order to convey its significance. Additionally, he seems to imply that he is the first to consider that “Genesis 1 has more to do with the creation of a new calendar than with the creation of the universe” (61). He is not. Although I am unable to access them at the moment, I have read several articles and commentaries which draw out the fact that Genesis one is establishing a new calendar. In short, Guillaume’s contribution may have valuable information for understanding how the Avestan calendar influenced the Judean calendar; unfortunately, the article lacks a structure that actually helps the reader to understand what he is arguing for.
Lowell K. Handy argues that Josiah is not necessarily understood as a role model for leadership in the Persian period; rather, he is understood as “peg” where good Judean religious leaders could hang their beliefs. Overall, the argument is unclear. Additionally, the significance of the argument is unclear.
Christian Frevel and Katharina Psychny evaluate E. Stern’s argument concerning the origins and functions of cuboid incense burners. Specifically, they focus on their association with foreign cults. By examining the distribution of cuboid incense burners and iconography, Frevel and Pyschny push against the claim that cuboid incense burners are of Pheonician origin (Stern’s claim) is deficient, even though the cuboid incense burners do bear a distinctive style. They suggest, then, that the absence of incense burners from Yehud may have more to do with the economic situation than religious distinctiveness. I am particularly fond of this contribution because it moves beyond the issues of religious differences; however, their conclusion should include more serious consideration of the religious distinctiveness. Even if the “depressed regional economic situation in Yehud” in archaeology yields no incense burners, the depressed situation may also explain why Yehud religion developed how it did. Thus, religious distinctiveness should be considered when comparing Yehud with coastal areas or trade routes. This minor critique, though, does not take away the value of this contribution. Without a doubt, this is one of the best contributions, and most valuable, to the volume.
Following the focus on Yehud, Part II moves onto non-Judean religious trends in the Persian Empire.
Anne Fitzpatrick-McKinley argues that Persians were not more “benevolent” than Assyrians. Like the Assyrians, their “benevolence” was political. Working through a wealth of data, Fitzpatrick presents a convincing and important argument that each empire, the Persians and Assyrians, “responded to the conditions they encountered and both could be wielders of terror and destruction as well as the sophisticated creators of diplomatic relations” (164). Overall, this article is extremely valuable and pushes against stereotypical representations of Persian benevolence as a religious practice. My only criticism with her work is that the boundary between political and religious is far too clear. Perhaps future work will consider the nuances of her conclusion when a more descriptive understanding of Persian/Assyrian politics/religion is considered as part of the conclusion.
Jason Silverman offers what he called “the bare outlines of what could be called an Achaemenid theology of kingship” (188). He approaches it through three major points: the figure of Yima, the topic of Achaemenid paradise, and Achaemenid rhetoric of peace through the concept of shiyati. For the figure of Yima, Silverman draws out his association with kingship. Following, he explores how the Persian concept of paradise was a micro-empire making a statement about the king himself. Additionally, he briefly considers how royal ideology used shiyati in order to connote their roles as “bringing in the perfection of the world through their efforts” (187). In short, Silverman argues that his outline of ‘royal theology’ offers a structure for analyzing the influence of Persia on elite circles. Overall, Silverman’s contribution is fantastic. His outlined royal theology enables future scholars to do further work on the interrelations between Persia and other nations during the Persian period. Although I’d like to see a more developed and firm structure, this is a wonderful starting point.
Yannick Muller considers how textual evidence of mutilation in linked to how Achaemenid Persia thought about the body and religion. First, he links the beheading of Leonidas and Cyrus the Younger to Sassanian Persia through the cult of Anahita. After examining practices in the Northern Pontic region and Scythian practices, Muller makes a strong claim about beheading: the cult of deities comparable to Anahita and the practice of beheading are rooted in Iranian culture. Having established a geographical and historical relationship between Iranian mutilation practices and Western Europe, he probes a similar issues relating the right hand and face mutilation. For each example of mutilation, Muller presents convincing textual evidence for the religious significance of mutilation in Achaemenid Persia. Without a doubt, this is one of the better contributions to the volume. It presents a new way of thinking about mutilation in history. More importantly, Muller successfully draws out world-understanding of ancient peoples. I am particularly interested in how Muller’s analysis may unlock a more thorough understanding of Judean-Persian relations. That is, Judean-Persian relations as it regards mutilation practices.
Diana Edelman analyzes iconography of the Sidonian double shekel. She first reviews imagery in four groups of Sidonian coinage and contextualizes the motifs of all Sidonian coins. She concludes that the figure riding the chariot on the double shekel is meant to be the Great King of Persia. Needless to say, the erudite analysis of Edelman is strong and quite convincing. While the article is not well-structured and clear, the data and conclusions speak volumes. Most significantly, Edelman’s conclusions heralds a more nuanced understanding of how people groups in the Levant related to the Achaemenid Persian empire.
Mark Christian attempts to demonstrate how Phoenician religious contribution to the Persian fleet is minimized. Yet, it is still unclear exactly what Christian is arguing for. Even when he does put forth his conclusion it is problematic: “My inability to demonstrate a connection between Persian naval personnel, their gods, and their experiences at sea has proved disappointing. It also struck me as odd that so many details are missing. In spite of the danger of arguing from silence, I propose that Persian commanders and crew integrated their religious knowledge relative to weather and river gods” (312). This statement strikes me as odd, for it destabilizes any potential of his arguments. There is, though, nothing to destabilize. Most of the data from which he draws seems more than an amalgamation of incoherent data lacking cogency.
Damien Agut-Labordere briefly examines extant evidence for changes introduced by Achaemenid Persia to Egypt. Persian involvement in Egyptian temples during the reigns of Cambyses, Darius I, and Darius II, progressively increased. Cambyses abolished the donation network of Egyptian temples, only tempering it by exempting the temples from taxes to Persia. Darius I increased control over Egyptian finances through Persian administration. Darius II acted in a way which (1) confirmed Persian power and (2) maintained good political relations with the Memphite elite. His argument successfully pushes against Egyptological tendencies to understand Achaemenid religious tolerance as inadequate. Likewise, he offers strong evidence for a politically motivated “religious tolerance” within a small locale. Although it is the shortest contribution, it is one of the best written, most convincing, and most important contributions within the volume.
In a similar vein of Egyptology, Jared Krebsbach argues that Achaemenid patronage of Egyptian religious institutions (1) followed a non-interference rule and (2) allowed Persia to fulfill the proper pharaonic role as defenders of world order. Krebsbach considers hieroglyphic sources from the 27th dynasty in order to demonstrate this point. He provides additional evidence for politically driven patronage of particular Egyptian cults. His argument is important as it further the political intentions of Achaemenid Persian “religious toleration.” Like Agut-Labordere, Krebsbach provides a more localized example of Persian policies. Consequently, he offers a thoughtful argument against religious toleration and for political motivation of Persian policies.
Deniz Kaptan considers religious traditions in Achaemenid Anatolia through bullae with seal impressions and stelai fragments from Daskyleion. Daskyleion is important because it was the satrapal center of Achaemenid Anatolia. Though analysis of these artifact, Kaptan illustrates a mixture of new Anatolian cults during the period as well as active, older cults. Thus, Anatolian religious traditions during Persian rule is shown to have maintained great diversity. As with the majority of contributions to the volume, Kaptan constructs archaeological and textual data coherently in order to draw out a more localized example of how Achaemenid Persian religion impacted its various satrapies. This contribution in particular is interesting because it offers (potentially) a starting point for study of the relationship between the Levant and the Aegean region.
In conclusion, this volume, Religion in the Achaemenid Persian Empire, is a mixed bag. Some contributions contribute substantially to our understanding of the impact of Persian policies regarding religion; yet, some contributions fail to offer a coherent argument. The bad apples aside, the volume is wonderful. It offers a variety of approaches, new and renewed, to the study of the Achaemenid Persian empire and how it impacted various regions. More broadly, it is refreshing as it ushers in a renewed understanding of Achaemenid Persian empire ideology as it relates to religion. I highly recommend this work for studies on (1) emerging Judaism, (2) Achaemenid Persian studies broadly, and (3) the movement and exchange of ideas during Achaemenid Persian rule.
*I’d like to express my gratitude to Mohr Siebeck for providing a review-copy in exchange for my honest opinion.
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.