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.


The Significance of a Biblical Genre

Genre in General

In reading anything, whether a grocery list, love letter, or satirical article, it is of the utmost importance to understand the genre of the text. After all, if one reads a satirical article as if it were a publication from The Seattle Times newspaper, there would be a significant misunderstanding of what it was trying to express. Take, for example, the following Onion post:

“WASHINGTON—Confirming that the probe successfully entered orbit around Mars late Sunday night, NASA officials reported today that the Maven spacecraft was now set to begin its mission of taking thousands of high-resolution computer backgrounds. “In its first year alone, the Maven probe will capture several hundred crisp desktop wallpapers of the Martian landscape in previously unattainable detail,” said NASA scientist Bruce Jakosky, noting that the space probe’s sophisticated instruments would ensure the backgrounds were in resolutions up to 1920×1200 and large enough to span two side-by-side monitors.”


Obviously, the author is not attempting to present this as a “fact”. With the knowledge that this is a satirical genre, it is clear that he is making light of the fact that people tend to simply use pictures of space for their background pictures, failing to recognize the scientific significance of the images. Rather than informing, the article is reflecting on something observed in culture.

Although it seems as if everybody should know this naturally, they do not. Everybody, even great scholars, defines the genre of a book before reading it because it informs them of how to understand the book. Like the Onion, one must understand the genre of a book in the Bible in order to truly grasp what is being expressed.

Genre in the Bible

In the Bible, there are multiple genres. The Old Testament has prophecy, law, history, narrative, etc. Among these genres, within the academic world, many will find sub-genres of a genre. However, that is beyond the scope of this post. Instead, this post will examine Genesis 1-3 and observe why genre is important in reading it.

Genesis 1-3 is not a historical record or scientific journal. If one reads Genesis 1-3 justly, it is essential to understand that it is a mythological account of the creation of the world and establishment of Order. As an important note, mythology does not mean false; it is simply an explanation of some phenomenon. In the case of Genesis 1-3, Genesis 1 focuses on the Order of creation and role of mankind within it. Genesis 2-3 is more focused on the creation of man and women and, in essence, why evil exists. Why does understanding the goal of the text in light of this genre matter?

People will often read something like Genesis 1:26 and make a statement like, “Because God created man, and then male and female, women should be subordinated to men”. Or, they will look at God’s creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 and claim that “women should be subordinate to men because they were created from his rib”. This interpretation, however, misses the point of the text. Genesis 1-3 is not written as a historical account of the origins of humanity. Rather, it is a mythological account of the creation of the world and the fall of man in order to explain certain elements of humanity that seem to be wrong.

Unfortunately, this gross misunderstanding of the genre of Genesis 1-3 has caused many theologians, modern and ancient, to claim that man was designed as the superior being to women. With such a profound affect on Christianity and western culture as a whole, it is clear why a correct interpretation with acknowledgement of the biblical genre is absolutely essential. So, next time you read a book, especially a book of the Bible, understand what the goal of the text is. Ask what the genre is. To misunderstand the genre may result in and interpretation never intended by the author, and perhaps completely opposed to the goal of the author.

The Essential Story

Recently, I started a group at my school called “One Read”. The goal of the group is quite different from others. Many people will put together bible study groups aimed at studying Bible passages. “One Read”, rather than looking to pull things out of individual pericopes, reads the entire text in one sitting. Today we read through the book of Mark in an hour and twenty minutes. While it did take much time, it was more beneficial than I expected. In it, there were two major benefits that the Church, often unable to focus on one thing for more than five minutes, misses out on: humbleness and understanding.

In hearing the Gospel of Mark read for an hour and twenty minutes, there was a certain amount of patience and humbleness required in order to let it speak the way it was meant to. Mark was originally written to be read out loud, not studied with individual life verses. That is not to say pericope focused studies are bad. Rather, in order to fully understand a pericope, it is necessary to read the text in its fullness. Too often people have little or no willingness to hear the fullness of the story. And that is the problem. Mark is written as a story with the expectation that the hearer will partake in the emotion, feeling, and flow of it. Human beings are creatures that live and thrive in the world and cultures through stories that express humanity. That is just what the Gospel of Mark works with. It is a story that a person should submit themselves to in order to feel the full intention and aim of the text, a challenge for many. To do otherwise is to read it in a “non-human” way of thinking.

The second major lesson was that of understanding. Scholars often write long and complicated papers expressing some idea in the Bible. The average person considers them smart because the scholar saw something nobody else did. What if every person actually has the potential to see what the scholar can see? When a person invests their heart and soul into feeling a story, into experiencing the story with the characters, they open themselves up to feeling the emotions and thoughts of the character. In that, they realize the motifs and themes within the story that try to shed light on and define humanity, the same things scholars often write about. Once the hearer of the story is humbled to the text, they can understand the story in ways that they never believed possible. A willingness to humble the self allows an understanding of what the author is actually trying to express, thus allowing people to consider whether or not the message is something the hearer is willing to take up and live by.

So what? The Gospel can be understood as the essential story, a story that gives definition to humanity and purpose. To read it merely as an academic piece of work is to dishonor the original goal of it, to ignore the purpose of it. It is a story meant to challenge the reader. And we should read it as one. It is essential to always remember that the Gospels are written as stories, essential stories to human character and life.