Modern Jewish History - Maurice Harris

Moses Mendelssohn

The last paragraphs in the preceding chapter brought us ahead of our story and near to the present time. Let us turn again to the 18th century and to the Jews of Germany. Germany was still but a geographical expression including many independent States. Our story takes us to the most powerful of them all, Prussia.

Early Struggles.

It is not unusual to begin the life of Moses Mendelssohn with the year 1743, when as a hunch-backed, stuttering boy of fourteen, a bundle of clothes on his back, he knocked at the Rosenthaler gate of Berlin. This Talmud Bachur came not "to seek his fortune", but to sit at the feet of his old teacher, Rabbi Frankel. His hunger for learning was greater than his hunger for bread — and both at first were indifferently satisfied. His whole intellectual equipment when admitted to Berlin, was an ability to read the rabbinic commentaries of the Scriptures and to speak Juedisch-Deutsch. Yet, with a book picked up here and there — to buy which he often denied himself food — with an occasional hint from an occasional friend, he groped his way through the avenues of knowledge. His rabbinic training as a mental discipline stood him in good stead. He learnt successively German, Latin, French and English, and later Greek, taking in mathematics through a Hebrew T translation of Euclid's Geometry. Then he sailed gradually into the higher realms of thought, studying philosophy from the Greek Plato down to the English Locke. This was all done in the hours stolen from his leisure, when his daily work as a silk-mercer's clerk was over. Later in life a partnership in his employer's business gave him ampler ease and opportunity to indulge his love of learning.

Knowledge finds its own. He was soon a welcome member in a cultured group that met in a "coffee-house". An acquaintance with chess was a passport too. Thus he came to know Lessing, one of Germany's literary geniuses. That friendship marked an epoch in his life. For Lessing put into print the "Philosophic Conversations" of the modest scholar who would not have sought publicity for himself. Germany awoke to find that the Ghetto had given another teacher to the world.

Soon this man whose mother tongue was a corrupt patois, was teaching German style to the German. He dared rebuke King Frederick the Great for slighting the language of his country; for he preferred French and Voltaire. In spite of this daring, which may be but a legend, he was made a "Court Jew". Not his superior philosophy, but his superior diction, won for his essay the Royal Academy of Science prize, with Immanuel Kant, greatest modern philosopher, as one of his competitors.

"Phaedon," — Immortality.

But he also became a religious teacher to the sceptical world of the eighteenth century. It was this son of Israel who revived the waning faith in the immortality of the soul, thereby carrying out the Jewish mission to "bring light to the Gentiles." He paraphrased Plato's "Phaedo," a dialogue on the subject, and further developed the theme. Accepting God's existence as a postulate without further proof, his chief arguments are:

  • If the body (matter) does not perish, but passes into other forms, surely the soul that dominates the body is imperishable.
  • We find this immortal belief implanted in our being and we cannot conceive that God would deceive his children by imbuing them with a false hope.
  • He followed up this demonstration with the inference, so much needed in that sceptical hour, that life is a charge, not an absolute possession; therefore man has no right to extinguish it; for an almost pagan irresponsibility towards life was prevalent in some circles in the 18th century.

Mendelssohn, who had never seen the inside of a university, had now won a European reputation. He was called the modern Socrates and litterateurs crowded his salon. His home became to many a literary center and to some even a shrine.

Jew and Christian.

As a consequence of this work, one of his admirers, Lavater, a Swiss clergyman, dedicated to him his "Proofs of Christianity" actually expecting Mendelssohn to endorse it. So little was Judaism understood, it was not supposed that Mendelssohn's views could be those of the Synagogue. Lavater's challenge was a temptation to cut his associations with the Ghetto, its restrictions and its humiliations and enter untrammeled into the Gentile world. But Mendelssohn was not only a great mind, he was a great soul. He did not even seek to save the situation by a policy of silence. He replied to the invitation to enter the Church to this effect:

"Of the essentials of my Faith I am so indisputably assured that I shall ever adhere to it. The doctrines of the despised Judaism are more consistent with reason than those of Christianity. For it consists of natural religion supplemented by certain statutes."

Mendelssohn as Emancipator.

The reply brought out quite a pamphlet literature and Mendelssohn's courage made him more esteemed than ever. But he now turned his attention to his own people. He was destined to be their emancipator both from without and from within.

In Mendelssohn's day the milder persecutions of badge, Ghetto. Leibzoll (body tax), religious prejudice, economic exclusion and social contempt, had done their best to bemean the Jew, making him abject in spirit. His language, manners, dress, and modes of livelihood were so many makeshifts. We have seen that his religion had become for the most part a Talmudic training, tempered by Kabalistic mysticism. The realm of general culture was a terra incognita. In fact all secular study was rigidly prohibited. Naphthali Herz Wessely, Mendelssohn's worthiest disciple (who later carried on his emancipating work) thus describes the state of education among the Jews of the eighteenth century:

"They are ignorant of the rules of Hebrew, of the beauty of its diction and its poetry. Much less are they acquainted with the languages of the people among whom they live; some can neither read nor write them. The construction of the globe, the events of history and the principles of civil law, of natural and scientific philosophy, are altogether hidden things to them. They are not properly acquainted with the fundamental principles of their Faith: nor are they taught morality or psychology in their schools."

We may add to all this, that economic restrictions kept the masses in poverty.

Internal Emancipation.

Mendelssohn sought the renaissance of Israel in two directions — cultural and religious. Culture was to come through the open avenue of a modern language — German, and in awakening in the Ghetto Jew an aesthetic sense. The religious regeneration of "the people of the book" must come from "the Book." The Bible had never been consciously neglected; but it had been lost in its own Talmudic elaboration. He therefore served both ends by translating the Pentateuch into German. Hebrew letters made the alien forbidden tongue less offensive. His commentary to the text, in which Wessely assisted, opened many doors of knowledge. A paraphrase of the Psalms followed. In spite of his safeguards, some of the elders looked at it dubiously, but it was hailed by young Jewry. Thus Mendelssohn's translation of the Bible had almost as great an influence on the Jews as Luther's on the Christians. It gave birth to a band of Jewish authors who gradually learned to write, not in corrupt "Hebrew-German," but in pure Hebrew and in pure German. These Hebrew writers were called Measscfim (collectors). Their contributions were issued through a periodical "Ha-Meassef"; the subjects included literature generally, in prose and poetry, science, biography and history.

External Emancipation.

Thus the inner cultural emancipation was begun. The outer, political, was aided by Lessing's "Nathan der Weise." This great drama was among other things a plea for the legitimacy of Judaism and Mohammedanism as against the Church that claimed the monopoly of truth and virtue. So Lessing skillfully chooses his heroes from the despised cults. Nathan, the hero, is his friend Mendelssohn; Saladin was one of the noblest of Moslems.

Communities in surrounding lands now sought Mendelssohn to plead through him for the removal of their disabilities, for he was the most influential Jew of the age. He found he could best serve them through his powerful friends. So at his instigation his distinguished ally, Dohm, as daring as Lessing, produced a work on "The Civil Amelioration of the Condition of the Jews," in 1781. The times were propitious:

  • Montesquieu had pleaded for the Jews in his "Spirit of the Laws," and other Frenchmen were soon to follow.
  • Naturalization had already been granted to the Jews by the English in their American colonies.
  • The enlightened Joseph II of Austria allowed the Jews to take up handicrafts and agriculture; — (to think they should ever have been denied!) He also established Jewish schools.

Mendelssohn's own plea was put in the form of a work called "Jerusalem, or Ecclesiastical Powers and Judaism" — in 1783. It was a plea for civil rights based on the philosophic ground that as belief cannot be commanded, the State should grant the widest liberty of thought and speech in religion and should sit in judgment only on the deeds of men. Here he showed the influence of Spinoza with whose philosophy, however, he did not agree. He called Judaism, not a revealed religion, but a revealed legislation. To place emphasis on duties rather than on beliefs has always been a characteristic of Judaism.

When Mendelssohn died in 1786 at the comparatively early age of fifty-seven, he had created an epoch in Jewish history. His career exemplifies true genius. In spite of physical drawbacks, poverty, social exclusion, political disability from without, and intellectual restrictions within — he broke through all barriers, sectarian, social and cultural, and he became one of the teachers of Europe, a founder of a new school of disciples and of literature, and the religious and political emancipator of his people.

Solomon Maimon.

A contemporary and disciple of Mendelssohn was Solomon Maimon. His autobiography is valuable, not only for the revelation of his intellectual development "from Polish ignorance to pure philosophy" but also as a faithful picture of his times. Here we have depicted the savage cruelty of the Polish nobility and soldiery together with the savage ignorance of the Polish peasantry. Among the Jews we have revealed the repulsive cheder (school-room), the narrow exclusion of secular studies, and languages, the prevalence of superstition, the abuses of the Chassidim, the asceticism and the idealism of the pious and the grinding poverty of the great majority.

As with Mendelssohn, Maimonides' More Nebuchim "Guide to the Perplexed" was Maimon's emancipator, hence his adopted name. His keen mind grasped at once the errors in the philosophy of Leibnitz and Wolf and he was able to expound the English philosopher Locke at a first reading. He also discovered that the theory of Spinoza was not atheistic but rather the reverse — acosmic, i.e., denial of existence of the world rather than of God.

Yet this vigorous intellect achieved nothing beyond his autobiography. He remained an intellectual vagabond and he failed because he lacked — character. His very scepticism was part of his defect of soul. He throws a helpful sidelight on the nature of Mendelssohn — his own moral reverse. He shows the "Jewish Socrates" a Hillel in his calm, a stoic in his strength of denial. We see again in Maimon's pages Mendelssohn's mental depth, his impatience with trifles, his sympathetic imagination and his inherent philanthropy.


Mendelssohn and Lessing:—Mendelssohn and Lessing, the David and Jonathan of literature, stimulated each other, where less noble natures might have found cause for rivalry. Lessing fed the poetic and artistic side of Mendelssohn; Mendelssohn fostered the philosophic in Lessing and materially aided him in his difficulties.

Immortality:—The Jew is sometimes charged with disbelief in immortality. But against, the current view that the Jewish Scriptures do not teach a future life, the following texts may be cited: Daniel xii, 2, 3; Ecclesiastes xii, 7; Isaiah xxv, 8 and xxvi, 19; Proverbs xii, 28 and xxiii, 18; Psalm xlix 16; Psalm xvi, 10, 11; Psalm xvii, 15; Psalm cxvi, 3 — 9; also in the Apocrypha: Wisdom of Solomon, i, 15; fi, 23; iii, 1 to 5; iv, 1; viii, 13 and 17; xv, 3. The Rabbinic writings are saturated with belief in the Resurrection and Immortality and it forms the thirteenth article of Maimonides' creed. Many references will also be found in the Jewish Prayer Book. See Montefiore — J. Q. R., Vol. xii, 372; vol. xiv, 96.

Mendelssohn's "Jerusalem":—The statement that Judaism is a legislation, not a creed, has led to the inference that Mendelssohn denied dogmas to Judaism. This he partially corrects in a letter to Herr Elkan (Monatschrift, Leipsic, 1859). His contention rather was that the dogmas of Judaism were such as would appeal to rational minds — to those inherent religious instincts called natural religion.

See in this connection Schechter, Studies in Judaism, First Series — "Dogmas of Judaism," J.P.S.A., also Matthew Arnold, Literature and Dogma. Ch. i.

"Jerusalem," by Isaac Lesser, The Occident, Vol. ix, 1851.

Translations — Mendelssohn's "Introduction to Pentateuch," and Wessely on "Education," Hebrew Review, London, 1859.

See Karpeles' Jewish Literature and other Essays, on Jewish society in the time of Mendelssohn.

Abrahams' Jewish Literature, Ch. xxi.

Meassefim:—Renaissance of Hebrew Literature. Ch. ii, Slouschz, J.P.S.A., 1909.

Maimon, by Murray; Translation of his Autobiography, Cupples and Hurd, Boston, 1888.

Themes for Discussion:— (a) Has Judaism dogmas? What is the distinction between a creed, a doctrine and a dogma? Show how Judaism diverges from Christianity in its attitude towards dogma. (b) Discuss "the Story of the Three Rings" in Lessing's "Nathan der Weise".