Moses Mendelsohn and the Religious Enlightenment

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“His life our standard, his teaching our light” Isaac Euchel wrote about Moses Mendelssohn. Moses was a model for Jews in Germany during the late 1770’s, and a dominant figure in the emergence of the Haskalah. The Haskalah borrowed many forms and categories from the already existing European Enlightenment, but its contents were largely derived from medieval Jewish philosophy and biblical exegesis. Within the novel, Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment, David Sorkin conveys how Moses made the German Enlightenment compatible with Judaism, and shows Moses to be a more consistent thinker than previously believed; his views on Judaism, natural laws, and natural rights developed early and remained consistent throughout his lifetime. Sorkin accounts Moses’ contributions to Jewish thought in three successive phases: philosophical, exegetical, and political.

First, in the philosophical phase, Sorkin reveals the foundations of Moses’ thought. At an early age, Moses read the bible, memorized passages, studied Hebrew grammar, and wrote biblical poetry. All of these activates later were key in the Haskalah. In 1743, at fourteen, Moses moved to Berlin, which was at the center of the German Enlightenment, and theorist Christian Wolff was a dominating influence. Wolff’s focus was to natural theology, where he accounted that God's existence and attributes were the basis for theology and ethics. Influenced by Wolff, Moses sought to apply these Wolffian concepts to Judaism. Moses used his own version of Wolffian philosophy as a means to articulate his full belief in revealed religion. For example, he alluded that God was the source of all perfection and thus the source of metaphysics and natural theology. He thought that Enlightenment philosophy and Judaism complemented each other, and that philosophy served Judaism as an instrument of self-articulation. As a result, he began to write philosophical works in German, and Jewish works in Hebrew.

Most important during the start of his career, he introduced a distinction between practical and theoretical in philosophy, which was also influenced by Wolff. Moses stressed a Jew’s primary obligation is “torah and good deeds”, not philosophical contemplation. To Moses, revelation set distinct limitation on theoretical knowledge, so he concentrated no practical knowledge, which was usually later seen in the form of commentary, since commentary was seen as the legitimate form through which truth is approached.

Moses’ early Hebrew works were commentaries in which he attempted to renew the tradition of philosophy in Hebrew, again using ideas from Wolffian philosophy. His first work, The Kohelet Musar, was the first modern journal in Hebrew. Another subject he addresses is the concept of an ideal personality, which was in terms of ones individuals’ relationship to God and his fellowman. To Moses, the ideal is the “man of faith” who combines religious study, honest occupation, family, and trust in god.

Also, in Moses’ early works, he argued the importance of the study of the Hebrew language and the bible. In a commentary on Maimonides’ Logical Terms, he insisted without Torah and tradition, we are “like a blind man in the dark”, and the true path to knowledge is the combination of torah and logic. Continuing the Wolffian beliefs, Moses asserted that although things might look accidental to man, to God they are all necessary. His early works such as The Kohelet Musar and Logical Terms were both commentaries that embodied Wolfian principles. However, The Book of the Soul, was different in the regard that it was a freestanding philosophical work that Moses withheld from publication. In Moses’ early works, Sorkin notes that the lack of any original content is significant.

According to Sorkin, the conclusion of Moses’ philosophical career was with the Lavater affair in 1769-1770. By the end of the 1760’s, Moses’ philosophical position was established and would...
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