Moses Mendelssohn

Elias Sacks

in Jewish Studies

ISBN: 9780199840731
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:
Moses Mendelssohn


A leading rationalist philosopher of the German Enlightenment and a figure in the early Haskalah, Moses Mendelssohn (b. 1729–d. 1786) is often described as the “founder” of modern Jewish thought. Born in the rural town of Dessau, he received a traditional Ashkenazic Jewish education before moving to Berlin at the age of fourteen, eventually finding employment in the household of a wealthy Jewish owner of a silk factory. Mendelssohn would later become a partner in this business enterprise, remaining involved even as he pursued the literary career and communal activities for which he is remembered today. After arriving in Berlin, he acquired a variety of European languages and began to study the writings of non-Jewish thinkers, and his first German publications on philosophy and literature appeared during the 1750s. By the late 1760s, he had become known as the “German Socrates” and was a leading figure in German intellectual life, gaining a reputation as a defender of the rationalist philosophy associated with G. W. Leibniz, and composing influential works in fields such as metaphysics and aesthetics. The 1750s and early 1760s also saw Mendelssohn publish his first writings on Judaism, which—directed primarily at Jewish readers—included a short-lived Hebrew journal and a Hebrew commentary on Maimonides. Mendelssohn’s first published German work on Judaism appeared several years later, in 1769, when he responded to a public call to convert to Christianity with a defense of his loyalty to the Jewish tradition. He would continue to write on Judaism both for Jewish and non-Jewish audiences throughout his career, with his two most influential works appearing in the early 1780s: The Book of the Paths of Peace (often known as the Bi’ur), which included a German translation of, and Hebrew commentary on, the books of the Pentateuch, and Jerusalem, or on Religious Power and Judaism, which—responding to another call to abandon Judaism—defended the compatibility of the Jewish tradition with Enlightenment philosophy and the modern state. Complementing these literary efforts were Mendelssohn’s extensive political activities: he frequently came to the assistance of Jewish communities that found themselves in conflicts with local authorities, and he played a central role in emerging debates regarding the role of Jews in non-Jewish society. Mendelssohn died in 1786, in the midst of a bitter dispute—known as the Pantheism Controversy—regarding the value of Enlightenment rationalism, and his personality and writings came to assume a central place in modern Jewish consciousness. While for some Jews he became a hero worthy of emulation, for other Jews he became a symbol of modernity’s flaws.

Article.  14690 words. 

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies

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