Moses Mendelssohn


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German Jewish philosopher (1729–86), often called the father of the Haskalah. Mendelssohn was born in Dessau, where he received a thorough grounding in Bible, Talmud, and Codes. He accompanied his teacher to Berlin in 1743 and, acquiring a comprehensive acquaintance with German culture, became a leading figure among the German intelligentsia. The hero of Lessing's Nathan the Wise is a thinly disguised Mendelssohn. In collaboration with other Maskilim, Mendelssohn produced his commentary to the Pentateuch, the Biur, in a modern idiom, interpreting Scripture in its plain meaning and providing a German translation. Typical of Mendelssohn's thinking is his Phaedon, published in 1767, a philosophical exposition, in universalistic terms, of the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, a doctrine which Mendelssohn, like his contemporary Kant, believed to be based not on dogma but on the demands of reason. Mendelssohn's general treatment of Jewish dogmas has been much discussed. For Mendelssohn, it would seem, or at least so it has been understood by many of his exponents, Judaism is revealed law. It is the practices enjoined by revelation that are significant for Judaism, questions of belief being left open to a large extent; though, as Mendelssohn's critics have not been slow to point out, belief in a revealed law is itself a dogma.

Mendelssohn's thought has rightly been seen as a pioneering attempt to find the correct balance between strong Jewish commitment and the necessary accommodation the modern Jew has to make in order to be at home in Western culture and civilization. Yet he has had a large number of detractors, who have viewed his approach as dangerous to Jewish faith, especially since a number of his children became converted to Christianity. In the circle of strict Orthodoxy in Hungary in the nineteenth century a ban was placed on the study of the Biur. It has been said with justice, none the less, that every Jew has been influenced, directly or indirectly, by the three great figures of eighteenth-century Jewry—Elijah, Gaon of Vilna, the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, and Mendelssohn.

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.

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