Moses Mendelssohn

Herald of the Jewish Enlightenment.

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A Changing Identity

Focusing on building his literary career and intent on gaining acceptance in Christian intellectual circles, Mendelssohn tried to give his Jewish identity a low public profile. Yet the growing incomprehension of many Christian intellectuals of how a cultured, sensitive person like Mendelssohn could remain loyal to an obsolete religion eventually forced his hand.

In 1769, Johann Caspar Lavater, a Lutheran minister who had met and been impressed by Mendelssohn, challenged him either to refute the truth of Christianity or, if this was impossible, to act on his conscience and be baptized. Mendelssohn responded that Judaism's inherent religious tolerance prevented him from criticising other people's spiritual convictions and, that as a member of an oppressed minority, it would be unwise of him to engage in religious disputations. Even though he avoided answering Lavater's theological charges, the incident profoundly upset Mendelssohn and perhaps pushed him in the direction of increased Jewish involvement.

From the 1770s, Mendelssohn began to exploit his celebrity status to intervene on behalf of Jewish communities facing restrictions, discrimination and expulsion orders. Following the French revolution he became involved in the debate over Jewish rights, urging his colleague Christian von Dohm to write what became the manifesto for Jewish emancipation, On the Amelioration of the Civil Status of the Jews.

Perhaps Mendelssohn's most significant contribution to Jewish life was his pioneering translation of the Torah into German. The work was intended, according to Mendelssohn, to provide a "first step towards culture" for the Jews; in other words, to wean them off Yiddish and teach them German while enabling them to read the Bible in the context of the Jewish, rather than the Christian, interpretive tradition.

However, what guaranteed Mendelssohn's place in the canon of modern Jewish thought was his book Jerusalem, or On Religious Power and Judaism, published in 1783.  In this polemical work Mendelssohn strives to demonstrate that Jewish faith is compatible with good citizenship, and that traditional Judaism is a rational religion, consonant with the values of the Enlightenment.

In particular, Mendelssohn is keen to show that Judaism has no element of coercive authority in order to dispense with the accusation that Jews in modern society are inevitably torn between compliance with the demands of their faith and obedience to the civil authorities. But in making this claim, Mendelssohn runs into a problem: how to argue against religious compulsion without undermining the necessarily obligatory basis of Jewish law.

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Matt Plen

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.