Moses Mendelssohn

Herald of the Jewish Enlightenment.

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Yet despite having lost its coercive authority, Judaism has not lost its meaning. Even though revelation does not directly impart philosophical or scientific truths, Mendelssohn believes that the laws of the Torah indirectly point to these eternal verities. While there is no one-to-one correspondence between particular mitzvot and specific insights into truth, the framework of halakhah is designed to push us into relationships with teachers and rabbis and to stimulate us to contemplation, learning and instruction.

If Judaism is still meaningful, it also has binding authority (in terms of individual conscience, of course). The Torah was given to the Jewish people at Sinai (for proof of this Mendelssohn relies on the medieval argument that the testimony of 600,000 people who witnessed the revelation can’t be wrong--ignoring the fact that the only evidence for the existence of these witnesses is the very narrative which their testimony is supposed to corroborate). As such, the Torah is to remain in force until God publicly abrogates it. Therefore Christians should not only desist from proselytizing, they should demand that Jews follow their conscience and remain true to their tradition.

Rationalism & Tradition

Mendelssohn's argument pushes in two directions simultaneously. On the one hand, he argues for the liberalisation of Judaism, grounding it in universal rationalism and calling for the abolition of the religion's coercive authority. On the other, he calls on Jews of good conscience to remain observant and to be faithful to the tradition. Perhaps for this reason, Jerusalem attracted very little support in its own time. Maskilim ("enlightened," modernizing Jews) objected to its affirmation of halakhah, whereas the orthodox could not accept the dismissal of religious coercion.

Mendelssohn found himself caught in the dilemma subsequently experienced by every thinker who has attempted to synthesize Judaism and liberalism. While rationalist apologetics are essential if Judaism is to be made relevant, the rationalist argument ultimately implies that the tradition should conform to a new source of authority--reason. This paves the way for a process of selection, in which those aspects of Judaism which don’t make sense in modern terms are simply filtered out. The Torah's unity and authority are thereby irrevocably damaged. Perhaps this explains why Mendelssohn ultimately held back from the logical conclusions of his rationalist critique: the authority of Judaism can be upheld not in terms of reason, but on the basis of faith.

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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.