On January 4, 1786, Moses Mendelssohn, the great philosopher who helped to usher in the Haskala – the Jewish Enlightenment – died, at age 56. Caught between two worlds, Mendelssohn worked hard to live up to the expectations of both the Christian society in which he sought professional acceptance, and the Jewish society he belonged to by birth and faith. While he succeeded at the individual level, his model was not one that worked in the long term.
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Moses Heymann was born in Dessau, Saxony (today Germany), on September 6, 1729. His father, Menachem Mendel Heymann, was a Torah scribe; his mother was the former Bella Rachel Katzenellenbogen-Wahl. It was Moses who changed his surname to “Mendelssohn,” as a way of honoring his father, while sounding less obviously Jewish.
Mendelssohn received a traditional Jewish education, taught by both his father and by the Dessau rabbi David Fraenkel. After Fraenkel was appointed the chief rabbi of Berlin, in 1743, the 14-year-old Moses followed him there to continue his Jewish studies. At the same time, Moses began to study secular subjects ranging from mathematics and physics to Latin, German and English. Much of his learning he did on his own.
It was in 1754 that Mendelssohn made the acquaintance of the German playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. (Supposedly, the two played chess in their first meeting, which is why Moritz Daniel Oppenheim’s 1856 painting, which imagines a meeting between the two in the presence of the young Swiss theology student Johann Kasper Lavater, has the three gathered around a chess board.)
Can a Jew be noble in character?
Lessing, a Christian, had recently written a play, “The Jews,” in which he suggested that a Jew could possess nobility of character, an idea that subjected him to some ridicule. But Mendelssohn seemed to confirm his belief that such a being was possible, and he served as direct inspiration for the title character of Lessing’s 1779 play “Nathan the Wise.”
During his early years in Berlin, Mendelssohn focused on secular studies, and became something of a Jewish spokesman for Christian society. In 1763, he won a contest held by the Prussian Academy of Arts for his essay “On Evidence of the Metaphysical Sciences,” beating out Immanuel Kant.
On the basis of that achievement, Frederick the Great, the king of Prussia, gave Mendelssohn the status of Protected Jew, meaning that he could legally reside in Berlin. People began referring to him as the “Jewish Socrates.”
In 1769, Mendelssohn’s friend Lavater, by now a Lutheran minister, wrote Mendelssohn a letter challenging him either to refute the truth of Christian doctrine – or convert. Mendelssohn elegantly avoided the bait, responding that he did not believe in questioning others’ religious convictions, and that he thought it would be ill-advised for him, as a member of a religious minority lacking in full rights, to engage in a religious disputation.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it was around now that Mendelssohn began suffering severe anxiety attacks, for which he was prescribed a whole range of different treatments.
Jewish and enlightened, too
In the remaining years of his life, Mendelssohn directed more of his efforts toward his fellow Jews. He wrote to Lavater, for example, in Switzerland, after an order of expulsion was issued for the country’s Jews, asking him to intervene on their behalf, which he did, with success.
In 1763, he published his landmark German translation and commentary on the Torah and other selected biblical books. At the time, most German Jews did not necessarily know the High German in which he wrote – they would read the Bible in Yiddish – and Mendelssohn hoped his version would help their integration into German culture.
Twenty years later, in 1783, he brought out what today is thought of as his most significant work, “Jerusalem, or, On Religious Power and Judaism,” in which he makes his case for freedom of individual conscience, and also attempts to demonstrate that one can be a believing Jew, a loyal citizen, and a rational student of the Enlightenment.
Mendelssohn succeeded in realizing that combination of qualities, but within two generations, his descendants all felt the need to choose between integration and Judaism. Between them, his six children had 17 grandchildren, not one of whom remained Jewish.