Moses Mendelssohn

Moses Mendelssohn

Translated from the Hebrew by Anthony Berris
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Moses Mendelssohn
    Book Description:

    The "German Socrates," Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) was the most influential Jewish thinker of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A Berlin celebrity and a major figure in the Enlightenment, revered by Immanuel Kant, Mendelssohn suffered the indignities common to Jews of his time while formulating the philosophical foundations of a modern Judaism suited for a new age. His most influential books included the groundbreakingJerusalemand a translation of the Bible into German that paved the way for generations of Jews to master the language of the larger culture.

    Feiner's book is the first that offers a full, human portrait of this fascinating man-uncommonly modest, acutely aware of his task as an intellectual pioneer, shrewd, traditionally Jewish, yet thoroughly conversant with the world around him-providing a vivid sense of Mendelssohn's daily life as well as of his philosophical endeavors. Feiner, a leading scholar of Jewish intellectual history, examines Mendelssohn as father and husband, as a friend (Mendelssohn's long-standing friendship with the German dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was seen as a model for Jews and non-Jews worldwide), as a tireless advocate for his people, and as an equally indefatigable spokesman for the paramount importance of intellectual independence.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16752-8
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. 1 A Stroll Down Unter den Linden
    (pp. 1-16)

    In the early evenings and on Sundays and holidays during the eighteenth century, many Berliners would take a pleasant stroll through the hunting grounds of the Tiergarten and down the linden-lined boulevard of Unter den Linden, which led to the royal palace. In the last decades of the century, the residents of the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia and numerous visitors to the city—who came to gain a firsthand impression of one of Europe’s nascent cities of culture—could see Jews mingling with the other strollers in the city’s parks and along its boulevards. The presence of many...

  4. 2 From Dessau to Berlin: An Unpredicted Career
    (pp. 17-34)

    In the spring of 1761, when Moses Mendelssohn was thirty-two, he traveled to northern Germany to visit the home of Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschütz, one of Ashkenazi Jewry’s greatest rabbis. It seems that Mendelssohn, in view of his Talmudic erudition, expected Eybeschütz to grant him the rabbinic titlemorenu, “our teacher,” or the somewhat inferiorhaver, “peer.” Eybeschütz possessed this power by virtue of his authority as the community rabbi of Altona as well as the neighboring Hamburg and Wandsbek. In the 1750s Eybeschütz was accused by his bitter adversary, Rabbi Jacob Emden, of secretly believing in the messianic pretender Shabetai...

  5. 3 Cultural Conversion: The Three Formative Years
    (pp. 35-55)

    In the early 1750s Mendelssohn joined the public sphere of the German Enlightenment. Through incessant study he gained a command of the fundamental essays of philosophical discourse, and he soon took his place among Berlin intellectuals. One of them, the writer and publisher Friedrich Nicolai, wrote in awe that when Mendelssohn discovered the philosophical world of Leibniz, Wolff, and Locke, and the theological concepts of rationalistic religion, “He suddenly found himself in a completely different world, for up to that time he had almost no idea about Christian theology or philosophy more recent than that of Maimonides.”

    Mendelssohn immediately connected...

  6. 4 War and Peace, Love and Family, Fame and Frustration
    (pp. 56-82)

    From autumn 1756 to winter 1763 the Seven Years’ War raged on various battlefields throughout central Europe, involving all the major European powers and exacting a toll of close to one million lives. The war had begun with a successful preemptive strike by Prussia against the perceived ambition of Austria, France, and Russia to undermine the German state. But it became a war of survival for Friedrich II. Tens of thousands of troops were killed, the economy’s resources dwindled, and in 1760 Berlin even fell briefly into the hands of Russian troops. Prussia was perceived as an aggressor, supported only...

  7. 5 Affront and Sickness: The Lavater Affair
    (pp. 83-106)

    For fifteen years Mendelssohn delineated a protected social space for himself. In a political, civil, and economic milieu riddled with suspicion, oppression, and hostility toward Jews, he crafted a standing of respect in the community of scholars and men of letters. Personal friendship was the bulwark of this status, almost a ritual of eighteenth-century Germany, where men of the intellectual elite readily displayed their feelings publicly. His friendships, founded on mutual respect and trust, were nurtured in groups, in reciprocal visits, and in correspondence, reassuring Mendelssohn that there existed a territory in which he could enjoy equality, freedom, and respect...

  8. 6 Dreams, Nightmares, and Struggles for Religious Tolerance
    (pp. 107-152)

    In mid-1772 the values of the Enlightenment were tested within the Jewish sphere for the first time, when Mendelssohn came into conflict with a prominent representative of the rabbinical elite on the issue of the Jewish prohibition against delaying burial of the dead. The fear of death that Europeans experienced throughout the eighteenth century was complicated in the second half of that century by the findings of scientists. Physicians and researchers revealed that the cessation of breathing and pulse could no longer be accepted as a certain indication of death. They presented several horrific cases of people who had fainted,...

  9. 7 Jerusalem: The Road to Civic Happiness
    (pp. 153-186)

    In 1782 Mendelssohn’s friend Napthtali Herz Wessely published an open letter,Divrei Shalom ve-Emet(Words of peace and truth), that caused consternation in the rabbinical elite. Mendelssohn anxiously followed the furor stirring Jewish public opinion in the wake of the Wessely affair, which posed a particularly serious challenge to his belief in religious tolerance. In contrast with Mendelssohn’s moderate and reserved response to the Austrian Emperor Josef II’s Edict of Tolerance, Wessely enthusiastically welcomed the unprecedented window of opportunity that had been opened to Jews. Renewal of the debate on the question of the Jews, the expansion of Enlightenment in...

  10. 8 Specters: The Last Two Years
    (pp. 187-216)

    To Mendelssohn’s great disappointmentJerusalem, his most important philosophical treatise, did not take Jewish society by storm, and rabbis and maskilim alike paid it scant attention. Of particular concern to Mendelssohn were the qualified, even chilly reactions of the German enlightened. The ideas inJerusalem, Mendelssohn confessed, are “of such a sort which neither orthodox nor heterodox people of either nation expect.” In contrast to the praise heaped upon him sixteen years earlier with the publication ofPhädon, he now faced increasingly harsh criticism. Still, several notables praised the work; he particularly prized a letter from Immanuel Kant, who viewed...

    (pp. 217-222)
    (pp. 223-226)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 227-237)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 238-239)