Moses Mendelsohn and the Jewish Enlightenment

Mendelssohn, Lavater and Lessing, in an imaginary portrait by the Jewish artist Moritz Daniel Oppenheim

Mendelssohn, Lavater and Lessing, in an imaginary portrait by the Jewish artist Moritz Daniel Oppenheim

On September 6, 1729, German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn was born, who inspired the Haskalah movement of Jewish Enlightenment in the 18th and 19th century. Haskalah was a movement among European Jews in the 18th–19th centuries that advocated adopting enlightenment values, pressing for better integration into European society, and increasing education in secular studies, Hebrew language, and Jewish history. Moses Mendelssohn’s descendants include also the famous Felix Mendelssohn.

Moses Mendelssohn grew up in a poor family in Dessau and was educated by his father, a local rabbi and a Jewish physician. He was very curious about philosophy and soon bought John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Mendelssohn became a teacher of the wealthy family Isaac Bernhard’s, who later also became his partner. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing became one of Mendelssohn’s closest friends in the 1750’s and both influenced each other significantly through the years. Because of Lessing, Mendelssohn was able to publish his first philosophical writings and thoughts, which caused him first public attention. In his early works, he criticized the Germans for neglecting their native philosophers, mostly Gottfried Leibniz and further works contained anonymous satires and joint works of the two friends together.

In the 1760’s Mendelssohn continued his studies and was awarded a prize by the Berlin Academy for his essay “On Evidence in the Metaphysical Sciences” which discussed the application of mathematical proofs to metaphysics. By the way, his competitors were Thomas Abbt and Immanuel Kant. As a result, a fruitful correspondence between the prize winner and Abbt evolved which resolved in writing Immortality of the Soul. This work was a great success and Mendelssohn was soon to be known as the German Plato or the German Socrates.

In 1763, Johann Kaspar Lavater travelled to Berlin to visit the famous Mendelssohn. They asked him to discuss his views on Jesus and the philosopher answered that he “respected the morality of Jesus’ character”. Lavater later asked Mendelssohn to refute Charles Bonnet‘s essay on Christian Evidences, which caused a lots of public controversy around Lavater and Mendelssohn.

In the further years of his work, Mendelssohn tried to bring Jewish people closer together and closer to their religion and culture. He translated several holy books for the Jewish community including numerous commentaries. He also took part in the founding of a public Jewish school in Berlin around 1778, which was highly welcomed in the community. Mendelssohn fought for the Jews’ rights and general acceptance and published several works on the subject. Immanuel Kant openly supported Mendelssohn’s writings but also mentioned issues in implementing the author’s ideas in society.

Mendelssohn’s fame and overall reputation grew on and on until Lessing passed away and a serious correspondence between Mendelssohn and Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi evolved. Mendelssohn intended to write a book about Lessing and his achievements, but Jacobi accused Lessing to have been a convinced atheist. The correspondence between both of them was later published and caused lots of criticism towards Mendelssohn.

Still, Mendelssohn’s contributions to philosophy are numerous and he is remembered as the father of Reform Judaism. At yovisto, you may enjoy a video lecture by Dr. Henry Abramson on Moses Mendelssohn and his achievements.

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