Lecture #1 - February 12, 1971 - 45:34 min (mp3)
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Mosse begins the semester with Moses Mendelssohn and his “Jerusalem” of 1783. As a son of Enlightenment, Mendelssohn believed that religion should never be “enforced” and his work tried to balance the Enlightenment and Judaism. Convictions, according to Mendelssohn, could not be put under restraint, since they belonged to man’s cognition- the rational judgment of the mind. Judaism, he maintained, knew no forcing. Even Moses on Mt. Sinai never commanded - only appealed - to action. For Mendelssohn, what Moses did was to activate the “categorical imperative” of the children of Israel. Moses’ message was that man was never the means, only the end. Mendelssohn thus attempts to reduce Jewish law to rational truth.
Mosse comes back to a famous story from rabbinical literature, recounting how Hillel, when asked to explain Judaism to someone standing on one foot, responded: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” That is Judaism. The speaker’s sentiments, though, are the feelings of the Enlightenment. God only gave the ceremonial law to the Jews to preserve the purity of the minimum doctrine. The latter is necessary since amid heathens and fools, God must keep his message pure. To do so is the purpose of the ceremonial law. The law itself does not force men to thought, but merely prescribes deeds and acts. Yet, by prescribing deeds, it leads men to thoughts. The purpose of deeds is to keep man’s thoughts pure. Moreover, through ceremonial law, the Jews become a unity. Mendelssohn emphasizes that the Jew is the custodian of the Enlightenment in a way the Christians can never be because Christians have a belief in supernatural revelation. Thus, the “mission” of Judaism is to proclaim the Enlightenment. In “Jerusalem,” Judaism is the eternal wisdom of God recommended through man’s rational self. Secondly, it is a historical tradition. The reason for the existence of the Jewish nation is the covenant with God to keep his laws pure. Authority is entirely vested in God. Thirdly, these rules lead to happiness because they connect thoughts and life. They are in part preserved through tradition, in part in writing and can only be changed through a new revelation by God. God’s Law leads man toward a general rational attitude to life. (Mosse states that this is a Jewish apologia, written in German for an audience of philosophes).
In “Jerusalem”, the Jewish Law was meant to keep Jews separate as carriers of an eternal rationality. Though the children of Israel were chosen, this was soley because they were the children of the rational and universal God. Eventually, religion did become a separate sphere: a Jew is only a Jew in his observance of the Jewish Law, otherwise he is a part of enlightened humankind.
Turning to Mendelssohn’s biographical background, Mosse claims that Mendelssohn’s Hebrew writings were artificial and stilted. It was he who started the utter contempt for Yiddish, because it was “impure”, which hints at the classicist aesthetics of the Enlightenment that Mendelssohn shared. A proponent of the teaching of Hebrew, but above all German, Mendelssohn founded a Jewish preschool in Berlin, the first Jewish school in which German and Philosophy were taught beside Jewish subjects. Here, Judaism became indeed solely a religion, and Jews “Germans of the mosaic religion.” Judaism, then, was not in conflict with the Enlightenment; it also creates a common ground despite its separateness. Thereafter, even early socialists like Moses Hess shared the view that it was the “mission” of the Jew to stress reason and rationality throughout the world.
The problem was the ceremonial Law. For Mendelssohn, or as he was known “the little hunchback”, it was still an integral part, though it became less and less so. Being a harmonious personality, Mendelssohn thought separateness and Enlightenment reconcilable. Despite this view, all of Mendelssohn’s grandchildren converted to Christianity. Abraham, his son, assumed a universal rational religion based on the existence of a “divine instinct”. The outward form of religion was historical and changeable. Christianity was the “creed of all civilized people.” Mendelssohn’s progeny is an example for how difficult it was to hold this balance rather than slip into conversion. The balance of Judaism and the Enlightenment that Mendelssohn had in mind had two lasting effects: it would become the essence of the Jewish Reform movement, and secondly, it would lead to a persistence of Enlightenment ideas among Jews long after the outside world had long abandoned them. For example, in rejecting the rise of nationalism, Jews remained fifty years behind their time.
Enlightenment ideas are still apparent in the moral indignation of today’s Jewish intellectuals. Mosse raises the question: what did Jewish emancipation mean for the gentiles-since Jewish and European history are in general interplay? The year 1711, at the beginning of the Enlightenment, marked a crisis for Jews caused by the burning of the Frankfurt ghetto. The Christian historian of this fire approved of the Frankfurt City council’s decision to grant food and shelter to the Jews, and indeed condemned the harsh treatment and insults directed towards Jews by the mob. But, he asked, if you shelter a Jew, should he be allowed to pray in your house? His answer was ambivalent: Christians should shelter Jews, but keep apart from them and not take Jewish money for rent. The historian hoped that the Jews would not rebuild their synagogue, since the fire was obviously a punishment. New here is that Jews are human beings and thus deserve shelter; old patterns of thoughts and emerging ideas on the extension of charity coincide. In a way, this idea indicates the beginning of universalism. In 1781, Christian Wilhelm Dohm, a friend of Mendelssohn, published his book “About the Improvement of Jewish Citizenship.” If “Jerusalem” was to be a charter for Jews who wanted to be Jews and enlightened, Dohm’s book was a charter for the Christian reaction to it.
Questions and answers:
Q: What about theology in Mendelssohn?
Theology is in the ceremonial Law, but absent in the traditional way. In Judaism as a rational religion there are no more places for what Mendelssohn called the “hairsplitting of the rabbis.”
Q: Where was Mendelssohn’s circle of friends located?
In Berlin: This all happened in Berlin. For the first time, a wealthy Jewish aristocracy mixed on equal terms with Berlin’s intellectual aristocracy, and even with clerics. For example, Dohm was a cleric.
Q: How did Mendelssohn react to his children’s attitude and to his grandchildren’s conversion?
He did not live to see it. His wife did, but we do not know how she reacted. Mendelssohn’s descendants made great contributions to European civilization, for example the composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.
Q: Did Mendelssohn’s children doubt the existence of God?
No, that was not yet an issue.
Q To what kind of Christianity did they convert? Was it theological in character?
The Christianity to which they converted was a romantic and theological Christianity. Their commitment was really to a kind of Romanticism. They rejected the ceremonial Law and the literal importance of the bible, so there was no reason for a Jew to remain the custodian of the ceremonial Law. They followed the Romantic theology of Hegel, Tieck, Schlegel and Schleiermacher.
? (Question inaudible).
In “Jerusalem,” Mendelssohn tries to disprove page after page the idea of the “stern Jewish God.” It was not the Jewish God of the Christian emancipation; rather, it was “the gentle persuader.”
Q: What about the effect on Jews outside the “intellectual aristocracy”?
The ideas of emancipation were going to affect, slowly, every Jew in the end, but in the beginning it was a matter of the elite. The whole Enlightenment was an elite affair, the mass of ordinary people joined evangelism, John Wesley.
Q: Did Mendelssohn ever live in a ghetto?
No, there were no ghettos in Prussia at all. The only Jews allowed into Prussia were Court Jews. Later, there were Jews in Prussia living in Posen. But the admittance of Jews to Prussia historically happened on the basis of wealth.
Q: Why couldn’t you assimilate? Why did you have to convert?
You wanted to be part of the larger scope of humanity, of the intellectual scene. Mendelssohn solved the problem: Enlightenment is in the custody of the Jews, therefore you have already joined the civilization. With the Romanticism of Schlegel and the new Christianity, this became impossible. If the Enlightenment had lasted, there would not have been a problem.
Q: How could the idea of an anti-Christ be reconciled with the admission of the Jews?
Because enlightened gentiles gave up the idea. They tried to free themselves from the superstitions of religion.
Q: In what way was the burning of the ghetto in 1711 a turning point?
It was a turning event only in one way; the change of attitude that was for the first time expressed by a historian. It showed a slight turn to the universalism of the Enlightenment, though still ambivalent: the historian still thought Jews to be usurers.