The Ceremonial Performance of Aesthetic Judaism (Moses Mendelssohn)

What has always interested me about and drawn me to religion is theater. My theory is that in the modern period, as art turns into religion, that religion turns into a kind of art. It goes back to the 18th century. Here are excerpts from a recently published essay, “The Emergence of Modern Religion: Moses Mendelssohn, Neoclassicism, and Ceremonial Aesthetics” that I wrote for Christian Wiese and Martina Urban in honor of Paul Mendes-Flohr. It’s a part of a larger project on the aesthetics of liberal German Judaism. The project, to which I hope to return, has been placed on a backburner.

I’ll write more about the entire volume once I finish reading it. In the meantime, about Moses Mendelssohn, aesthetic Judaism, and neoclassical style, I had this to say:

“It is almost a given that one cannot underestimate the radical changes shaping the creation of modern religion in the eighteenth century, a century recognized by most scholars as a period of profound transformation in politics, philosophy and the arts. Liberal religion emerges in climates marked by revolution and anticlericism in France, religious and philosophical Enlightenment in Germany, the rise of empiricism and democracy in England and the United States. Across Europe and the Atlantic, the period sees in the arts a shift to neoclassical (Greek and Roman) standards of style away from baroque religiosity and rococo “decadence.” But what was the nature of that transformation for modern Judaism in Germany? In the thought of Moses Mendelssohn, Enlightenment and Judaism were not separate features. I will try to show the philosophical coherence of the fusion. Mendelssohn believed that Judaism does have something vitally significant to contribute to human culture that reason cannot provide on its own. Overlooked by his critics, aesthetics and an aesthetic conception of Judaism play the key part in highlighting that abiding coherence of Mendelssohn’s contribution to modern religious thought, in which reason and revelation form parts of a variegated, single piece.

 Looking past the caricature that reduces Enlightenment to “the unhappy consciousness” of avid intellectualism, dogmatic rationalism, atomistic individualism, it is possible to see that eighteenth-century Germany was indeed the ideal environment for the reinvention of religion and, with it, the creation of modern Judaism. Nearly all historians of the Enlightenment understand the unique openness of Germany and the German Enlightenment to religion. This has been attributed to the abiding hold of some putative German metaphysical temperament, although Ernst Cassirer spoke more to the point when he surmised that it was Leibnizian philosophy that acted as the “medium” within which modern religious thought could develop, as it was Leibniz who sought in his system a pre-established harmony meant to “comprehend and reconcile the most antagonistic principles.”1 Starting with Cassirer in the 1930s and then with Peter Gay in the 1960s, defenders of the Enlightenment point to its embrace of the body, the imagination, and the passionate sentiments. Philosophers such as Cassirer as well as Henry Allison, and art and architecture historians Robert Rosenblum, Hugh Honour, and Emil Kaufmann illuminate in Enlightenment and neoclassicism a great sifting motion, separating x from y (religion / state, inner truth /historical truth, reason / affect, etc. / etc.) and sorting through a complex and baroque intellectual and spiritual legacy that had become too heavy in the preceding century. There is a lightness that modern critics of the Enlightenment typically fail to appreciate, a quickening, a charm in that motion, a giddy floating […] and then a reasonable reconciliation of parts and people into new systems that are free and flexible.2

My own addition to the argument about the coherence of Mendelssohn’s embrace of religion and reason hinges upon neoclassical and Enlightenment aesthetics. Once ecclesiastical authority has lost the right to coerce law and belief, a traditional religious culture is transformed into something new. It turns into “religion,” a semi-autonomous cultural node more or less distinct from other such nodes. Historically, at that very moment in eighteenth-century Europe when art acquires its own autonomy and begins to resemble religion, religion turns into art, a peculiar type of ceremonial art. In an avowedly secular state where citizens aspire to intellectual freedom and social mobility, religious authority, both moral and spiritual, can only be charismatic, and charisma is always rhetorical, always aesthetic. (pp.11-12)


 Anything can be made to appear beautiful, even tragedy, the ugly in nature, and suicide; even Judaism and Scripture. Everything depends upon the light, the “transfiguring light,” that casts and recasts the object or act. For Spinoza, Scripture was too mired in the imagination to offer any reliable or exact guide to philosophical truth apart from a few simple, universal ideas. For Mendelssohn it is precisely this characteristic, its beauty,wherein lies its cognitive value. Scripture remains for him the divine law book, which is for a large portion of humanity “a source of insight from which it draws new ideas, or according to which it corrects old ones.”30 The Bible is not just a Jewish book; based in law, it is not even a religious one. It instead represents a book for many people, for all people perhaps potentially. This is a matter of perspective. Mendelssohn admitted that, “At first glance, to be sure, the truth presents itself therein in its simplest attire, and as it were, free of any pretensions. Yet the more closely you approach it, and the purer, the more innocent, the more loving and longing is the glance with which you look upon it, the more it will unfold before you its divine beauty, veiled lightly, in order not to be profaned by vulgar and unholy eyes.”31  (pp21-22)


 The failure in Mendelssohn has less to do with philosophical coherence And more to do with style. Indeed, the thought is only too coherent, the transitions too smooth. As Mendelssohn argued, on philosophical grounds, no gaps are allowed to appear in the infinite system of truths apprehended in Divine Mind.57 Everything that happens has to have its reason.58 The real problem with Mendelssohn is not in his putative conservatism or in his use of reason. It points instead to the limit of his imagination and style. Modern and postmodern readers have been trained to see a more disconnected organization and disorganization of forms, abrupt shifts and sudden annihilations that Mendelssohn was unable to imagine. It is not his confidence in reason that dates Mendelssohn, in that his confidence was fairly limited. What dates him is aesthetic – the style that gave shape to the content of his reason. In what is probably the clearest link between Enlightenment aesthetics and postmodernism, Mendelssohn preferred the beautiful surface.59 The presentations are too schematic. They do not reveal enough historical flesh and blood. Again, this is not to say that Mendelssohn’s conception of religion and of Judaism is static. While it was not static at all, it remains true nevertheless that all the action courses over the surface of the body. In this, David Novak and other critics of Enlightenment religion and Enlightenment thought are correct to say that there is something “superficial” at work here, that it lacks “depth,” but only in this technical and nonpejorative sense.60 Its purity of occularism, the pure skin and smooth surface remain unparalleled to this day. (28-29)

[[Zachary Braiterman, “The Emergence of Modern Religion: Moses Mendelssohn, Neoclassicism, and Ceremonial Aesthetics” in Christian Wiese and Martina Urban (eds.)   in honor of Paul Mendes-Flohr (Berlin: de Guyer, 2012)

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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