Religion Without Idolatry (Moses Mendelssohn) (Gideon Freudenthal)


A week or so back, I finally got to and finished reading Gideon Freudenthal’s book on Mendelssohn and the Jewish Enlightenment, No Religion without Idolatry. It’s part of the new Mendelssohn Studies approach. None of the great 20th century readers of Mendelssohn thought that he had convincingly squared his commitments to both Judaism and Enlightenment, or, more subtly, between common sense and reason. These were the lines pursued by Altman and Strauss, including Rosenzweig’s little quip about Mendelssohn in “The Builders.” Alan Arkush’s study picked up this theme years later. The upshot was the notion that Judaism and Enlightenment, religion and reason are fundamentally, structurally at odds.

Freudenthal takes the opposite tack, the one taken by Goetschel, Bourel, and others, according to which Mendelssohn’s commitments were basically compatible and that the tensions identified by the critics, going back to Hamann and Jacobi, are fungible. What Freudenthal does is to try to locate Mendelssohn a middle place between the extremes of religious and rational dogmatism. Hence the importance of common sense, and hence the importance of what Freudenthal calls “semiotics,” but which I would prefer to call “aesthetics.” In a way that reminds me of the trust put by Rosenzweig in language, Mendelssohn is shown by Freudenthal to trust representation, symbolic action, and human need. But unlike Rosenzweig, Mendelssohn would have rejected the notion that symbols and representations have real or genuine relation vis-à-vis the divine.

The upshot to our understanding of Mendelssohn is that the limited knowledge to empirical objects and rudimentary metaphysics –in sharp contrast to the more thoroughgoing rationalism of Solomon Maimon, who, rejecting human representation and symbolic action, embraced a kind of metaphysical dogmatism and empirical skepticism (p.76).

This is where I get confused. Freudenthal’s conclusion is Straussian, a refusal to decide the conflict common sense, community, and aesthetics over against the claims of reason and autonomy (cf. pp.84, 223, 231). In other words, this picture of Mendelssohn falls back into the old pattern according to which the liberal religion represented by Mendelssohn is unable to situate itself vis-à-vis reason, which is a line of thought that I saw Freudenthal wanting to resist when he claimed that Mendelssohn was in fact consistent in his thought. Perhaps this is an inconsistency in Freudenthal’s presentation, akin to the one concerning aesthetics.

I think the confusion comes down to a confusion about idolatry and aesthetics. This would reflect the almost automatic reflex in Jewish philosophy to identify the other with the one. Take for instance the very claim announced by the title, that for Mendelssohn, there  is “no religion without idolatry.” This would be the claim that there’s no religion without symbolization and myth and sign-use (pp.197-201). That would be Mendelssohn’s claim except that Mendelssohn did not reduce all symbols and sign use to “idolatry.” Idolatry does not seem to me be the correct, central touchstone to Mendelssohn’s thought. Where for instance does Mendelssohn say that holiness is transcendent or say that the ascription of holiness to the body is idolatrous? This doesn’t sound like Mendelssohn, for whom the symbol is bound up with beauty and the sublime, not with holiness, and for whom holiness is tied up with beauty.

Freudenthal’s study of Mendelssohn, a thinker whose thought was intensely ocular, reflects the pronounced aversion in Jewish philosophy for visual culture, for which it has no word or concept or judgment other than idolatry. But that’s not Mendelssohn. I see this especially pronounced in the discussion of ceremonial law in chapter 8, which is focused too much, I think, on beliefs, cognitive meanings, and normative morality, not on the aesthetic of the living script, the visible and dramatic character of the sign itself. We see too a discussion of aesthetics that privileges hearing over sight, and Freudenthal’s discussion includes some beautiful material by Mendelssohn about prayer and song. There is, in fact, mention made of Mendelssohn’s allusion to the mezuzah, a visual object, but that mention appears in a footnote, where the ocular enjoys but a subterranean place, not the central place it deserves, in my estimation (p.288.n1).

That’s what makes Freudenthal’s work so interesting and even wonderful, the easygoing binding up in Mendelssohn of reason into common sense, representation, and symbolic semiotic aesthetics. The articulation of the difference between Mendelssohn and Maimon is alone worth the price of admission. But as I see it, there’s no conflict between the configuration of reason and representation in Mendelssohn’s life and thought because there’s no idolatry about which to worry. Some systems of reference are “idolatrous,” others are not. And sometimes what looks like idolatry at the surface actually has nothing to do with it. About this Mendelssohn was quite clear regarding India in Jerusalem. In other words, you actually can have religion without idolatry, at least according to Mendelssohn, with whom I am always inclined to agree. I wonder what Freudenthal’s book would have looked like without the idolatry.

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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3 Responses to Religion Without Idolatry (Moses Mendelssohn) (Gideon Freudenthal)

  1. efmooney says:

    Zak, do you think Levinas, with his emphasis on the face rather than the word, falls prey to representation-as-idolatry? And if not all art is representational, can’t we have a Jewish aesthetics that is not representational, and hence escapes idolatry? Isn’t there (as you suggest) an aesthetics of voice and song?

    • zjb says:

      but this is where i find Levinas so unhelpful. there is a history of jewish art, including representational art, and none of it is “idolatrous.” i have argued (in Shape) that this mania for aniconism is a German philosophical notion (starting with Kant?) and picked up by German Jews as a badge of pride. But it doesn’t square with the historical record, or even the textual one. as for Levinas, it fits in with the occular-phobia traced by Martin Jay in Downcast Eyes.

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