(Bitter Sweet) Moses Mendelssohn Bio (Shmuel Feiner)


I finally got around to reading Shmuel Feiner’s biography, Moses Mendelssohn: Sage of Modernity , a less than the brilliant title that I imagine was chosen by the series editors at Yale University Press for the Jewish Lives Series. A graceful little study, I’m recommending it, for scholars, alongside Alexander Altmann’s massive, magisterial and unsurpassable biography of Mendelssohn, and for non-scholars, instead of it. Altmann’s book in comparison to Feiner’s is an archive of a thing. Feiner’s book in comparison to Altmann’s is a book, a finite and bounded object or thing with a clear beginning, middle, and end that moves along with a brisk narrative clip to make important points about its subjects –Moses Mendelssohn, Enlightenment, and Judaism.

What Feiner does especially well is to square the circle about Enlightenment humanism and traditional Judaism at work in Mendelssohn’s thought. It should be easy to understand why Altmann, like other émigrés from Nazi Germany, should have considered this attempt at synthesis by Mendelssohn to have been a failure. With more critical distance from Germany, Feiner, like many contemporary readers of Mendelssohn, find his project to be not so incoherent. Feiner has caught the mellifluous fusion of Enlightenment and Judaism, as well as the many bitter notes and contradictions.

Reading Feiner’s work I appreciate the degree to which Mendelssohn, that most gracious of thinkers, was immersed his entire adult life in philosophical-cultural controversies that were forced upon him. These controversies included the early attempt to receive the title morenu (rabbi) or chaver (peer) from Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschütz, the first attempt to clear the name of Judaism by defending Spinoza from the charge of vulgar pantheism, the argument with Johann Bernhard Basedow about educational reform, the dispute with Lavater about Christianity and Judaism, the Schwerin burial controversy with Rabbi Jacob Emden, the critique of Christian Wilhelm Dohm’s contention that the Jews were a non-productive people whose social standing deserved but needed to be “improved,” the dispute in which Mendelssohn defended the new program of Jewish education proposed by Wessely, the dispute with Cranz about Enlightenment and Judaism, the argument with Lessing’s positioning of Judaism in The Education of the Human Race, the dispute with Jacobi about Lessing, Spinoza, and Enlightenment reason.

While Feiner understands the way the balance between Judaism and modernity,  meaning Judaism and Enlightenment, was not seen by Mendelssohn as a contradiction, he does note the tension in an interesting way. Meant to reduce the sense of Jewish difference, it was actually the case that the very “lens of humanism only magnified the ‘otherness’ of Jewish affiliation” (pp.15-16). While Feiner does not delve deep into the tension, my sense is that he’s arguing that that the tension had less to do with “Judaism” per se, as Mendelssohn’s many critics have contended, and more to do with restricted status of the Jews in 18th century Germany and Europe (p.81).

As much as it is argued, again against Mendelssohn, that he restricted or wanted to restrict Judaism to the private sphere, the truth of the matter is that Mendelssohn and the Enlightenment and the Judaism represented by him were tested in the public sphere. I don’t see how we can or would want to do without the values of “love of man,” “religious tolerance,” multicultural society,” “reason,” and “morality.” Writing before the return of Judaism and Jewishness to history and power politics in the late 20th century, Mendelssohn was rather sure he had these things secure in Judaism. For him, writing in the 18th century, there would have been little to disconfirm those more innocent and sweet notions regarding Judaism and Jewishness. Writing on the other side prior to Emancipation, about the fact that these values did not quite take root in Europe, were not going to take root in Europe, about this Feiner is right to note that Mendelssohn was indeed quite bitter and not “naive” (p.215).


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. http://religion.syr.edu
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