(Boundary Stones) Moses Mendelssohn (State and Religion)

I have been thinking a lot late about religious (Haredi) response to the Coronavirus and the problem of religious-state violence in Israel. Against all that, maybe it’s time for a little neo-Haskalah. Whereas postliberal theorists, political theologians, and theo-politicians, especially the reactionaries, would efface the line, I will note instead the supple plasticity, the architecture and territorial thinking, that typifies Mendelssohn thinking about relation between state and religion as distinct zones that overlap into each other. His thinking refers us to pillars and foundations, one the one hand, and provinces and boundary-stones, on the other hand. The pillars of society are two-fold. But the territorial lines are not fixed; they are fluid; subject to drawing and re-drawing. The territories move one into the other, and they can also be pushed back from each other. While we may not share the neoclassical taste for an aesthetic of balance and harmony, these introductory remarks have not lost their perennial force. Mendelssohn was preoccupied by the problem of human evil and violence in religion and state. Here is the opening paragraph of Jerusalem, which I have broken into segments:

“STATE and religion –civil and ecclesiastical constitution-secular and churchly authority– how to oppose these pillars of social life to one another so that they are in balance and do not, instead, become burdens on social life, or weigh down its foundations more than they help to uphold it –this is one of the most difficult tasks of politics.

For centuries, men have strived to solve it, and here and there enjoyed perhaps greater success in settling it practically than in resolving it in theory. Some thought it proper to separate these different relations of societal man into moral entities, and to assign to each a separate province, specific rights, duties, powers, and properties.

But the extent of these different provinces and the boundaries dividing them have not yet been accurately fixed. Sometimes one sees the church move the boundary stone deep into the territory of the state; sometimes the state permits itself encroachments which, according to accepted standards, seem equally violent.

Immeasurable evils have hitherto arisen, and still threaten to arise, from the dissension between these moral entities. When they take the field against each other, mankind is the victim of their discord; when they are in agreement, the noblest treasure of human felicity is lost; for they seldom agree but for the purpose of banishing from their realms a third moral entity, liberty of conscience, which knows how to derive some advantage from their disunity.”

(p.33 of the translation by Alan Arkush)

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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