Moses Mendelssohn ... stressed the importance of making the Bible the chief object of study rather than the Talmud


Reviewed By Jude P. Dougherty

Feiner, Shmuel and Natalie Naimark-Goldberg.
Cultural Revolution in Berlin: Jews in the Age of Enlightenment,
Oxford, Bodleian Library, 2011. pp. ix + 94.

THE FOCUS of this brief historical study is the absorption by Jewish intellectuals of the prevailing civil and rational values of 18th-century Europe. It is a study of emancipation and Jewish integration into the wider society without loss of Jewish identity.

The story here presented is entirely based on one collection of texts held in the Leopold Muller Memorial Library of the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Jewish studies. As such, the volume is richly illustrated by photographs of the books and manuscripts mentioned in the books that are held by the library.

Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), the central figure in this narrative, is representative of a new Jewish elite, which having adopted the basic values of the European Enlightenment, challenged the cultural supremacy of the rabbinical elite. Mendelssohn, who became fluent in German and other European languages, is acclaimed for prodding his fellow Jews to leave the ghetto, learn the German language, and embrace modernity, while at the same time counselling them to retain their religious tradition.

His interest in natural theology led him to the study of Leibniz, Wolff, and Locke, among others. His treatise Phaedo: On the Immortality of the Soul (1767) underwent eleven editions in his lifetime. His greatest contribution to the Jewish Enlightenment is thought to be his book, The Paths to Peace. In it, he stressed the importance of making the Bible the chief object of study rather than the study of the Talmud, which is usually considered the authoritative text of the Jewish religious tradition. He translated the Bible into high German.

There followed a great secular revolution within the culture of the Jewish community. German had rarely been used by Jews in their daily lives. Hebrew hardly lent itself to the translation of scientific texts.

Leaders of the secular movement were greatly disturbed by the neglect of the sciences. Meir Neumark assumed the role of translating many scientific texts for a Jewish audience who did not know Latin. Others were concerned that the neglect of grammar by rabbis and other commentators had led to a deplorable misinterpretation of the Scriptures and to a shameful misreading of other literature. The Guide for the Perplexed by the famous medieval philosopher and theologian, Moses Maimonides, was republished in 1742, having been out of print for nearly two hundred years.

Raphael Levi's pursuit of science brought the observant Jew into contact with non-Jewish knowledge and non-Jewish intellectuals, providing a model for others. Hartwig Wessely, for his part, outlined in 1782 the first systematic curriculum for modern Jewish education. Wessely employed a distinction between two modes of knowledge, "the teaching of man" or human knowledge and the "teaching of God" or divine knowledge. The study of the Bible and the Talmud, he maintained, should leave room for the study of history, geography, and natural science for these disciplines are necessary for a study of the ancient texts. He considered the study of the vernacular from an early age, important. Wessely, although clearly a man of the 18th-century Enlightenment, a man comfortable in European culture, nevertheless did not lose his commitment to faith to the study of the Bible and the Talmud and to the observance of the commandments, but on the other hand he no longer belonged to the circle of Talmudic scholars.

By the end of the 18th century there had emerged a formidable group of "free-thinkers," a Jewish elite, who, in the light of their affinity with the values and concepts of the European Enlightenment, were prone to distinguish themselves from the Jewish masses.

A typical representative of the reformed Jew was Lazarus Bendavid (1762-1832), a disciple of Immanuel Kant whose writing he helped to popularize. Bendavid blamed the Jews themselves for their negative image and insularity. In a Kantian manner, he sought to retain the Jewish religion in its "inner essence" while totally rejecting its rituals.

Whereas Mendelssohn believed that the unique essence of Judaism lay in the obligation to observe the practical commandments, Bendavid put forth the radical idea of totally annulling the commandments as an essential step to ensure the acceptance of Jews in the modern world. Bendavid, we are told, was a prolific and dynamic intellectual, active in numerous enlightened German societies, and he even presided over some of them.

Bendavid was not alone. Saul Ascher (1767-1822) proposed a religious reform as a prerequisite for the acceptance of Jews as full citizens of the state. Following Kant, he also held that the law-based character of Judaism was opposed to the "true autonomy of the will" and irrelevant to the new generation.

His criticism of rabbinic culture apart, it must be acknowledged that Ascher was among the few Jewish German intellectuals who dared engage in a direct confrontation with contemporary foes of the Jews, notably Johann Gottlieb Fichte, one of the founders of the Humboldt University of Berlin.

Feiner and Naimark-Goldberg end their narrative abruptly with the close of the 18th century. We know that within the German-speaking lands of 19th and early 20th centuries, assimilated Jews not only flourished but became leaders in the sciences and in the arts. Budapest, Vienna, Munich, and Berlin became important centres for the study of theoretical physics and physical chemistry, and Jews are associated with major discoveries in each. Budapest alone gave birth to Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann, Leo Szilard, Michael Polanyi, and Edward Teller. Albert Einstein, born in Ulm, studied in Munich, Lise Meitner in Vienna. Moses Mendelssohn's grandson, Felix, earned world renown as a composer.

Without doubt the cultural revolution produced great scientists who for the most part remain aloof from Enlightenment philosophy, often at variance with actual practice in the sciences.

PROFESSOR JUDE DOUGHERTY is Dean Emeritus of the Philosophy Faculty, Catholic University of America, Editor, The Review of Metaphysics,, and General Editor, Series Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy, Washington, D.C.

From "Annals Australasia" March 2012

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