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