Moses Mendelssohn's Living Script: Philosophy, Practice, History, Judaism

Moses Mendelssohn's Living Script: Philosophy, Practice, History, Judaism

Moses Mendelssohn's Living Script: Philosophy, Practice, History, Judaism

Moses Mendelssohn's Living Script: Philosophy, Practice, History, Judaism

Synopsis

Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) is often described as the founder of modern Jewish thought and as a leading philosopher of the late Enlightenment. One of Mendelssohn's main concerns was how to conceive of the relationship between Judaism, philosophy, and the civic life of a modern state. Elias Sacks explores Mendelssohn's landmark account of Jewish practice--Judaism's "living script," to use his famous phrase--to present a broader reading of Mendelssohn's writings and extend inquiry into conversations about modernity and religion. By studying Mendelssohn's thought in these dimensions, Sacks suggests that he shows a deep concern with history. Sacks affords a view of a foundational moment in Jewish modernity and forwards new ways of thinking about ritual practice, the development of traditions, and the role of religion in society.

Excerpt

How should we think about religious practice? What is the relationship between the behaviors that a religious tradition requires of adherents and the beliefs that these individuals come to hold, and what relevance do the practices of a religious community have to the civic life of a modern state? What role do such practices play in cultivating virtues, desires, and habits, and how are these behaviors themselves reshaped in light of a community’s ethical commitments? What authority may individuals ascribe to texts that govern their religious practice, and how does that authority change in light of discoveries emerging from the modern study of history—discoveries that are often understood as casting doubt on inherited narratives and beliefs traditionally taken to establish the status of those sacred texts?

Such questions are, of course, deeply important to many contemporary religious communities, and have come to play an increasingly prominent role in fields such as religious studies, anthropology, and political theory. Yet these questions also have a long history. This book examines a crucial episode in that history: the work of the German-Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786). Often described as the founder of modern Jewish thought and as a leading philosopher of the late Enlightenment, Mendelssohn devotes considerable attention to the types of questions outlined above in his treatment of Jewish practice. Most famously, his landmark defense of Judaism—his 1783 Jerusalem, or on Religious Power and Judaism—describes a “living script” of “actions” required by “divine . . .

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