The Social Contract and Jewish-Christian Relations
From a fuller perspective in the Jewish tradition, we have seen the theological inadequacies of Mendelssohn’s formulation of the idea of social contract, especially in its relation to the whole Jewish tradition. As for its philosophical inadequacies, we must also understand that the political situation of both the Jews and his own society at that time did not encourage the development of a richer social contract theory, certainly not by Jews. As for the political situation of the Jews at that time, they were still at a decided disadvantage when compared to their Christian countrymen. The Jews were still trying to attain full citizenship in the state, but they had not yet achieved it. Indeed, German Jews would not achieve it until almost a century after Mendelssohn’s death in 1786 and, even then, they still lacked the political power and cultural self-confidence to exercise this citizenship fully. Moreover, the Jews had powerful opponents to their bid for full citizenship.1 These opponents were for the most part traditional Christians who still saw civil society and the more secular state as part of “Christendom.” At best, in their view, the Jews must remain in the category of second-class foreigners.
The only allies Jews had were very liberal Protestants (like Mendelssohn’s great friend, the playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing). However, unlike the more traditional Christians who still had a communal-covenantal type of religion, the liberal friends of the Jews were, in large measure, in revolt against that traditional, communal-covenantal Christianity and in favor of a much more individualistic type of religion. As such, Jews like Mendelssohn, who very much wanted and needed the aid of these liberal Protestants in the Jewish struggle for full political enfranchisement, could not very well emphasize the strong communal-covenantal theology of Judaism and its philosophical implications.
Indeed, at that time it was only the Christian enemies of the Jews who had a strong covenantal theology. But being supersessionists who thought
1 See Alexander Altmann, Moses Mendelssohn (University: University of Alabama Press, 1973), 461–74.