Enlightening Judaism

By Arkush, Allan | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, August/September 2011 | Go to article overview

Enlightening Judaism


Arkush, Allan, First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


Enlightening Judaism Faith and Freedom: Moses Mendelssohn's Theological-Political Thought BY MICHAH GOTTLIEB OXFORD, 209 PAGES, $55

Jewish historians used to speak of Moses Mendelssohn, the late-eighteenth-century German Jewish thinker, as the man who single-handedly launched his previously ghettoized people into modernity. In recent years, revisionists have scaled down his role, questioning the extent of his contribution to the Jews' progress both in his own land and in other countries where Jewish communities entered the modern world without benefiting from his aid or his example. But even the people who downplay his significance as an agent of historical change acknowledge the pathbreaking character of his writings, and just about everyone grants that he was the founder of modern Jewish philosophy.

While no small number of writers have examined and analyzed Mendelssohn's philosophy of Judaism and situated it within the history of modern Jewish thought, Michah Gottlieb is the first in some time to argue that his "thought remains an option worthy of consideration." His book is a model of dispassionate scholarship, yet he makes no attempt to conceal his desire to strengthen the reputation and enhance the appeal of a man he regards as an exemplary exponent of a rational, tolerant, and humanistic religion.

A self-described disciple of G. W. Leibniz and Christian Wolff, Mendelssohn was at the same time an upholder of the Jewish religion, which he held to be entirely in keeping with the teachings of reason. In his book Jerusalem, published in 1783, he explained how Judaism constituted not a revealed religion but a system of divinely revealed legislation aimed at strengthening the Jews' grip on the universally accessible principles of natural religion as well as the rest of the world's awareness of them. His synthesis constituted what the historian Michael Meyer has aptly described as a merely "ephemeral solution," but his effort nevertheless established a general precedent that in the succeeding centuries would be followed by a host of Jewish thinkers in Europe and America who endeavored to reconcile Judaism with the new philosophies of their own day.

In his reconsideration of Mendelssohn, Gottlieb does not attempt to resuscitate his old-fashioned metaphysics. He defends neither his version of the cosmological proof for God's existence, his unique twist on Leibniz' idea that God created the best of all possible worlds, nor his once-celebrated demonstrations of the soul's immortality. But he does describe very sympathetically the position to which Mendelssohn ultimately retreated, toward the end of his life, when he acknowledged his inability to parry the assault on metaphysics spearheaded by the man he considered both a friend and the "all-crusher," Immanuel Kant.

Instead of continuing to depict the tenets of natural religion as demonstrably correct, Mendelssohn reoriented himself toward what Gottlieb calls "pragmatic religious idealism," endorsing "a notion of 'finite truth,' which involves intersubjective agreement." He believed that the "important role played by the principles of natural religion in promoting our perfection . . . justified [our] living in accordance with this finite truth despite our being unable to demonstrate that reality in itself conforms to it."

By contrast, the practice of the Jewish religion was, in his eyes, not a necessary ingrethent of human happiness but an obligation that God had placed on the Jews alone, as the biblical record attested. That this ancient narrative could be considered altogether trustworthy was something he was prepared to affirm, even at a time when it was increasingly subject to doubt. He did so with arguments that were essentially medieval and that Gottlieb discusses only briefly, in his book's footnotes. Mendelssohn could not have been very much troubled by what was in his time the nascent science of biblical criticism, Gottlieb tells us repeatedly, because he simply could not "imagine that his faith tradition d[id] not cohere with his other deeply held beliefs. …

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