The Future of the American Jew

By Mordecai M. Kaplan | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIFTEEN
BASIC VALUES IN JEWISH RELIGION

Moses Mendelssohn brought discord into the ranks of the Jewish theologians when, in his Jerusalem,1 he argued that Judaism had no dogmas. Until a generation ago that thesis was the great topic of debate among them. Though the debate has subsided, it is still of interest to look into the reason that motivated Mendelssohn to express that thesis, because it indicates that, in him, Jewish religion unquestionably turned a new corner. This is attributable to the fact that Mendelssohn, being both a loyal Jew and an ardent spokesman of the Enlightenment, deemed it necessary to achieve a different synthesis between Jewish tradition and reason from that achieved by the Jewish theologians of the Middle Ages. The main assumptions of the Enlightenment was that not supernatural revelation, but reason, was the medium through which man could learn what he needed to know in order to make the best use of life on earth, and to attain the bliss of immortality in the hereafter.

Since reason was not the exclusive possession of any one group, or society of human beings, all who fostered it and lived by the truths it revealed were qualified for salvation. This principle implied the negation of all orthodox religion which assumed that salvation could be the lot only of those who professed faith in the validity of some supernatural revelation. Mendelssohn, nevertheless, thought it possible to square this principle with Judaism. To do that, he defined Judaism as revealed legislation intended only for the Jewish people.

On the face of it, Mendelssohn's thesis was in conflict with Jewish tradition. Throughout that tradition, beginning with the Bible and ending with the writings of the Jewish theologians of the Middle Ages, belief in the historicity of certain events in the past, and in the inevitability of others in the future, was peremptorily required of the Jew. What Mendelssohn tried to do was to force that tradition into the pattern of his own rationalistic and Deistic conceptions. In doing that, he adopted Spinoza's interpretation of the Torah as revealed legislation, and identified loyalty to Judaism with action rather than with thought.

This forced version of traditional Judaism as not expecting its adherents to subscribe to dogmas was welcomed by those who found

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