Friday, March 26, 2010

Why was Mendelssohn so bad again?

One of the more fascinating memes (did I use that correctly?) in the j-blogosphere (to me at least) is the perennial struggle over the meaning and person of Moses Mendelssohn. If people thought that history had paskened and Orthodoxy conclusively decided he was an oysvorf, that was revealed to be a faulty or incomplete assumption once the world of Jewish blogging was underway. Full disclosure: I am often part of the discussion.

This topic must recur three or four times a year on various blogs over the past 5 years (and earlier on the various Jewish discussion lists). Most recently in this Hirhurim comments thread. Little new ground is broken ("his children converted" "so did other's" "blah blah").

One of the themes which emerges in these discussions is that once it appears conclusively demonstrated that the simple, canonical view is not historically accurate --eg, if he was terrible, why did Rabbi Akiva Eger give an approbation to and order and advance copy of a new edition fully 50 years after he died, while he was already in his 20s when the original scandal and debate over that very Chumash (and by extension, Mendelssohn himself) was raging? In other words, in the same person you had someone who experienced the issue when it was current events, as an adult, and the maturity of experience and age, and the passage of time to reflect on it. It is well known and clear that his colleage and son-in-law the Chasam Sofer took an opposite approach, which means that there are two views in the 1830s, not one-- once that emerges, inevitably some try to show that they have in fact uncovered the heresy in his work, so all the rest is a sideshow.

In 1986-87 this occurred when Rabbi Simon Schwab responded to a proto-blogging discussion which occurred in the pages of the Jewish Observer (and probably in offices and private homes) and noted that Mendelssohn was thoroughly heretical after all. In support he cited some statements in Mendelssohn's translation of the Psalms in which he compared them to secular poetry, or in some other manner regarded the Psalms as literary creations which can be analyzed and criticized as such. This was heresy. (Indeed, Mendelssohn had been reading Lowth. Here would be a good place to mention something about Malbim, but perhaps that should wait for the comments. It should also be borne in mind that his Psalm translation was not aimed exclusively at Jews, thus he had to sidestep modern text critical and christological issues, all while producing a sound, lingsustically and aesthetically pleasing and unheretical translation.) Left unexplained was why it took until 1986 for the evident heresy of a book published in 1770 to be revealed. Not only that, it isn't as if his Psalm translation was unknown to traditional rabbis (eg, R. Zalman Trier subscribed to the 1804 edition) until a German-speaking rabbi opened it up for the first time in 1986. In other words, my contention is that Rabbi Schwab interpreted comments he did not like uncharitably because a historical position required justification after an uproar emerged on the pages of the Jewish Observer.

Today a commenter at Hirhurim relates that s/ he knows what the heresy is. It is that the Bi'ur consistently fails to interpret verses, which some meforshim understand as relating to the Messiah and the World-To-Come, in that light, always accepting alternative explanations by the meforshim. Thus, he could not have accepted the 13th principle of Maimonides. Assuming s/ he is correct, is that the heresy of Mendelssohn? Why did it take until 2010 to discover it? Why didn't the Chasam Sofer explain it?

Am I off base? Truth is, this was a hastily written post meant, hopefully, to provoke some interesting discussion. I can already contradict myself by pointing out that I don't really believe that novelty of interpretation means that it is wrong. Still, I can't understand why these things were overlooked, were they sound and clear reasons why he was and is treif-passul, as opposed to modern meaningful midrash, sort of a yeshivish orange on a seder plate.


  1. None of these reasons make any sense. You can ascribe the same "sins" to a half-a-dozen medieval commenters.

    Here is a snippet view from Wengeroffs book that I mention in that thread -

    you can see that he was already hated in late 19th century because many saw in him the figurehead of the movement that was taking their kids away from them.

  2. That's why I maintain that it's symbolic, no different from how he (and the Rambam, and Ibn Ezra) were positive iconic symbols for maskilim (with my favorite notable dissenter). I just find earnest attempts to spot the heresy incredible. If he said what R. Shteinman said recently (widely blogged about) that Moshe was empowered to write letters large and small, that would be seized upon as a deviation from the 8th.

  3. ...and therefore it's important to know that if he does not trounce on your hashkafic sensibility or on the contrary, even stands tall as a good example of it, one should know this before demonizing someone for his incompatibility with another hashkafah. (Of course even if this isn't the case, there's also truth which some people might like whether its convenient or not.) A similar figure in this regard would be Rav Kook.

  4. This is so stupid. Mendellshon didn't even participate in most of the commentary. Instead, for different volumes different people provided the commentary. For example, Wessely did one as did Shlomo Dubnow.
    As is the case with almost any Hirhurim post, this one is so misinformed it is disturbing. That is not to say there isn't any content only that there is so much crap it is hard (probably harder than R. Meir had to work to get the nuggets from Ahar) to distinguish what is crap.
    For anyone interested in actually learning about the Biur one should read Peretz Sandler's book Mendellsohn and his Biur. Additionally Altmann in his biography of Mendelsshon.
    The whole notion that R. Scwab even matters is surprising. He wasn't a historian, no where does he assert that he has even read all or even most of Mendelsshon's works to offer an opinion.

  5. Right, although I'd point out that Mendelssohn can be rightly held "responsible" for the commentary, as he edited it and it was his project, so if the argument was sound in the first place, it would be immaterial who wrote what. I also must protest your labeling it as a "Hirhurim post," since it was merely a comment by someone who has nothing to do with Hirhurim.

    Your references are right, but this is not being approached as a purely academic endeavor, and most people won't read Sandler or any works on the Biur (much less the Biur itself).

    Re popularizing scholarship, I wrote a comment I like about that here. It is good that these discussions occur outside of scholarly environments.

  6. I think for something to be a meme it has to go viral; it is an internet phenomena. Being as though the vast majority of peoples Jewish related activity on the internet is seeing who died last on YWN this would not be a meme.

  7. I just mean that it recurs over and over again. I guess trope is better (that's actually the word I originally used).

  8. "Why did it take until 2010 to discover it?"

    It didn't. This was the famous explanation of the Minsker Gadol, who called attention not to what was included, but rather what was excluded. He claimed that wherever various Ikkarei Emuna were extrapolated by Rashi, for instance, from a verse, the biur chose the explanation of the Ibn Ezra. Where the Ibn Ezra derived said Ikkar, the biur followed Rashi, thus covertly undermining Emuna.

  9. Thanks. Source? Is it in Or Gadol?

  10. Or in הגדול ממינסק? Exact cite would be great.

  11. It still doesn't answer the קשיא because the Minsker Gadol lived a century after Moses Mendelssohn...

  12. Like I admitted at the end of my post, I don't really believe that the late date of an observation or interpretation means that it can't be astute. My real point was that these things are uncharitable interpretations rather than clear evidence. What about all the fine, non heretical and learned Jews who never noticed that Mendelssohn's Psalm translation is heretical and they never noticed that the Biur undermines ikkarei emunah? Why didn't they notice it? The answer is because they didn't proceed with the notion that it's bad, so they didn't mine it in an uncharitable way. As I recall, only one contemporary criticism focused on something other than the language issue, and this is R. Raphael Hakohen of Hamburg (I think)'s contention that the peshat orientation of the Biur undermined Torah she-be'al peh. This was also an uncharitable reading, but at least it was contemporary. Thus the negative subtext which was apparent to contemporary critics was language and the over preference for peshat.

  13. Richard dawkins' concept of the Meme is around 35 years old. It long pre-dates the internet (at least, the public version of it). People do refer to "internet memes" -- that is, memes that are particularly spread on the internet, but the internet has nothing to do with memes per se.

  14. You can find "apikoris" in any thing. When Charedim [I'm using this term anachronistically, to refer even to people of 200 years ago] get up in arms, it's almost always a cultural thing, and then ex post facto they mine hiw writings to point to comments that can be called questionable.

    Mendelson's social programme was what scared the charedim. Hence, to buttress their (riddiculous) claims that he was a dangerous min, they looked for various naughty comments.

    Same thing with R.Shteinzaltz. The man was teaching Torah, which chaedim regard as their "turf". Mimeilah they had to come up with some bogus charges like "changing the tzuras hadaf" (which had holiness from Sinai) or making comments about various amoraim, even though they had been in print for centuries.

    Same thing even with Soncino. We used to hear what a crutch it was to have a translation. Supposedly there were all sorts of wrong translations. All of a sudden when Artwscrool does it its OK? The answer is, Soncino was culturally different than the Charedim.

    Take it to the bank: All the attacks are social. Everything else is contrived.


  15. Artscroll gets plenty of criticism. But its of a different kind. No one disputes its "correctness" in interpretation, although I suspect that plenty of hasagos can be written on it should one care to do so; that's what I mean by charitable or uncharitable. Even the criticism is of a different character.

  16. >Thanks. Source?

    Sorry, I didn't think to check back.

    The actual source isn't nearly as impressive:

    עובדות והנהגות לבית בריסק ח"ד עמ' קפב-קפג

    The example used is Moshiach:

    Rashi identifies שילה as Moshiach, and the biur follows the Ramban. Ramban identifies ויהי בישורון מלך as Moshiach, and the biur follows Rashi...

  17. Meanwhile, R. AY Schlesinger writes in Lev Haivri (Yad Ivri Os Vov) that the Chasam Sofer found obvious kefira in Devarim (2:23) which apparently was interpreted in the biur as being post-mosaic. He also claims that Maskilim later omitted that piece of the biur in a cover-up.

  18. The Biur is just as easily marginalizing Christianity as it is Ikkarim; in addition, the Biur to Bereshis was written by Dubno (Devarim by Herz Homburg, who admittedly may well have been marginalizing Ikkarim).

    The piece in Lev Haivri is suspect, because it conflicts with the Maharam Schick's account of the same event (which occurred with him). It seems that the piece of kefira in Devarim 2:23 was discovered by a student of the Lev Haivri, and not the Chasam Sofer himself. In Maharam Schick's account it only mentions "such-and-such place in Devarim." In another place R. Schlesinger writes that Mendelssohn hid his kefira well in the Biur, and a student showed him certain places with kefira. Furthermore, it claims that the piece was written by Moshe himself, not al pi Hashem. But that can easily be dismissed. If you look at every edition of the Biur that piece is most definitely not missing.

    As the hour is late, I'll be happy to address this in detail and with sources after Shabbos or Yom Tov at the latest. A gut'n!

  19. Thanks for the source about the Minsker Gadol, by the way. I'll look into it; also, if anyone is interested the comment about Devarim 2.23 in Lev Haivri (Yad Haivri 6) is on pg 197-98 of the pdf (vol. 1).


    The Maharam Schick explicitly states that he was not convinced that the eample offered by the Hatam Sofer is an instance of kefrah.

    As for "Ad ki yavo Shilo" and "Va-Yehi bi-Yeshurun Melekh," give me a break! If that is the best one can do...



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