Thursday, December 30, 2010

For whom does Moses Mendelssoh speak? On banning the ban.

A few weeks ago Alan Nadler wrote a review of Shmuel Feiner's new biography of Moses Mendelssohn[1], and he concluded that Mendelssohn "sadly speaks for no Jews today."

On the contrary! One of the hottest issues among Orthodox Jews is rabbinic bans. Even when the issue becomes stale, it can immediately come alive with a new ban, and arouse passionate reactions. For example, see Banning Bans (an article which was circulated by a friend in his email list with more than 150 members). Without a doubt, this is a big topic, even among people who simply do not recognize the authority of banners, or do not face even a shred of pressure to conform to them. But I am also fairly certain that a not insignificant group of people who are inclined to recognize at least some authority in at least some banners are also exercised about the issue.

One of Mendelssohn's chief duties - somewhat reluctantly accepted by him - was to present Judaism in a positive light to the 'republic of letters,' the European community of philosophers and scientists, at a time when it was increasingly recognized that the status quo inherited from medieval times, where Jews were tolerated alien communities who existed at the pleasure and mercy of kings and dukes who saw them as ATM machines, while the Church and the masses despised them as aliens, could no longer continue. It seemed to be an age of reason, liberty, equality, fraternity. All the elements of the old order were subject to critical scrutiny and weighed against the promise of a more sensible future.

In fact, right around that time one group of philosophers were, to a certain degree, using philosophical principles to rebel against what they considered to be a tyrannical king who, in reality, lacked a divine right to rule subjects in an unfair way. (They also used weapons.)

The philosophers knew that the church represented the old ways of medieval Europe, which they believed was despotic and inherently opposed to reason and progress. They succeeded in even converting certain sovereigns to their point of view, some of whom began introducing new laws promoting more education, supporting scientific and medical research, etc. For these reasons, they generally opposed the established churches, or at least the right of clerics to wield political power.

Once the novelty of Mendelssohn wore off, he was basically viewed as a perfect - or perfected - man by much the European elite. Yet they viewed Judaism as much more degenerate than even unenlightened Christianity - all the more so degenerate than an *enlightened* kind of Christianity, which some of them subscribed to. Therefore it made no sense to them that Mendelssohn should remain Jewish. This was seen as his one blemish. Was he allowing his emotions, like nostalgia, or ulterior motives like friendship to make him hold to an unenlightened conclusion (to remain Jewish)? Was it something else? Ultimately, many of them held, if he were truly completely intellectually honest he would convert to (enlightened) Christianity, which was the only path a philosopher could take (other than atheism, which was not at all respectable in conservative Germany).

In reality Mendelssohn held the same opinion they did about religion - enlightened religion - but for him the real world example of enlightened religion was Judaism. He didn't think so much of Christianity, but knew that he wasn't exactly granted the freedom to say so, and even if he had the freedom in a narrow sense, he knew that saying so would harm the Jews generally, and also himself, making many a friend into an enemy. So this really wasn't a conversation he wanted to have, and was in fact furious when one particular so-called friend, the phrenologist cleric Lavater, openly challenged him to convert or explain why not.

Many of his philosopher admirers and friends backed him, and a vigorous debate about the tactic of Lavater ensued. In certain ways Mendelssohn was able to skillfully evade a debate, but not forever. When the dust settled Lavater's Big Question loomed large. Eventually Mendelssohn felt compelled to justify Judaism and himself philosophically, and this he did in his book Jerusalem (subtitled "a treatise on ecclesiastical authority and Judaism"). However, in order to portray Judaism as enlightened - which he truly believed it really was - he could not excuse or deny that which was medieval in contemporary Judaism. At the time the main thing along those lines was coercion, or the power of rabbis to wield the cherem (which in truth was given - and eventually taken - by the state). He felt that Judaism could and should be practiced because God revealed laws which were eternally binding so long as there was no other revelation suspending them. Jews needed to perform these mitzvos, but because they were from God, not because of social pressures or tyrannical rabbis who could punish sinners by harming their livelihood and so forth. All the more so in a time when he - as well as the philosophers - sought to remove the political power of the European clergy, which they blamed for many of medieval and early modern Europe's ills. All the more so in a time when the conversation among Europe's elite was how to end the age-old idea of Jews as barely tolerated aliens, caught in a vicious cycle of being despised by and despising the host.

In any event, the way history was moving, the cherem was on its way out anyway. European governments were not going to allow the Jews judicial autonomy for long. Somewhat amazingly, specifically this point, Mendelssohn's advocacy of removing the great stick from the rabbis never aroused any particular enmity on their part - which may be a healthy sign that in reality they themselves didn't really want to coerce, but only to shepherd sincere communities of voluntary believers. Of course they thought that this had to encompass the entire Jewish community.

All told, this was Mendelssohn's vision of modern Judaism - banning the ban.

So, yes, Mendelssohn does speak for many Jews - Orthodox Jews - who are opposed to banning One People, Two Worlds, Making of a Godol, Natan Slifin, The Big Event at MSG, Lipa Schmelzer, Vos iz Neias - indeed, anything.

Getting back to Feiner's book, although it doesn't really contain anything not already in Alexander Altmann's essentially definitive biography, it is short and easy, whereas Altmann's was long and ponderous. Considering that Feiner is every bit the complicated footnote-heavy academic scholar, his ability to produce this easily digestible work is a wonder to me. In the first few pages I came across an error which is not so minor - Feiner writes that Rabbi Akiva Joseph Schlesinger was a disciple of the Hatam Sofer, whereas he was born the year the Hatam Sopher died. His father and particularly his father-in-law Rabbi Hillel Lichtenstein were the disciples. So I was prepared for this to be one of those books where I count the errors and then debate with myself whether it's nice to review it and point out all the inaccuracies. This surprised me, since Shmuel Feiner is a good and careful historian. Fortunately the errors began and mostly ended right there. Of course no work of (any) kind is really going to be perfect. This book is very interesting and accessible and accurate, although for someone interested in really penetrating the mind and deeds of Mendelssohn it should be seen as the prologomena to Altmann and works by Mendelssohn himself.

[1] "Moses Mendelssohn: Sage of Modernity" was written in Hebrew but published in English translation.


  1. You write "Haram Sopher." I assume this is a typo and not a pun about bans.

  2. I daresay the Church used Jewish lenders as "ATMs" at least as frequently as did the nobility.

  3. Firstly, we're talking about the early modern period here. Rise of states, etc.

    Secondly, I meant taxes, more so than moneylending. Jewish communities had to pay a lot of money outright for the right of domicile.

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