In his classic work The Course of Modern Jewish History, Howard Sachar argues that Moses Mendelssohn–although “neither a great philosopher nor a penetrating theologian, nor even a Jewish spokesman of exceptional courage”–was the herald of Jewish Enlightenment and the most important figure in early modern Jewish history.
If Mendelssohn’s intellectual legacy and political impact were indeed meager, how has this unprepossessing, humpbacked figure attained almost mythical status as the hero of Jewish modernization and progress or–depending on your point of view–as the herald of assimilation and the breakdown of Jewish tradition?
The Jewish Socrates
Moses Mendelssohn was born in Dessau (now in eastern Germany) into a traditional ghetto family–his father was a Torah scribe. Mendelssohn received a thorough Jewish education, studying with David Frankel, the rabbi of Dessau and an important intellect in his own right. When Frankel was appointed chief rabbi of Berlin, Moses, then aged 14, followed him there on foot in order to continue his education. Once in the Prussian capital, he exploited its intellectual resources to the full, studying with the city’s few “enlightened” Jews and gaining a thorough grounding in philosophy, Greek, and German language and literature.
Late 18th century Berlin was not a friendly place for Jews. Emancipation and equal rights were decades away and only wealthy, economically useful Jews were permitted to reside in the Prussian capital. Most Christians saw Jews as alien and primitive. Even among intellectuals, those few Jews who had managed to acquire a modern education were regarded as exceptions to the rule.
Mendelssohn certainly proved to be exceptional. In his twenties he was befriended by the well known writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing who, recognizing Mendelssohn’s astounding intellectual potential, encouraged him to publish his first books and articles. Non-Jewish readers, impressed by the erudition and clarity of his writing, began to refer to Mendelssohn as “the Jewish Socrates.”
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