Moses Mendelssohn

Herald of the Jewish Enlightenment.

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Mendelssohn's Philosophy

Mendelssohn starts out by distinguishing between revealed religion and revealed legislation. Judaism, as opposed to a revealed religion such as Christianity, comprises only revealed legislation--laws which govern behaviour--and as such is free of dogmas or mandatory beliefs. Mendelssohn believes that God has provided the means for us to apprehend philosophical and scientific truths via our innate powers of reason and observation.

All human beings, not only Jews, can grasp these truths, without recourse to a holy text (the exception to this rule is historical truths, which can only be communicated to us by a reliable witness--hence the Torah's focus on historical narrative). The need for revealed dogma suggests that innate human reason might be unable to grasp these truths and casts doubt on the perfection of creation, and thereby on God's omnipotence. For this reason, Judaism mandates only actions, not faith.

According to Mendelssohn even the laws of Judaism have a non-coercive character. As a proto-liberal thinker, Mendelssohn believes that religions have no right to compel human beings to act in certain ways. The State's right of coercion is not based on the innate authority of the government, but rather derives from the social contract. The State can make demands on its citizens is in order to preserve their rights. For example, my right to life--which derives from my need of life--imposes a concomitant duty on my fellow citizens not to kill me, and the State's role is to guarantee this right, using coercion if necessary.

But an omnipotent God by definition has no needs, and therefore has no rights. Duties towards him cannot be understood in terms of a contract; rather, they derive from love of God. Religion therefore lacks the contractual basis for the legitimate exercise of coercion. The question of religious observance becomes a matter for the individual believer. Moreover, if the goal of religion is to boost morality by influencing people's beliefs and values, it's clear that this can only be achieved through persuasion and argument, not by force.

To Mendelssohn, Judaism fits this mold of non-coercive religion. As revealed legislation, it does not attempt to mandate beliefs. The Torah's once coercive legal framework was based on the social contract in the framework of the biblical Jewish State; its power passed away with the destruction of the Temple. In our time, Jews are mandated to obey the law of the land. (For this reason, Mendelssohn argues that the State should strip the Jewish community of all remaining vestiges of coercive authority, for example the right to place members under herem, or excommunication.)

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Matt Plen

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.