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Monday, October 24, 2011

What Mendelssohn Did Wrong - Part One


Click here to read Part 2

Moses Mendelssohn is widely acknowledged as one of the great Jewish thinkers whose ideas marked the progression of Modern Jewish thought. However, the image of the man in his own time and his legacy thereafter, continue to mystify. Despite his almost legendary fame, there is no modern stream of Judaism that traces its roots back specifically to his worldview or labels itself "Mendelssohnian". On the other hand, it is clear that he and all others associated with the early Haskalah (Enlightenment) movement, have been generally disassociated from Orthodoxy. Relative to the great Jewish thinkers of the nineteenth century, Mendelssohn is more likely to be associated with Abraham Geiger and other reformers than with Orthodox figures such as Samson Raphael Hirsch or Esriel Hildesheimer.
By all accounts, however, Mendelssohn was a strictly observant Jew who championed the validity of the ritual component of Jewish law as Divinely mandated by the authority of the Revelation at Sinai. If so, it would seem that the differences between Mendelssohn and Hirsch, are less significant than those between the former and Geiger, for example. To be sure, Hirsch was a Rabbi with a beard, while Mendelssohn looked and lived the part of a renaissance man of letters. But their attitudes towards Torah and modern society don't seem to be so fundamentally different. There certainly are differences, but apparently they relate more to semantical aspects of Jewish thought than to the fundamental tenets of belief. Both attempted to draw Judaism into the modern world, championing the causes of general education and integration into secular culture, without compromising on Jewish law and practice.

However, while the contribution of Hirsch to Orthodoxy and to Modern Orthodoxy in particular is acknowledged, and he is acclaimed - even in more right wing Orthodox circles - as the savior of German Orthodoxy, Mendelssohn is written-off by the Traditionalist establishment as a free thinker, and considered the forerunner of the Reform movement. Often, Mendelssohn's Traditionalist detractors will point to the fact that few of his children remained true to their father's faith as proof of his own "heretical" leanings. Many have wondered what exactly it was that Mendelssohn and his contemporaries where guilty of that they deserved such treatment. (In this connection it is also important to distinguish between the German Haskalah and its Eastern European successor, which was often more directly antagonistic towards Rabbinic authority.)
Every historical figure must be viewed within their own contemporary context. No one lives in a vacuum and the various external forces at work in a given time and place go a long way to defining the nature of a particular individuals thought and loyalties. This brings us to the one obvious distinction between Mendelssohn and Hirsch; Hirsch lived in an environment where Traditional Judaism was being challenged from within the Jewish community itself. His activities (if not his general worldview) were in many ways formed as a direct response to the threat of the Reformers. As an activist he was an upholder of Tradition and Orthodox Jewry. Mendelssohn, on the other hand, faced no such challenge from within, and in the context of his own times his philosophy and activities can only be seen as a step away from Tradition and towards assimilation.
Nevertheless, the suggestion that the only distinguishing factors between Mendelssohn and Hirsch are time and space, seems to amplify the question even more: Certainly they were each moving in different directions, and in his own time Mendelssohn was moving to the left of the Traditional establishment, but does that explain why his memory has been so ostracized for ever after?
Recently, I came across the following statement, attributed to Rabbi DovBer Schneuri, the Mitteler Rebbe of Lubavitch, son and successor of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (thanks to S. of On the Main Line for drawing attention to this source):
הדעסואי הוא הרע שבנוגה, הירץ וויזל - טוב שבנוגה, סטנאב הוא כתר דקליפה
The Dessauite (i.e. Mendelssohn of Dessau) is the bad component of nogah (a mundane domain; neither sacred nor profane, but potentially either) Hertz Wessely is the good component of nogah, Satanow is the Crown of klipah.
What is most significant about this source is that it does not tar all Maskilim with the same brush, but acknowledges the subtle differences between the theological positions of these individuals, even going so far as to acknowledge that neither Wessely, nor Mendelssohn, were "all bad", rather they belonged to nogah, a category that straddles good and bad, a grey area. By entering the secular world and contemporary society they entered into the world of the mundane, a domain where one must strike a careful balance and is at constant risk of employing the mundane in a cause that is not holy; that serves not the cause of the Torah and its commandments but rather the causes of other allegiances. It is clear that Hirsch also entered this realm, as did many others. Some succeeded in utilizing the mundane in the cause of the holy while others leaned more towards the profane.
Based on the above, it would seem that the reason Mendelssohn is categorized as "bad" is due more to his motives or priorities than his progressive and open attitude to modernity and secular society. It would seem that he put greater faith in the philosophy of the rational mind, emancipation and the good will of the nations, than he did in G-d and the Torah. He used the former as the benchmarks of his worldview, to which the latter must be made to conform. The view expressed in Jerusalem; that the role of revelation in Judaism is merely to confirm rational truths already available to unaided reason, is indicative of this attitude. While he never explicitly crossed the line into the realm of the profane, Mendelssohn saw the mundane realm of secular civilization, embodied as rationalism and emancipation, as an end to itself. Indeed, on a personal level he realized this ideal, and in certain circles his image has been enshrined as the Jew who was enlightened enough to be acceptable to Berlin society.
In direct contrast to Mendelssohn's position, in his Nineteen Letters Hirsch asserted that Torah is not to be measured by standards or values independently derived, but most be understood purely within its own revealed context. He even went so far as to criticize Maimonides for allowing Aristotelian rationalism to influence his understanding of Judaism. Unlike Mendelssohn, Hirsch saw the rational mind, along with the offerings of modernity and secular society, as no more than a means, to be embraced in the service of Divinity.
Moreover, as we shall see in the forthcoming Part Two, Mendelssohn’s priorities led him down a path, which while not openly heretical, was subtly subversive to the authority of the Torah.
Related Articles and Blog Posts:
On the Main Line, Why was Mendelssohn so bad again? (see also here)
Leo Baeck Institute, Exhibition and Symposium, A Continuing Conversation – Moses Mendelssohn and the Legacy of the Enlightenment
B. Wein, Reform, Mendelssohn, Hirsch and the Jewish People in Historical Hindsight


  1. The fact that Orthodox German Jews treated Mendelssohn's Biur as a profane book and threw it in to the garbage, shows you what his contemporaries and their descendants thought of the man. Rather than try to sanitize him, it is better to try and understand why he elicited this fierce reaction.
    There is a simple explanation. To undermine Judaism at a time when it still commanded wide loyalty, Mendelssohn had to appear as a faithful Jew instead of a meshumad-in-waiting. He had to cloak his motives with all kinds of virtuous aims such as emancipation while maintaining fidelity to Judaism. The fact that he gave his own children an intensive secular education with only a mediocre Jewish education shows what his real goals were. The fact that so many of them converted out also shows where his education was leading to. His unreserved admiration for the German intellectuals who befriended him, which did not extend to the leading rabbis he knew, also says much.
    Comnpare Mendelssohn's "Be a man outside and a Jew at home" with Hirsch's stance which insisted on a proud Jewish demeanor and total fidelity to Torah in the house and outside.
    If Mendelssohn's teachings and influence led to widespread shmad, Reform and other forms undermining Torah, it was no fluke accident.

  2. Mgard:

    "The fact that Orthodox German Jews treated Mendelssohn's Biur as a profane book"

    Is that a fact? As I shall discuss in the Part Two, many Orthodox Rabbis of his time did not react harshly to the Biur at all.

    "Rather than try to sanitize him, it is better to try and understand why he elicited this fierce reaction."

    I am not trying to sanitize him, but trying to understand what the real issues were.

    Indeed, although I am not sure how accurate all your statements are, your "explanation" concurs in very general terms with mine.

  3. Great post.

    "To be sure, Hirsch was a Rabbi with a beard, while Mendelssohn looked and lived the part of a renaissance man of letters."

    Mendelssohn wore a beard too. Find me another 18th century Aufklarung with a beard?

    As for Rav Hirsch's appearance, he also dressed in modern clothes.

    In any case, Hirsch himself imputed the same 'sin' which he imputed to the Rambam, that both of them sought to introduce non-Jewish concepts into Judaism, and understand it in its light, while he felt that Judaism can only be understood through itself. The fallacy is that R. Hirsch himself is a signal example of a 19th century Romantic, and there is a reason why his work was written in that time and place. He was not interpreting Judaism from itself as much as he thought he was.

    I agree with you that the source attributed to the Mitteler is significant in that it is nuanced, something which is deploringly lacking too often nowadays. It is clear that he knew exactly who each one was and each one was being judged independently.

    As a historical point, my own opinion (not exactly original, but still) is simply that Mendelssohn is a symbol. He was not only the most famous Jew among non-Jews in his life time, but - perhaps - more Jews heard of him than any other Jew. I could be wrong about that, but my impression (and I have reasons for saying it) is that this may well be the case.

    In the subsequent generation all modernizing Jews attributed their genesis to his example. That it wasn't true, that the Italians and the Western Sephardim were already modern, that there were loads of singular examples of Jews who were modern, possessed Western education, etc. was overlooked, because people like symbols. Little wonder that those who deplored the modernization of Jewry also took him symbolically.

    What Mgard says, "The fact that Orthodox German Jews treated Mendelssohn's Biur as a profane book and threw it in to the garbage, shows you what his contemporaries and their descendants thought of the man," is of course something he invented this morning, or someone else invented and told him. German Jews held the Biur in high regard, and subsequent reprintings bore haskamos from German ge'onim, who also subscribed to them, and not infrequently cited it.

    Whatever controversy there was about the Biur, it was only immediately, and it was mostly (but not exclusively) centered in Central Europe where, eg, the Noda Beyehuda was based, not Germany. True, there was the Haflaah of Frankfurt and R. Rafael Kohen of Hamburg, but there is a reason why we can name specific names. In any case, the controversy was over the language of the translation. By the next generation the Jews in Germany basically spoke German, not Yiddish, so the issue had simply died. No one was criticizing it any more - the issue of the criticism didn't exist. It's like drashas in the vernacular, or translations. In the vast mainstream of Orthodoxy there is simply no controversy about these things anymore. People who criticize the very *concept* of Artscroll are simply not mainstream, or they're just trying to remind people of ideals, but there is no serious, real opposition.

    Now among Chassidim it was and remained an object of criticism, no denying that.

  4. "Comnpare Mendelssohn's "Be a man outside and a Jew at home" with Hirsch's stance which insisted on a proud Jewish demeanor and total fidelity to Torah in the house and outside."

    The problem is that Mendelssohn never said that. Yehuda Leib Gordon said it. Mendelssohn was a Jew inside and outside. He kept visitors waiting so he could daven mincha. He was very, very visibly Jewish and he never hid it, whether at home or outside. He was a very proud, open Jew.

    the rest of what you say could be true, maybe not. Some of it is opinion, some of it is speculative. We're all entitled to opine where facts aren't hard, but where the facts are, we can't change them.

  5. Thank you S. for your valuable comments.

    In part two I will deal with the controversy in Mendelssohn's own time, and also offer some theories as to how and why he became what you call, I think rightly, a "symbol" of something larger than himself. Also a bit about why the negative attitude towards Mendelssohn is so much more widespread and engrained today than it was in his own time.

  6. Concerning my earlier statements:
    A teacher of mine, a refugee from Nazi Germany who grew up in a strictly Orthodox community there, told me it was the custom of everyone in their community to dump a copy of the Biur into the garbage without any concern for the text's holiness. This attitude shows that the Biur was not just a simple translation -- and it most likely had a part in bringing about the situation mentioned above where German and German culture replaced Yiddish and Judaism within the short span of a generation.
    If the book wasn't immediately opposed, it was doubtless because Mendelssohn retained the demeanor of a religious Jew and at the beginning of Haskala few could predict where it was heading. Many rabbonim thought it was just a simple translation (which had been made of Jewish texts for centuries). While there are many great rabbonim in every generation, there are only a few rabbonim with the unique insight to see where new trends are leading to.
    Today, we can't imagine the trial which the Haskalah constituted for Jews of its time. In the 18th century, Jews were still confined to the Judengasse, suffered from the Familiants Law and were discriminated at in numerous ways which sounds unbelievable to our contemporary ears. There was a weariness to finally be viewed as normal human beings with equal rights to other German citizens. Keeping in mind that there were other periods in Jewish history where Jews did study secular studies and interacted with the local culture, Mendelssohn's attempt to open German society to Jews seemed a praiseworthy thing to many, as a way to end unfair discrimination at the small price of a few concessions.
    There was no recent precedent to show that opening oneself up to the German language and culture would lead to a mad rush to assimilate and throw off Jewish exceptionalism. Previously, the distasteful act of shmad was the only way.
    All this together made it seem to many rabbonim that Mendelssohn's intentions were worthy. But the way he educated his own children and how they turned out, showed that his intentions were far from worthy.
    As for Mendelssohn's education of his own children, I read that many years ago in a biography of Mendelssohn written by a non-Orthodox author who admired his "modern" outlook . Is it true? As much as one can believe anything one reads in a book. But seeing how quickly all of Mendelssohn's children abandoned Jewish practice and some even converted out when it was not yet common would seem to be indicative.

  7. mgard, what your teacher told you was a slice of life in one time and place. Before the 1920s and 30s there was 150 years and there is a whole history there.

    As far as what it shows, opposition to something shows what the people who are opposed hold. Possibly your teacher's community held that the Beur was responsible for the decline of traditional Judaism, and the rise of apostacy, etc. etc.

    No one is denying that this occurred or that the later opponents of the Beur perceived it symbolically in this way, just as the maskilim and Reformers also perceived it as the start of their movements. I didn't fully bring this out before, but I meant to point out that one of the issues about its opposition was how ubiquitous it was. It was reprinted so many times there were places where you couldn't turn right and left without stumbling on a copy. The prevalence of it, the way it was quoted over and over and over again must have especially annoyed people who didn't like it, or the man.

    In point of fact though it was not a heretical book, and the proof that people threw it out is only that they have no qualms about throwing a Chumash in the garbage. Nice. All throughout the 19th century talmidei chachomim and ge'onim of impeccably Orthodox credentials perceived it as a good perush and, often, a good translation.

    It's hard to argue with symbolism, because symbols aren't the things themselves. So depending upon your perspective of course it was a churban, or it was not. All I would argue is that modern Jews - whether they call themselves modern orthodox or not - should be aware of the issues and make sure that their own opinion matches who they are, rather than mistakenly believing that the view of people and groups who are far from their own way of thinking ought to be their own view.

    I guess the real question is, why does it matter now? Do we need a matzevah to modernism so that we can scorn it (or laud it)? Mendelssohn wasn't the first modern Jew, modernism would have happened with or without him, etc.

    As for the education of his children, he gave them a traditional and modern education, and of course there was no traditional education for girls, so it was just modern for them. If anything the education he exposed them to might have been too intense. For example, Shlomo Dubno was his son's teacher. That's like hiring a professor to teach a kid. Be that as it may, it's a little rich for us who give our children modern and traditional educations, and we were so educated ourselves, to scorn someone for doing that (and he wasn't the first). It may sound nice in theory for us to totally reject modern education, but the reason why we don't do that is because it didn't and doesn't work. Even in communities where they do that today, they end up depending on other Jews who do get educated to be their shabbos goys, figuratively speaking. It's a mirage that it worked then or now. The minute there's a problem it's call the doctor, call the lawyer, call the psychologist, and 100 years ago it's call the guy who knows how to write a decent petition in German or Russian. I don't see how this can possibly be an ideal situation.

  8. As is shown in Part Two, there seems to have been extensive opposition.
    If so, why was the Biur so popular? It might be because there was nothing else close to it in conveying the Biblical text in good German, despite its failings. Truthfully, I'm not sufficiently acquainted with it or its history to know.
    The fact that Orthodox German Jews threw the Biur into the trash was not because of their irreverence for the chumash, chas vesholom, but because they equated it to a Christian Bible.
    Of course Mendelssohn didn't write a heretical book. As King Yannai told his wife, Do not fear the Tzadukim or the Perushim but those Tzadukim who make themselves out as if they are Perushim. If Mendelssohn would have written an openly heretical book, he would have been treated like Spinoza and lost whatever influence or respect that he had.
    Moreover, it would be superficial on our part to assume he was a heretic. He was probably more like the fringes of modern Orthodoxy today, that desire to ape the social norms and standards of wider society and bend halacha to that purpose, while still claiming title to their Orthodox lapel.
    I agree with you that if Mendelssohn hadn't spearheaded Haskala, it would have come anyway. Nevertheless, he deserves SR"Y because, as you say, he became the symbol of Haskala, energetically fomented it, and megalgalim chiyuv al yeday chayav.
    As I mentioned earlier, Judaism is not against secular studies per se and even sages in our past combined Torah scholarship with a profession and even scientific studies and research. The complaint against Mendelssohn is not because he advocated teaching a mixed Jewish and secular studies program to his children before it became widespread among religious Jews.
    By the way, in previous centuries, wealthy Jews often educated even their daughters (point in case Gluckel of Hameln)
    Why does it matter now? Because Mendelssohn may have been the spearhead of Haskala, but there are a lot of little Mendelssohns in every generation.
    A so called Orthodox school where children learn that secular studies are preeminent to Jewish studies, where they feel that a MA at Harvard and NYU is more important than being a talmid chachom, where they say about someone "He became a rabbi because he couldn't make it in medical school" is certainly following in Mendelssohn's footsteps.

  9. Great post and discussion!


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