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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What Mendelssohn Did Wrong - Part Two

The source cited in Part One, associating Mendelssohn, Wesseley and Satanow with various levels of Klipah, is an example of antagonism directed towards Mendelssohn from the Chasidic camp specifically, and it seems quite clear that the Non-Chasidic Traditionalist contemporaries of Mendelssohn did not necessarily see him in such a negative light.
Amongst the Chasidic leadership, perhaps the most prominent in his attacks on Mendelssohn and his associates was Rabbi Pinchus Horowitz, Chief Rabbi of Frankfurt, author of the Hafloah (by which name he is often referred to) and a disciple of Rabbi DovBer, the Maggid of Mezritch. In an impassioned sermon delivered in 1782, he justified his opposition to Mendelssohn and the other Biurists, with a withering attack centering on the Biur’s rendering of the following verse:
לא תשנא את אחיך בלבבך הוכח תוכיח את עמיתך ולא תשא עליו חטא (ויקרא יט, יז)
Mendelssohn explains this to mean, “You may rebuke your friend if he has insulted you earlier”. Here is the offending passage (click to enlarge):

Not only does this rendering ignore the obligatory imperative, “You shall” and substitute it with a far more polite, “You may”, it also interprets the verse to be referring to a social context, a case where affront has been caused between man and man specifically, rather than between man and G-d.
This may appear to be a small matter, but its subtlety belies its subversive nature. Indeed, this is a very good example of how Mendelssohn sought to whitewash the Torah and transform its connotation to conform to his program of rationalist universalism. Apparently Mendelssohn considered it more important to portray Judaism in the image of western liberalism and tolerance, which he sought to propagate, than to uphold G-d’s laws and rebuke (and even punish) those who transgressed them. The implications of such a distortion undermined the principle of mutual responsibility for the religious behaviour of one’s fellow man (arvus), and Rabbi Horowitz – the Hafloah – paraphrased Mendelssohn in more explicit terms:
Why should it matter to him if his friend sins, let every man do as his heart pleases...
The Hafloah continued:          
Look and see that all their books turn on this, that they wish to establish corrections and guidelines for the conduct of Torah Scholars, how to conduct themselves in matters of the world...
Clearly this example was seen as indicative of the broader Mendelssohnian agenda – namely, to cast the Torah and its scholars in a light that would conform to the philosophical and social norms made fashionable by the trendsetters in Berlin. Such a path, however carefully trod, was one that was implicitly heretical, for it placed a secular philosophy and agenda as being more edifying and desirable than the precepts of the Torah. As we have already noted in Part One, the principle here is that Mendelssohn and his associates got their priorities dangerously wrong.
The Hafloah was not alone in his abhorrence for the insidious undertones reflected in Mendelssohn’s Biur, and indeed his suspicions were echoed by many prominent disciples of his teacher Rabbi DovBer, the Maggid of Mezritch, amongst them Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk, his brother Rabbi Zushe of Hanipoli, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Barditchev, and others.[1] According to an account transcribed by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Shneersohn of Lubavitch, the initial suspicion with which the early Chasidic leadership treated Mendelssohn was also rooted in a far-sighted warning that the Baal Shem Tov had delivered some thirty years earlier. See רבנו הזקן ותנועת ההשכלה here.
On the other hand, it is apparent from the approbation of Rabbi Yechezkal Landau – the Chief Rabbi of Prague, famed as the author of Nodeh Beyehudah – to the Biblical commentary of Shlomo Dubno, that his reservations regarding Mendelssohn’s Biur had little to do with the subversive nature of the content, but rather concerned the language it was written in. Dubno authored the Biur that accompanied Mendelssohn’s German translation to Genesis and much of Exodus, but abruptly left Berlin before its completion. Now that Dubno was publishing the Biur independent of the German translation, the Nodeh Beyehudah explained, he was happy to give his approbation.
The figure of Dubno, his relationship with the circle of Mendelssohn, and his subsequent relationship with the circle of Rabbi Eliyahu, the famed Vilna Gaon, has been the subject of much contention.[2] While I may not be impartial on this point, it seems quite implausible that despite working closely with Mendelssohn for a number of years, Dubno remained unaware of the direction in which he was headed and did not share any of his aspirations. Nevertheless, he was welcomed by many of those closest to the Vilna Goan, and the Biur that he originally wrote to accompany and support Mendelssohn’s translation received the approbations of such figures as Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin and his brother Rabbi Shlomo Zalman (Zelmele). It would seem that, unlike their Chasidic counterparts they did not see Mendelssohn as particularly dangerous.[3]  
This brings me to the following passage, which appears on page 253 of The Making of a Gadol (thanks to my friend A. for bringing it to my attention), and juxtaposes the (assumed) attitude of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (the Tzemach Tzedek), with that of the son and successor of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, Rabbi Yitzchak (Reb Itzeleh):  

Another interesting and distinctly Chasidic example of antagonism to Mendelssohn appears in a discourse printed in the appendixes of the edition of Keter Shem Tov (a compilation of teachings attributed to the Baal Shem Tov) published by Kehot Publication Society. The authorship of the discourse is unknown, but it is clear that it was written by a student of Chabad Chasidism. Here is the relevent text (thanks to a reader, Rabbi Avrohom Bergstein, for drawing my attention to the source):

The reference to Mendelssohn appears in the midst of a discussion of the difference between “these times” when the spiritual station of the Jewish people is so low that some are no longer inspired by the teachings of Chasidism, and the times of the Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Shneur Zalman (referred to as Admor Hazaken), when Divinity was manifest explicitly, and no one could bring themselves to sin. However, the present misfortune is explained to be a blessing in disguise, for now latent evil can never be hidden or ostensibly overcome by good, but must always be openly manifest and recognisable, and therefore will never cause damage to some unknowing innocent how cannot discern the evil beneath the veneer of good. Whereas if Divinity was manifest as in earlier times, even the evil would not openly sin, but “the bad would remain hidden in their hearts and they would be able to damage others” – an interesting discussion in itself, but lets not distract ourselves from the reference to Mendelssohn – “like Mendelssohn and his students may there memory be erased who caused many souls to sin, because they considered them to be upright, but now that they have publicly gone in an evil way no one will learn from them”.

Here Mendelssohn is equated with the “souls that are rejected and lost to the three impure Klippot”; a more extreme designation than that applied to Mendelssohn by the Mitteler Rebbe and cited in Part One.[4] But in the same breath we find again acknowledgement of his religiosity on a practical level and his ostensibly upright conduct. Whatever 'evil' lay in his heart, it was veiled in subtleties and difficult to discern.      

Today, all Orthodox communities – whether Chasidic or non-Chasidic – view Mendelssohn as the arch-Maskil; a destroyer of Orthodoxy, and an usurper of Rabbinic Authority and the Jewish Tradition. How did such a state of unanimous agreement come about? How is it that in communities that disagree on any number of Halchic, Philosophical and Sociological issues, Mendelssohn is so universally infamous?
It would seem that the answer lies with the famed author of Chasam Sofer, Rabbi Moshe Shreiber (Moses Sofer). His paraphrase of the Talmudic dictum “Chodosh is Biblically forbidden” has become famous as an expression of his opposition to any form of modernization or reform. Not as famous but perhaps no less influential, was the stringent imperative recorded in his ethical will; “do not touch the works of Mendelssohn”.
The Chasam Sofer was a student of the Hafloah, whose fierce opposition to Mendelssohn has already been discussed, and it is clear that much of much of his abhorrence to Mendelssohn and his works was passed on to his student.[5] Despite the Chasam Sofer’s Chasidic influences, he resided in an area that was geographically removed from the centers of Chasidism in Poland and Russia, and did not conduct himself in the manner of a Chasidic Rebbe. As such, he is identified neither as Chasidic, nor as specifically non-Chasidic or opposed to Chasidism. For these reasons, he has become a unanimously accepted figure of authority for all branches of Orthodox Judaism. This is especially so in regards to the Orthodox response to the movements of modernity and Reform, which took hold first and fastest in the regions of Germany, Austria and Hungry. As the Rabbi of Pressburg (situated sixty kilometers east of Vienna and today called Bratislava), the Chasam Sofer has become famous for the battles he fought against the Reformers, and in many ways it was he who shaped the Orthodox response to modernity, setting the boundaries that are seen to uphold the integrity of Rabbinic Judaism to this day.
Two important articles, containing many of the primary sources for this post:
Related Articles and Blog Posts:  
Rabbi Dov Eliach, R' Shlomo Dubno (a response to Y. Mundshine)
On the Main Line, Solomon Dubno in Yated Ne’eman; how to make a Maskil a Rabbi (comments to Rabbi Dov Eliach)

[1] Another report that illustrates the nuance (or perhaps the paradox) that informed the Chassidic attitude towards Mendelssohn – acknowledging his Religious Observance (frumkeit) but decrying the subversive affect of his persona to the nth degree – concerns Rabbi Zvi Elimelech of Dinov, famed as the author of Bnei Yisoschor, a disciple of the Chozeh of Lublin (himself a student of the aforementioned Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk):
[2] Although there is evidence that Dubno and Medelssohn were involved in a dispute over the introduction to their joint work, Dubno himself attributed his departure from Berlin to pressure placed upon him by his much respected teacher Rabbi Naftali Hertz Halbershtat of Dubnow. While he does express his recognition that some of those involved in the project “had removed from themselves the yoke of Torah”, he refers to Mendelssohn himself with respect and stresses that he has “no reason at all to change my mind or regret that I participated in this endeavor”. According to Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Shneersohn of Lubavitch, Rabbi Naftali Hertz Halbershtat of Dubnow was influenced by the Baal Shem Tov and his teachings, this might be supported by the fact that – unusually for a Lithuainian Rabbi – he is often referred to as ha’goan hamekubal (see for example here), suggesting an unusual involvement and perhaps adherence to Kabalisitc customs, in the fashion of the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples.  
[3] It should be noted that the Nodeh Beyehudah and many other non-Chasidic Rabbinical figures were fierce opponents of the educational reforms proposed by Wessely. However, such antagonism did not extend to Mendelssohn and seems to be an exception rather than the rule.
[4] The Mitteler Rebbe refered to Mendelssohn as “the bad component of Nogah”, in this connection my friend of A. reminded of the statement of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi in Tanya, Chapter 6:
והן הם כל המעשים אשר נעשים תחת השמש אשר הכל הבל ורעות רוח וכמ"ש בזהר בשלח שהן תבירו דרוחא כו' וכן כל הדבורים וכל המחשבות אשר לא לה' המה ולרצונו ולעבודתו שזהו פי' לשון סטרא אחרא פי' צד אחר שאינו צד הקדושה
In A.’s words, this implies “that the very use of Nogah for something that isn't kedusha is in essence degrading it to sholosh klipos hatmeos... any human contact with anything will change it either to kedusha or sholosh klipos hatmeos, there is no such thing as remaining static in nogah...” In other words, two people can enter into the same realm of grey area, and nothing but their own intention or perception of what they are doing, and why they are doing it, can distinguish between wrong and right, black and white.  
[5] It has been noted that the Chasam Sofer’s own father-in-law, the famed Rabbi Akiva Eiger, was a subscriber to Mendelssohn’s Biur and even quotes it with respect. See Yitzchok Adlerstein, R. Akiva Eiger, Mendelssohn, and the Shema.


  1. Another great post. I do however wonder if your post would have been different if you approached it from another angle. It's worthwhile to ask why he is viewed this way, and to answer it, but what if you asked if it really is fair to view him this way? Do you think that's a fair question?

    Do we then agree that the fact that the world holds a view means it is correct? The fact that we see there is a history here of the development of this view should at least call it into question. I think one can maintain that for Chassidim this is indeed their authentic mesorah, and perhaps they needn't question it, although I would say that applies more to insular Chassidim who speak Yiddish, etc. As I said in the other post, I certainly question why modern Jews should hold this view which directly contradicts their hashkafah and way of life.

  2. S.:

    You raise an important point. You refer several times to "this view", by which I assume you mean the popular - black and white - view of Orthodox Jewry in Modern times (held perhaps by Mgard). I don't think such a view is fair. In the light of all of the above, however, I would argue that such a view is not consistent even with the authentic mesorah of Chasidim. The true Chasidic view appears to be far more complex:

    Earlier you spoke of symbolism. Symbolism works in a way that is powerfully far reaching and influential, ad at the same time too broad, complex and subtle to pin down. I would argue, that Mendelsshon became a symbol for the supremacy and success of modernisation over and above the 'backwardness' of religion. Modernisation is not necessarily a bad thing, but when it is placed before religion, rather than in service of religion it is. It is that symbol that, on the one hand, so influenced the cause of reform and assimilation, and on the other earned the ire of traditional Jews. Such a nuanced view, dependent on time, place and intent, need not contradict the Hashkafa of a Modern Jew, no matter how Chasidic.

  3. It could be that you are correct that the "traditional" view was more nuanced, in which case I am talking about black-and-white, which certainly exists now in many - obviously not all - circles.

    I understand what you're saying about symbolism, but I'm making another point about modern Jews. If l'maaseh they agree with his program, even if maybe they are more sensitive to some of its pitfalls having had 200 years of experience to guide them, if they are opposed to rabbinic coercion, which I think was his most defining feature, then who are they kidding if they think they are not his talmidim in some sense?

    The more minor issue is also that he was an actual person too, not only an idea. What would we think if somehow people decided that the Chofetz Chaim is a symbol of something bad, and people just felt free to add שר"י after their name? If MM deserved it, fine, at least that's being consistent. But how could someone say such things about someone if they acknowledge that it's not about the man per se?

  4. S.:

    Good points all, certainly food for thought...

    Mendelssohn was a person as well as an idea, but I think that the symbolism he came to stand for is itself a manifestation of the agendas that he aspired to as an individual. The symbolism grew out of the agendas at play in the inner mind of Mendelssohn himself. I am not sure how conscious these agendas were, and I don't think he was aware of the erroneous and subversive direction he was heading in. But even in his own time, before the symbolism developed, it was noticed by the discerning eye of the Hafloah.

  5. What you are saying rings true historically, but in our days MM's commentaries are tame and quite orthodox.

  6. In my comment yesterday at 11:35 I wrote "I don't think he was aware of the erroneous and subversive direction he was heading in" I should have written "I don't think he was COMPLETELY aware of the erroneous and subversive direction he was heading in."

  7. I'm unsure if this was brought to your attention, but in the Rayatz's recently-published reshima "Divrei Ymei Chayei Admur Hazaken" -- there's a whole arichus on the Biur and those who supported it etc., with many reference-notes as well. It may come to enrich your post here.

    The link:

  8. In the previous Rebbe's long letter against the shita of Torah Im Derech Eretz, he refers to Mendelssohn as "yimach shmo". I think that says it all.

  9. And we all know the previous Rebbe's tendentious view of "history". That answer may satisfy a Lubavitcher, but C-R is writing for non-Lubavitchers, to demonstrate the truths of Chabad's view of history.

    It may serve the purpose of keeping Chasidim in the fold to paint the greatest integrationist mind of the Alter Rebbe's era as possul treif, but to those of us from integrationist groups, a more detailed understanding of just where Mendelssohn is alleged to have gone wrong, ie necessary.

    The Previous Rebbe is not the only one to distort history like this:

    An evil star has risen in Germany: "Moses [Mendelsohn] of Desau, may his name be obliterated. A man of Torah filled with bitter, rotten grapes. He mixed a batter combining apostasy and Torah, spoiled and rotten. [...] his students fanned out across the land, making a tumult for the approach “Be a Jew at home, and a citizen in the street.” In a short time, Germany was poisoned, ruined by Mendelsohn and his colleagues.

    as C-R notes. R Berel Wein does it, R Eliezer Chrysler of S. Africa does it, a writer for JWR does it. It's a widely-spread lie. C-R is trying to demonstrate why this lie is so popular, what's the grain of truth that makes it plausible.

    I think part of the reason it is so popular is that it's a lot easier to blame a single scapegoat for the decline of Orthodoxy, than to blame the overall thrust of history, such as blaming "modernity". You can focus your anger on an individual, even if that individual was not actually responsible for the change you decry. In that sense, yes, C-R is right, Mendelssohn is rejected as a symbol, rather than as a man (although rejection of the symbol leads to false rejection of the man).

    It's a lot easier to make a polemic against a specific than against a generality.

    And even the FR can't deny that Mendelssohn was a "man of Torah".

  10. BTW, I think Mendelssohn may be translating the last two clauses of the posuk together. Wessely explains in the Biur (after giving the traditional understanding of hocheiach tochiach as an imperative) that lo tisa indicates that one may not be able to give tochacha, if it would embarrass the person or not be received well. So the last clause modifies the second from a pure imperative to a possible suggestion.

    IOW, he's translating the text on its own, relying on the Biur to transmit the true Oral Torah understanding.

  11. Milhouse:

    The event that the FR "refers to Mendelssohn as "yimach shmo"" does not "say it all". The FR also describes Mendelssohn as a "ת"ח מופלג וזהיר במצות" as thanbo pointed out. (See here: http://www.lahak.org/mehurayatz/reshime-8.pdf)
    As to the FR's view of history, the vast majority of what he writes abt Mendelssohn (and other issues) is increasingly being corroborated by the findings of academic research. For a balanced appraisal of the value of the FR's historical writings see Ada Rapoport-Albert's Hagiography with Footnotes, and Hasidism Reappraised, edited by the same.


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