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No Religion without Idolatry

Mendelssohn's Jewish Enlightenment

Gideon Freudenthal

Publication Year: 2012

Moses Mendelssohn (1725–1786) is considered the foremost representative of Jewish Enlightenment. In No Religion without Idolatry, Gideon Freudenthal offers a novel interpretation of Mendelssohn’s general philosophy and discusses for the first time Mendelssohn’s semiotic interpretation of idolatry in his Jerusalem and in his Hebrew biblical commentary. Mendelssohn emerges from this study as an original philosopher, not a shallow popularizer of rationalist metaphysics, as he is sometimes portrayed. Of special and lasting value is his semiotic theory of idolatry.

From a semiotic perspective, both idolatry and enlightenment are necessary constituents of religion. Idolatry ascribes to religious symbols an intrinsic value: enlightenment maintains that symbols are conventional and merely signify religious content but do not share its properties and value. Without enlightenment, religion degenerates to fetishism; without idolatry it turns into philosophy and frustrates religious experience. Freudenthal demonstrates that in Mendelssohn’s view, Judaism is the optimal religious synthesis. It consists of transient ceremonies of a “living script.” Its ceremonies are symbols, but they are not permanent objects that could be venerated. Jewish ceremonies thus provide a religious experience but frustrate fetishism. Throughout the book, Freudenthal fruitfully contrasts Mendelssohn's views on religion and philosophy with those of his contemporary critic and opponent, Salomon Maimon. No Religion without Idolatry breaks new ground in Mendelssohn studies. It will interest students and scholars in philosophy of religion, Judaism, and semiotics.

"In this lucid and provocative study, Gideon Freudenthal offers an original and compelling reading of Mendelssohn as well as a defense of the possibility of religious rationalism more generally. This book is not only an excellent contribution to a growing body of scholarship on Mendelssohn and early modern philosophy, but it also significantly sharpens and advances contemporary conversations about the relations between religion and reason." —Leora Batnitzky, Princeton University
"In this masterful study, Gideon Freudenthal demonstrates how Mendelssohn’s philosophy, including his philosophy of religion, is grounded in semiotics. The result is a landmark work that not only successfully challenges standard interpretations of Mendelssohn’s 'enlightened Judaism' and its alleged inconsistency but also effectively invites reconsideration of the very possibility of 'religion without idolatry.'" —Daniel O. Dahlstrom, Boston University
"In focusing on Mendelssohn's 'semiotics of idolatry,' Gideon Freudenthal writes as a philosopher fully at home in multiple traditions: contemporary philosophy, eighteenth-century philosophy, Jewish biblical exegesis, and comparative religion. The result is a systematic and penetrating study, based on the Hebrew as well as the German texts, that engages Mendelssohn on perhaps the most critical issue of his understanding of religion with unprecedented philosophical rigor and imagination." —David Sorkin, City University of New York Graduate Center


Published by: University of Notre Dame Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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p. ix-ix

I discussed my ideas concerning idolatry and enlightened Judaism with friends and colleagues. I am grateful for their suggestions and criticism. In an early stage of my work, Ursula Goldenbaum, . . .


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p. xi-xi

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pp. 1-20

This book has a direct and an indirect topic. Its immediate subject matter is Moses Mendelssohn’s conception of enlightened Judaism; its indirect topic is the very possibility of enlightened religion. Drawing . . .

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Chapter 1: Mendelssohn: Common Sense, Rational Metaphysics, and Skepticism

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pp. 21-63

Mendelssohn’s philosophy of religion depends on an argument on what can and cannot be known. It is therefore necessary to elaborate his basic epistemological and metaphysical views prior to a discussion of his views

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Chapter 2: Salomon Maimon: The Radical Alternative to Mendelssohn

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pp. 65-76

One chapter in Maimon’s autobiography is titled “Mendelssohn — A Chapter Devoted to the Memory of a Worthy Friend.” And yet, in spite of the expression “worthy friend” and the many positive things Maimon . . .

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Chapter 3: The Truth of Religion

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pp. 77-87

Mendelssohn’s epistemic and linguistic skepticism does not affect his trust in natural religion. Its essentials — the belief in God, providence, and afterlife — are accessible to sound reason on the basis of empirical . . .

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Chapter 4: The Language of Action in Biblical Times

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pp. 89-104

The truths of natural religion are revealed “through nature and thing, but never through word and script” (Jerusalem, 90). However, Judaism is revealed through word and script, and moreover, it is so transmitted . . .

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Chapter 5: Idolatry: Egyptian and Jewish

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pp. 105-134

In Jerusalem Mendelssohn discusses the threat of idolatry inherent to the use of script and other permanent signs. His foremost example is Egyptian hieroglyphics. He also remarks that the Hebrew alphabet . . .

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Chapter 6: The “Ceremonial Law” of Judaism: Transitory Hieroglyphics

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pp. 135-159

Mendelssohn’s best-known pronouncement in Jerusalem is that Judaism has no specific theology of its own, and it is this view that raises the question why he nevertheless insisted on remaining . . .

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Chapter 7: Idolatry in Contemporary Judaism

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pp. 161-184

Mendessohn defends Jewish ceremonial law with the argument that it alerts the practitioner to the truths of natural religion and that it does not promote idolatry. The Jewish service consists only in actions that are . . .

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Chapter 8: Philosophy of Enlightened Judaism

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pp. 185-223

Mendelssohn’s Judaism is based on “natural religion,” the belief in God, in providence, and in afterlife. He adopts this conception of natural religion that was widely accepted in the eighteenth century and does not . . .

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Chapter 9: Conclusion

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pp. 225-232

In this book on the philosophy of the Jewish Enlightenment I attempted to place Mendelssohn’s views of Judaism within his general philosophy. I also endeavored to show that Mendelssohn’s philosophy in general and . . .


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pp. 233-245


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pp. 247-308


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pp. 309-326


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pp. 327-332

E-ISBN-13: 9780268079758
E-ISBN-10: 0268079757
Print-ISBN-13: 9780268028909
Print-ISBN-10: 0268028907

Page Count: 344
Illustrations: NA
Publication Year: 2012