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Moses Mendelssohn

Writings on Judaism, Christianity, and the Bible

Michah Gottlieb

Publication Year: 2011

German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) is best known in the English-speaking world for his Jerusalem (1783), the first attempt to present Judaism as a religion compatible with the ideas of the Enlightenment. While incorporating much of Jerusalem, Michah Gottlieb's volume seeks to expand knowledge of Mendelssohn's thought by presenting translations of many of his other seminal writings from the German or Hebrew originals. These writings include essays, commentaries, unpublished reflections, and personal letters.

Part One includes selections from the three major controversies of Mendelssohn's life, all of which involved polemical encounters with Christian thinkers. Part Two presents selections from Mendelssohn's writings on the Bible. Part Three offers texts that illuminate Mendelssohn's thoughts on a diverse range of religious topics, including God's existence, the immortality of the soul, and miracles. Designed for class adoption, the volume contains annotations and an introduction by the editor.

Published by: Brandeis University Press

Series: Tauber Institute Series for the Study of European Jewry & The Brandeis Library of Modern Jewish Thought

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-x

It is with great excitement that we present a volume of the Brandeis Library of Modern Jewish Thought devoted to Moses Mendelssohn. This volume offers both the teacher and student his seminal writings, many of which appear here for the first time in English translation. The texts are drawn from his German and Hebrew writings across literary genres: from philosophical ...

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Introduction: Moses Mendelssohn and the Project of Modern Jewish Philosophy

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pp. xi-xxviii

Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786) is often considered the founder of modern Jewish philosophy, and even of modern Judaism.1 In light of the upheavals and dislocations of modern Jewish identity, it is not surprising that his thought has been subject to wide-ranging, contradictory interpretations. During Mendelssohn’s life, the adage “from Moses to Moses there never arose one as great ...

I. Polemical Writings

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pp. 1-2

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The Lavater Affair and Related Documents (1769–1773)

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pp. 3-4

On 26 February 1764, Johann Caspar Lavater and two friends visited Mendelssohn in his Berlin home, seeking to clarify his attitude toward Christianity. Although Mendelssohn sought to avoid a discussion of this sensitive issue by diverting the conversation to more neutral topics, Lavater and his friends persisted. In the course of their conversation, Mendelssohn expressed respect for ...

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1. Lavater’s Dedication to Mendelssohn (1769)

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p. 5-5

Most honorable sir! . . . I know not how I can better express the great respect that your excellent writings and your even more excellent character—that of an Israelite in whom there is no guile—have instilled in me, nor how I can better repay the pleasure that I enjoyed several years ago in your kind company, than to dedicate to you the best ...

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2. Open Letter to Lavater (1769)

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pp. 6-15

Honorable friend of humanity! . . . You have deemed it proper to dedicate to me Mr. Bonnet’s Investigation of the Proofs for Christianity, which you have translated from the French. And in the dedication you have deemed it proper to implore me, before the eyes of the public and in the utmost solemn fashion, “to refute this work, provided that I do not ...

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3. From “Counter-Reflections to Bonnet’s Palingenesis” (1770)

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pp. 16-30

I live under a dominant nation that in terms of power and wisdom is probably the greatest on earth. This nation boasts of having reliable testimony that through extraordinary means its ancestors received from God the most convincing assurances of its eternal felicity. The wisest, most venerable men speak of this with such firm conviction that I cannot possibly doubt their sincerity. ...

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4. Letter to Rabbi Jacob Emden, 26 October 1773

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pp. 32-35

Greetings to my lord, my teacher and rabbi, the master, the great and renowned genius, light of Israel, servant of the Eternal, glory of the generation, our honorable teacher, the master Rabbi Jacob son of Zvi, may his lamp be bright, may his Rock and Redeemer protect him [. . .] Concerning the question which I have asked him several times, my lord, ...

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5. Letter to “a Man of Rank” (Rochus Friedrich Graf von Lynar), 26 January 1770

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pp. 37-38

I must confess that I know no more of the political constitution of states than one might learn through ordinary acquaintances with people who are not much above my rank. How, therefore, can I judge a project that presupposes the most profound knowledge of statistics? Generally speaking, the idea seems to me to be a grand one and to have arisen...

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Jerusalem and Related Documents (1782–1783)

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p. 39-39

Beginning in 1769, Mendelssohn took an active role in protecting and ameliorating the civil standing of his fellow Jews. He defended Jewish communities in Altona (1769), Schwerin (1772), Switzerland (1775), Warsaw (1775), K

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6. From the Preface to Vindiciae Judaeorum (1782)

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pp. 40-54

Thank all-bountiful providence that it has allowed me, at the end of my days, to live to see this happy point in time in which the rights of man are beginning to be taken to heart in their true extent. Up to now when men discussed tolerance and sociability, it was always the weaker, oppressed party that sought to preserve itself under the protection of reason and humanity. Either the dominant ...

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7. The Search for Light and Right in a Letter to Mr. Moses Mendelssohn, on the Occasion of his Remarkable Preface to Menasseh ben Israel (1782)

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pp. 55-67

Worthy man, . . . There was a time when I found fault with Lavater for his importunity in solemnly challenging you to either become a Christian or expose the groundlessness of the Christian religion. I will always fault Lavater for so challenging you on the basis of a private conversation that was surely not to be revealed to the world in such a public manner. ...

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8. Mörschel’s Postscript (1782)

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pp. 68-71

Revered sir! . . . As soon as I had read your remarkable preface to Menasseh ben Israel with the enjoyment and attention it deserved, there arose in my heart the wish that you had used the occasion to step a little further into the light, or that you might have deemed it proper to remove from your face the veil with which you remain ...

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9. From Jerusalem, or on Religious Power and Judaism (1783): PART I

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pp. 72-123

[. . .] To conclude this section, I will recapitulate the results to which my reflections have led me. State and church have a duty to promote, by means of public measures, human felicity in this life and in the future life. Both act on men’s convictions and actions, on principles and their application; the state, by means of reasons based on the relations between man and man, or ...

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10. From Letter to Naphtali Herz Homberg

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p. 124-124

Best Friend! . . . [. . .] We are not of the same opinion regarding the necessity of ritual laws. Even if their significance as a kind of script or sign language were to lose their usefulness, their necessity as a unifying bond would not come to an end. And, in my opinion, this union itself will have to be preserved by the plan of providence as ...

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The Pantheism Controversy (1785–86)

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pp. 125-126

In 1767, Jacobi read Mendelssohn’s Phädon and became so enamored of what he called “this masterpiece” that he sought to translate it into French. But Jacobi gradually grew disenchanted with Mendelssohn’s religious rationalism. In the summer of 1780, Jacobi visited Lessing, and in the course of their extended conversations, Jacobi became convinced that Lessing had moved away from ...

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11. From Jacobi’s On the Doctrine of Spinoza in Letters to Mr. Moses Mendelssohn (1785)

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pp. 127-141

I have named my book after its occasion and the greatest portion of its content, for even the letter to Hemsterhuis must be counted here as a supplement to the letters to Mendelssohn. My simultaneously providing the history of these letters will justify this history itself. After the final letter I have briefly stated the purpose of this work, and I believe ...

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12. From Morning Hours, or Lectures on the Existence of God (1785)

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pp. 142-152

The thoughts about reason and common sense189 with which I concluded yesterday’s lecture were intertwined with the story of a journey in the Swiss mountains, a story with which we were entertained in the evening by our guests and which formed itself in my imagination into a dream that well-nigh has allegorical significance.190 We were traveling together through the Alps and had ...

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13. From To Lessing’s Friends (1786)

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pp. 153-172

Our friend’s devotion to Spinozism should not be regarded as a mere hypothesis (as the patriarch in Nathan puts it) that one devises in order to dispute it pro and con.200Lessing was really and truly a Spinozist. His proofs are said to be contained in a correspondence ...

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II. Writings on the Bible

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pp. 173-175

n parallel with his German philosophical writings, aimed at a broad European audience, Mendelssohn composed Hebrew writings primarily aimed for Jewish consumption. In 1768 he completed a Commentary on Ecclesiastes, which was published in 1770. Given his philosophical interests, it is not incidental that Mendelssohn chose to write a commentary on part of the biblical “wisdom ...

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14. From Introduction to Commentary on Ecclesiastes (1770)

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pp. 176-181

As is well known, there are four ways to elucidate our holy Torah: peshat, derush, remez, and sod.2 They are all words of the living God and are all correct. This neither contradicts the ways of the intellect and logic, nor is strange and astonishing to human understanding, as I will elucidate with the help of the Eternal, may He be blessed. ...

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15. Introduction to Translation of the Psalms (1783)

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pp. 183-186

To the reader: I here give over to my reader the fruits of a more than decade-long labor that gave me many pleasant hours at the time and sweetened many an anguished moment. I did not translate the psalms in order, one after another, but rather chose a psalm that pleased me, agreed with my state of mind at the time, and stimulated me sometimes by its beauty and sometimes by its difficulty. I carried ...

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16. From Letter to August Hennings

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pp. 187-188

But, really, the little thunderstorm that has gathered over my poor book [Alim Literufah] has not caused me the slightest agitation. No zealot shall so easily succeed in rousing my cold blood. I regard the play of human passions as a natural phenomenon that deserves to be observed. Whoever shakes and shivers at every electrical spark is not fit to be an observer. Generally speaking, my heart ...

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17. From Light for the Path (1783)

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pp. 189-204

Moses our master, peace be on him, wrote the entire Torah from “in the beginning” [Genesis 1:1] to “before the eyes of all Israel” [Deuteronomy 34:12], including the final eight verses from “Moses died” [Deuteronomy 34:5] to the end of the Torah. It occurred to Rabbi Judah to say that Joshua wrote the final eight verses, but Rabbi Simeon responded to him, saying: “Is it possible that ...

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18. Selections from the Bi’ur (1780–83)

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pp. 205-230

Rashbam, may his memory be for a blessing, opened his elucidation of this pericope, which is exceedingly profound and rich in laws and rules, in this way: Those who are endowed with reason know and understand that my purpose here is not to explain laws, even though they are what are essential, as I explained in my commentary on Genesis.61 Laws and extralegal matters have ...

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III. Miscellany

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pp. 231-234

Mendelssohn’s first Hebrew commentary was his 1761 Elucidation of [Maimo­nides’s] “Logical Terms.” The introduction to the commentary (selection 19) can be understood as the flip side of Mendelssohn’s project in Jerusalem. Whereas in his German Jerusalem, Mendelssohn seeks to justify Judaism before the skeptical tribunal of philosophy, in his Hebrew introduction to Maimonides’s Logical ...

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19. On the Religious Legitimacy of Studying Logic: From the introduction to Elucidation of “Logical Terms” (1761)

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pp. 235-240

The word logica, which is known among masters of wisdom to refer to logic, derives from logos, which in Greek sometimes refers to speech and expression, sometimes to idea and thought, and sometimes to the wisdom that is the soul’s acquired property for thinking true and correct thoughts. Since in Latin there is no word that combines these two meanings, Latin speakers made use of this ...

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20. An Ontological Proof for God’s Existence: From the “Treatise on Evidence” (1763)

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pp. 241-242

Since the existence of a thing is, generally speaking, so difficult to explain, let us begin with nonexistence. Whatever does not exist must be either impossible or merely possible. In the first case, its inner determinations must be contradictory. That is, the same predicate must be affirmed and denied of the same subject at the same time. In the second case, however, they will not contain a contradiction, ...

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21. A Cosmological Proof for God’s Existence: From Morning Hours (1785)

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pp. 243-245

It seems to me that the distinguishing marks of whatever is contingent, dependent, necessary, or independent have been set out distinctly enough.12 Insofar as the reality of a being may not presuppose the reality of another thing apart from it, it is called “independent.” But insofar as its reality flows from its conceivability, insofar as the opposite—that is, such a being does not really exist—cannot ...

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22. A Proof for the Immortality of the Soul: From the Ph

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pp. 246-248

How deplorable is the fate of a mortal being who, through wretched sophistries, has deprived himself of the consoling expectation of a future life! He must not reflect on his situation, and must live as in a stupor or despair. What is more horrifying to the human soul than annihilation? What is more miserable than a human being who watches as annihilation approaches him with powerful ...

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23. A Rational Foundation for Ethics: From the “Treatise on Evidence” (1763)

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pp. 249-251

In every just action that a human being performs, he silently makes the following rational inference: Wherever property A is to be found, it is required that duty B be done. The current case possesses property A. Therefore, etc. The major premise of this rational inference is a maxim, a general rule of life, ...

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24. On the Possibility of Miracles: From “Counter-Reflections on Bonnet’s Palingenesis” (1770)

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pp. 252-254

Are God’s miracles preordained and generated in time by natural laws that are unknown to us, or do they require the direct intervention of the Omnipotent, a suspension of the laws of nature? As far as I know, both hypotheses are acceptable to all known religions. Our rabbis in particular are not too distant from the hypothesis of Mr. Bonnet. On the contrary, they explain the miracles of the Old ...

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25. On the Reliability of Miracles: From Mendelssohn’s Letter to Bonnet (9 February 1770)

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pp. 255-256

I find that in the times of the ancient faith, miraculous deeds were not regarded as infallible proof of a prophet’s divine mission. Even false prophets were supposed to have been able to work miracles. I dare not to decide whether [they could do so] through magic or secret arts, or perhaps by misusing extraordinary talents conferred on them for better employment. Suffice it to say that the talent ...

Suggestions for Further Reading

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pp. 257-258


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pp. 259-267

E-ISBN-13: 9781611682144
E-ISBN-10: 1611682142

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Tauber Institute Series for the Study of European Jewry & The Brandeis Library of Modern Jewish Thought