- Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment, and: Anti-Semitic Stereotypes: A Paradigm of Otherness in English Popular Culture, 1660–1830, and: Figures of Conversion: “The Jewish Question” and English National Identity
Two centuries of commentary since Moses Mendelssohn’s death have presented him to the world in varied, often mutually contradictory roles: a saint (bracketed with Maimonides by many); the first modern Jew; a remarkable philosopher, “the Socrates of Berlin,” immortalized by his friend Lessing as Nathan the Wise; a man split between traditional Judaism and Enlightenment secularism; and a betrayer of his people. These personae derived from Mendelssohn’s writings in German. In his corrective study, David Sorkin devotes far more attention than has generally been given to Mendelssohn’s copious Hebrew writings, particularly the Biblical commentaries and translations, treating these as part of a single corpus with the German works. Sorkin modestly, but accurately, establishes Mendelssohn as neither modernist saint nor subverter of Jewish tradition (as many Zionists labeled him), but as a complex figure, modern in some ways, yet in others rooted in medieval tradition. Drawing extensively on secondary material in Hebrew, German, and English, Sorkin also argues persuasively that Mendelssohn, understood in a balanced context, was a far more consistent thinker than previously believed. He shows that, although they took decades before coming to a German-speaking audience, Mendelssohn’s views on Judaism, natural laws, and natural rights developed early and remained constant and consistent.
Sorkin’s “missing link” between the believer in revealed religion and the Enlightenment sage is “the interface of the religious Enlightenment” (xxi). Breaking with the “[c]ommon wisdom...that there was an irreconcilable hostility between the Enlightenment and established religion,” Sorkin notes that “all of the [established religions] had influential representatives who welcomed the new science and philosophy...as a means to reinvigorate faith” (xxi). The Haskalah, “the Jewish version of the religious Enlightenment,” was “initially an Ashkenazic [European Jewish] phenomenon,...Mendelssohn its preeminent representative” (xxi–xxii). In the “Andalusian” tradition, Mendelssohn and the Haskalah found a usable model for their reforming efforts, for, unlike the Ashkenazim, these Sephardic and Italian Jews had never withdrawn and insulated themselves from the surrounding cultural influences. An instructive aspect of Sorkin’s contribution is a point made passim: that Mendelssohn was an effective and sophisticated strategist. Like a tailback following his interference, Mendelssohn positioned himself behind other thinkers. Need to bring the rationalist Aristotle into mainstream Judaism? Translate the revered and undeniably Jewish “Rambam,” Moses Maimonides, heavily influenced by the Greek thinker. Need to establish the compatibility of Judaism and Newtonian physics? Run behind the medieval Jewish notion of God’s “preestablished harmony” (23).
Modestly announcing his volume as “a serviceable introduction” (ix), Sorkin has done far more. In “strip[ping] away some of the accumulated...varnish and grime” obscuring this “much-viewed and abused master painting” (155), he contributes substantially to our understanding of the history, philosophy, and religion of the period. His study suggests that Mendelssohn’s place in Jewish history—particularly his presumed responsibility for the trend to assimilation—needs reevaluation. Sorkin gives a clear picture of Mendelssohn’s philosophy, what it derives from, [End Page 581] where and how it differs from its sources and from traditional Judaism. He shows far more clearly than his predecessors how Mendelssohn’s philosophy was influenced by his Judaism. Moses Mendelssohn emerges, in Sorkin’s presentation, as a remarkable combination (blend, Sorkin might argue) of prolific writer, Talmud scholar, philosopher, translator, reviewer, intercessor, polemicist, and activist, while having to earn a living in business and coping with the lifelong frail health that shortened his life. For all his accomplishments, Mendelssohn comes across as brilliant...