- Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment
Was Moses Mendelssohn a believing Jew who employed the philosophy of the religious Enlightenment in defense of his traditional faith? Or was he a philosopher who significantly recast Judaism in order to make it conform to what he considered to be the inescapable demands of reason? David Sorkin’s Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment represents a forceful and lucid effort to provide an affirmative answer to the first of these questions. But this book does not, in the end, rule out the possibility that Mendelssohn ought to be seen as someone who better fits the description contained in the latter question.
According to Sorkin, Mendelssohn was a modern continuator of what he designates (borrowing a phrase from Bernard Septimus) as the “Andalusian” tradition in medieval Jewish thought. This term refers to an approach to Judaism whose “defining characteristic was that it kept philosophy subordinate to piety and observance by refusing to admit a contemplative educational ideal that promoted a search for ultimate truths or secret knowledge. By denying the possibility of a comprehensive science of the divine and thereby limiting the reach of human knowledge, the Andalusian tradition established boundaries to rationalism yet did not reject rationalism itself.” It aimed instead “to create a pietist or practical rationalism devoted to ethics and observance” (p. xxii).
Sorkin maintains that Mendelssohn, operating in the Andalusian mode, pressed the teachings of the contemporary religious Enlightenment into the service of the Jewish religion. “He used novel means for conservative ends. Mendelssohn did for Judaism what the ‘theological Wolffians’ (1725–1750) had done for German Protestantism. He used his own version of Wolffian philosophy as a means to articulate his full belief in revealed religion” (p. xxiii).
In fact, Mendelssohn had a broader conception of philosophy’s proper function than that attributed to him by Sorkin. Far from subordinating philosophy to piety, he philosophized without prior restraints in his search for fully rational foundations for the principles of natural religion and morality. It is true, of course, that he publicly and repeatedly maintained that the results of this search in no way conflicted with the tenets of Judaism. But there is good reason to suspect that when he did so, he was not speaking with complete candor. A close examination of Mendelssohn’s defense of Judaism shows that he had to subject his ancestral religion to radical revision in order to bring it into complete [End Page 179] agreement with his philosophy and his by no means entirely conservative ends.
The Andalusian tradition in which Sorkin situates Mendelssohn is not quite the same as the one described by the scholar from whom he appropriates this rubric. For both Septimus and Sorkin this school represented, in the latter’s words, “a flexible approach to Judaism encompassing the works of many scholars at different times” (p. xxii). Septimus, however, seems to have had in mind a larger and more inclusive category of thinkers than Sorkin. Describing the Andalusian tradition as heavily infused with rationalism, Septimus identified Maimonides as its “greatest representative.” 1 Sorkin, on the other hand, refers to him as a figure only partly acceptable to this tradition, which regarded his systematic philosophy with much suspicion. From Sorkin’s point of view, it seems, following the Andalusian tradition and being a complete Maimonidean are mutually exclusive possibilities (p. xxiii).
Mendelssohn’s preference for the first of these two options is evinced, according to Sorkin, by his entire attitude toward philosophical endeavors. “He did not aspire to a systematic religious philosophy.” Convinced of reason’s limited capacity, Mendelssohn was particularly wary of employing it to trespass on territory belonging to the domain of revelation. He also believed, in any case, in the superiority of practice to speculation: “Mendelssohn therefore concentrated on practical knowledge, which in exegesis meant access to the Bible as revelation and commandment through the literal meaning of the text while in philosophy it denoted the means to logical formulation of key theological issues. Both these disciplines functioned within the boundaries of rabbinic authority” (p. 13...