- Faith and Freedom: Moses Mendelssohn’s Theological-Political Thought by Michah Gottlieb
For a long period, Mendelssohn has been considered either by historians of philosophy as a Wolffian and popular philosopher missing Kant’s critical philosophy standards or by scholars of Jewish Studies as the great reformer, although often with a critical undertone for an alleged tendency of assimilation. Michah Gottlieb, being obviously trained in philosophy as well as in Jewish studies, takes the Jewish and Wolffian philosopher Mendelssohn seriously in both ways and can thus evaluate the great impact of Mendelssohn’s philosophy on his Jewish position as well as the enormous influence of his Jewish roots and religion on his philosophy. The book is an excellent proof of the fruitfulness of such a complex understanding of the Jewish philosopher, his philosophical achievements, and his impact on his Jewish and Christian environment.
While in philosophy Gottlieb has to show Mendelssohn’s original contribution in general, within Jewish Studies he has to defend his project against two different ways of interpretation. One, neglecting the philosopher, focuses on Mendelssohn’s Judaism and his orthodoxy. David Sorkin [End Page 122] even sees Mendelssohn in the Andalusian tradition making him submit philosophy to piety and observance (Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment, 1996). More widespread is the other way seeing Mendelssohn as a deist ready to assimilate his Judaism to Christian enlightened deism. Here Gottlieb focuses on the recent book of Allan Arkush, who even considers Mendelssohn’s explicit Jewish credo as disingenuous (Moses Mendelssohn and the Enlightenment, 1994). Both positions are convincingly refuted throughout the book.
Gottlieb’s chapters treat 1) the harmony between Judaism and enlightenment philosophy, 2) philosophy and law, presenting Mendelssohn’s political philosophy and how he situates Judaism in modern society, and 3) Jacobi’s attack on rationalism and enlightenment (abusing Mendelssohn as his target). The last chapter provides an extremely thoughtful reconsideration of Mendelssohn’s philosophical idealism in harmony with his modernized but perfectly orthodox Judaism. The introduction offers an interesting survey about the legacy of Mendelssohn in the Jewish world and beyond, discussing the relation of faith and reason and the renewed interest of Jewish liberals in Mendelssohn’s position during the Weimar republic, as well as Leo Strauss’s qualms with Mendelssohn’s liberal and enlightened position. Interestingly, when reconsidering the Pantheismusstreit Gottlieb challenges our common views of the history of philosophy, claiming that at the center of it was not metaphysics or epistemology but ethics and politics; he gives good evidence throughout the book.
The first chapter begins with an introduction to Mendelssohn’s serious and careful study and critical discussion of Maimonides. The author then follows Mendelssohn’s study through his contemporary philosophy, his intense but critical appropriation of Spinoza, and finally his embracing of Leibniz and Wolff as theistic and idealistic philosophers who allowed for a personal and benevolent god.
The second chapter focuses on Mendelssohn’s critical adoption of Maimonides and Spinoza in terms of political philosophy. While he remains close to Maimonides in his high regard for halakah as a way to human perfection and disagrees with Spinoza’s dismissing the law after the end of the Jewish state, Mendelssohn shows the compatibility of halakah with political liberty and religious tolerance as they were taught by Spinoza. However, while Gottlieb’s claim that Mendelssohn criticized Maimonides for holding elitist views is justified, I do not see him criticizing Spinoza in the same way, although Strauss does make such a claim. But Spinoza is the [End Page 123] first theorist of democracy and of freedom of speech, and Mendelssohn appreciates this. In this chapter, Gottlieb also offers a convincing explanation of why Mendelssohn could not have followed the Andalusian tradition he was of course familiar with (55–56): In his time, with reforms on their way that could provide Jewish emancipation (although not yet in Prussia), he had to show a new way for the Jews to integrate as citizens in a modern state, to enjoy political liberty without assimilating to the dominant religion and culture. For this modern Jewish...