- No Religion without Idolatry: Mendelssohn’s Jewish Enlightenment by Gideon Freudenthal, and: Moses Mendelssohns Sprachpolitik by Grit Schorch
One of the most interesting aspects of Moses Mendelssohn’s thought is the way he approaches the subject of language as worthy of genuine philosophical attention. If the question of the role of language plays a central role in Mendelssohn’s conception of Judaism, this is not an isolated concern but an instance where Mendelssohn’s thinking about language gains striking momentum. While his argument concerning the mitzvot or Jewish commandments as a “living script” is often taken as a kind of apologetic thinking, Mendelssohn’s notion of the “living script” does not stand isolated but represents just one instance of the critical role of Mendelssohn’s thinking where it informs his philosophical approach as a whole. The two new studies No Religion without Idolatry: Mendelssohn’s Jewish Enlightenment by Gideon Freudenthal and Moses Mendelssohns Sprachpolitik by Grit Schorch demonstrate that beyond any possible apologetic motives Mendelssohn might have had there were more far-reaching theoretical concerns on his agenda when he proposed his theory of the “living script.”
While Gideon Freudenthal’s book takes as its guidepost the point that its title so provocatively heralds—that religion ultimately cannot be separated from the idolatrous implications of a practice that made it possible in the first place—Grit Schorch’s book provides the fuller historical and philosophical background that inform Mendelssohn’s philosophy. Both authors share an interest in approaching the distinctive innovative potential of Mendelssohn’s project from the point of the question how [End Page 364] he rethinks the problem of language and signification. But as they go over much the same material, their studies open up interestingly different perspectives.
In Freudenthal’s account, Mendelssohn emerges as the faute de mieux response to the alternative that Salomon Maimon articulates. We can call it the Mendelssohn of the glass half-empty. Schorch’s book, on the other hand, develops the glass halffull (and more) version of Mendelssohn as inspiring a response to the challenge of modernity. In Schorch’s account, Mendelssohn’s visionary significance emerges out of a rich strand of contexts of Jewish tradition and philosophy as well as the particular situation Mendelssohn would face in eighteenth-century Germany. If Freudenthal’s argument is composed more directly to address the question of idolatry and expose the aporetic situation that even Mendelssohn’s sophisticated project of a Jewish Enlightenment could not evade, Schorch’s thorough and perceptive contextualization of Mendelssohn’s thought in the context of German and Jewish philosophical thought allows us to grasp Mendelssohn’s continuing importance more precisely.
Framing his approach as the contrast between Mendelssohn and the radical alternative of Salomon Maimon, Freudenthal offers a typology of two modes of modern Jewish philosophers whose conflicting trajectories present the philosophical dilemma that Jewish tradition faces in modernity, or so he suggests. For Freudenthal, they represent two different if opposed versions of modern thought. While Freudenthal’s approach points to the blind spots that a more sympathetic reading of Mendelssohn might be tempted to ignore, such contrast and comparison has its own problems reducing differences to simple oppositions. Introducing Maimon as a figure of contrast, Freudenthal succeeds in highlighting distinct differences between these philosophers that otherwise might be difficult to grasp. The philosophical trajectories of Mendelssohn and Maimon seem to be profoundly opposed. Whereas Maimon elevates science to serve as a new “idol,” Mendelssohn proposes a captivating vision of culture and philosophy that is more encompassing in scope and curiously at odds with Maimon’s views on philosophy. Freudenthal’s argument that the two projects’ mutually exclusive stance highlights the irresolvable dilemma of modernity is suggestive, but it also lends itself to reducing the rich tensions between the two to a problematically expeditious explanation. The explanation...