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January 4: Moses Mendelssohn

Lawrence Bush
January 4, 2010

448px-Moses_Mendelson_P7160073Philosopher Moses Mendelssohn died on this day in 1786. Born and raised in poverty, he gained wide acclaim, unprecedented for a Jew, as “the German Plato” and as an erudite literary critic. Mendelssohn campaigned for civil rights for German Jews and helped to found the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, through which European Jews engaged with the secular world and eventually built emancipatory movements. In Jerusalem (1783), which Immanuel Kant described as “irrefutable,” Mendelssohn argued for religious pluralism and maintained (borrowing from Spinoza) that Judaism is a “natural” religion containing nothing more than rational truths and moral prescriptions. By translating the Pentateuch and Psalms into High German, he hoped to wean German Jews from Yiddish and drawing them more deeply into German culture. Mendelssohn has been called the “father of Reform Judaism” — and has also been viewed as the thinker who opened the door to assimilation.
“I fear that, in the end, the famous debate among materialists, idealists, and dualists amounts to a merely verbal dispute that is more a matter for the linguist than for the speculative philosopher.” —Moses Mendelssohn

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.