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Moses Mendelssohn: Sage of Modernity (Jewish Lives) Hardcover – November 23, 2010

4 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"An all-encompassing biography of Mendelssohn . . . . Feiner describes Mendelssohn's intellectual and social ascent in a tight, concise narrative."—Publishers Weekly
(Publishers Weekly)

"In extensive quotations from Mendelssohn’s many works, Feiner provides an introduction to Mendelssohn’s open, humanist thought and hopes, as well as his abiding fear that Jews would never attain full civil standing without sacrificing their religious tradition. Mendelssohn’s letters often reveal his disappointments and the burden he carried as spokesman for the Jewish community to both the governmental authorities and intellectual elite, defending Judaism even as he attempted to purge it of rabbinic authority and insularity. Feiner is particularly sensitive to Mendelssohn’s desire for a life of study, enriched by family and his salon of likeminded friends and thinkers, even as he was thrust time and again into the public arena."—Maron L. Waxman, Jewish Book Council
(Maron L. Waxman Jewish Book Council)

"Feiner's Moses Mendelssohn serves as a useful introduction to this complex figure, and fills a longstanding need for a short, accessible biography . . . . Feiner is especially good at positioning the development of Mendelssohn's thought within the contours and challenges of his times."—Jerome Copulsky, Jewish Review of Books
(Jerome Copulsky Jewish Review of Books)

"A fascinating portrait of an important Enlightenment figure. . . . Feiner's biographical bildungsroman is a respectful and balanced treatment of the Socrates of Germany and the Father of Reform Judaism, appropriate for both academic and public libraries."—Brian Smith, Library Journal
(Brian Smith Library Journal)

"Highly recommended."—Choice

"[R]eadable and lively . . . The volume offers an excellent introduction to Mendelssohn for students and interested lay readers as well as a welcome scholarly contribution."—Mara Benjamin, Religious Studies Review
(Mara Benjamin Religious Studies Review)

About the Author

Shmuel Feiner is professor of Modern Jewish History at Bar Ilan University and holds the Samuel Braun Chair for the History of the Jews in Prussia. His books include Haskalah and History: The Emergence of a Modern Jewish Historical Consciousness and The Jewish Enlightenment (winner of the Koret Jewish Book Award).

Product Details

  • Series: Jewish Lives
  • Hardcover: 248 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (November 23, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300161751
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300161755
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.9 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #655,137 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Since the review titled "A Love Letter Does not a Biography Make" is not really a review of Feiner's book about Mendelssohn but more of a polemic against Mendelssohn (and the Enlightenment), I feel compelled to write a review of this book.

While Alexander Altmann's Moses Mendelssohn: A Biographical Study (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization) remains the most magisterial and detailed study of the life of Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), and remains essential reading for all interested in Mendelssohn, Shmuel Feiner's "Moses Mendelssohn: Sage of Modernity" (translated from the Hebrew original, which was published in 2005) surpasses Altmann's book in certain respects. First, it is far more readable: while Feiner's book is around the 200-page mark, Altmann's is over 900 pages. While Altmann immerses the reader in 18th century intellectual history and the details of Mendelssohn's philosophy and how each episode of his life reflects different aspects of that philosophy, Feiner gives us a personal portrait of Mendelssohn, a glimpse into his private life, his fears and joys alike. The opening paragraph, describing Mendelssohn walking with his family in Berlin and getting taunted for being Jewish--despite the wide acclaim he had already received in Germany and beyond as a leading Enlightenment philosopher--is a preview of what is to come.

Feiner's portrayal of Mendelssohn is sympathetic without being reverential. His Mendelssohn is an heroic figure but equally a tragic one. Mendelssohn's courtship and marriage, his ten children (four of whom died very young), his friends and rivals are all portrayed in a personal and human light.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If not the widest-known philosopher of the Enlightenment today, Moses Mendelssohn still was famous in his time. A Jew, he managed to overcome the anti-semitism of his time and garner praise from many contemporaries, including Immanuel Kant, who admired his writings and was a close acquaintance. Shmuel Feiner's biography is an authoritative review of Mendelssohn's thought and life. Certainly a new study of Mendelssohn's ideas was overdue. Indeed, Feiner's explication of the philosopher's ideas is clear and detailed. Mendelssohn chiefly promoted an enlightened Judaism, free from the conservatism of the rabbinical councils of the time. The reform movement he supported, the "Haskalah," had many followers and was intended to make Judaism more progressive. That is, to attune it more with current Enlightnement ideas.

Mendelssohn's friendship with Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was one of the great blessings of his life, for Lessing, poet, dramatist, and critic, helped acquaint Mendelssohn with many of the prominent Berlin intellectuals. Feiner describes the uneasyiness of Frederick the Great with this outstanding Jewish thinker. Actually, when Mendelssohn was proposed as a member in the Berlin Academy of Science the king ignored the proposal and let it drop. A great Francophile, Frederick had no respect for local philosophers, especially those who wrote in German!

Feiner's book is well worth reading, especially for his clarity in explaining the difficulties faced by a Jewish intellectual in a society in which such persons were dismissed as being unwelcome.
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Format: Hardcover
While I consider the Enlightenment a disaster, the pernicious effects of which persist in our own benighted time, I'm interested in its intellectual and philosophical underpinnings. I was therefore curious to read Shmuel Feiner's biography of Moses Mendelssohn, one of the truly brilliant (albeit misguided) thinkers of the 18th century.

I tried to keep my distaste for Mendelssohn's views in abeyance. No easy task, I can tell you! On page 36, Feiner quotes a letter from Mendelssohn to a Christian friend: "'Our common God is not the God of Jews or Christians, but the God of all human beings.'" Contrary to ersatz ecumenism, the claim that Christian and Jewish (and Islamic) monotheism implies the worshipping of a "common God" is intellectual, theological, and historical gibberish. Worse, it's heretical. And who is this "God of all human beings" to whom Mendelssohn refers? A big fat smiley face in the sky? I recognize no such god. Mendelssohn's statement indicates nothing more than a sentimentalized religious indifferentism and syncretism, which ultimately leads to atheism and self-worship. Indeed, how much religious content is there to Reform Judaism, based as it is on Mendelssohn's Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah)?

On page 94, Feiner again quotes Mendelssohn: "'It is inconceivable that a religion [referring to Christianity] that makes others separate could be a true religion.'" What's inconceivable is how a man of Mendelssohn's intellect could think such nonsense. If one isn't a member of the Church, one is inevitably separate from her. Moreover, truth is by definition absolute; if one religion is true, then all others must be false.
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