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