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Mendelssohn, Moses


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(also' called RAMBAN [רמבמ 8ן ], from the initials of ר 8 משה בן מנחם מנדל, R. Moses ben-Menachem Mendel, and MOSES DESSAU), whom Mirabeau describes as "un homme jete par la nature au sien d'une horde avilie, ne sans espece de fortune, avec un temperament faible et mdme infirme, un caractere timide, une douceur peutetre excessive, enchaine toute sa vie dans une profession presque mdchanique, s'st eleve rang des plus grands ecrivains que ce sincle a vu naltre en Allemagne" (Sur Moses Mendelssohn, London, 1787), was born at Dessau, Germany, Sept. 6,1729. His father was a copier (סופר ) of Biblical writings upon parchment. Moses gave early tokens of an intelligent and scrutinizing mind. Fortunately for his nascent talents, the rabbi of the congregation, David Herschel Frankel, perceiving the eagerness of the boy for learning, undertook to instruct him in all those branches which then constituted a Jewish education-the Bible in the original Hebrew, with its chief commentaries, and rabbinical literature. At an early age Mendelssohn also became acquainted with Maimonides's (q.v.) famous work, the More Nebuchim, or "Guide of the Perplexed," the intense study of which made anew aera in his life, and that in two ways-it laid the foundation of his mental culture, and also of his bodily disease and suffering. (Mendelssohn was hump-backed, and extremely small, and feeble in person.) The German language the rabbins of Mendelssohn's early days proscribed as Gentile learning, and hence his studies had been entirely confined to the Hebrew; but as he branched out in his studies he also acquired the German tongue.

When hardly fourteen years of age he was obliged to relinquish learning for the choice of a profession. He went to Berlin in search of employment, and there gained his scanty subsistence by following the occupation of copyist and corrector for the press, carefully making use of every leisure moment to learn the ancient languages, and to gain instruction in general literature and philosophy. Chance favored him with the acquaintance of a Polish Jew who possessed a profound knowledge of mathematics. The Pole became his instructor in Euclid, which he studied from a copy of the vork in Hebrew, this being the only language understood by his teacher. Besides Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding, he studied the writings of Wolf, Leibnitz, and Spinoza, which exercised the greatest influence upon his mental development. Thus passed seven of the most laborious years of his life; it was the period of apprenticeship served to science. Gradually this most; reserved but most persevering and highly-cultivated. youth became known in wider circles. His fortune now began to turn. A rich co- religionist of Berlin, Isaac Bernhard, a silk manufacturer, engaged him as tutor for his children. Henceforth he was in easy if not affluent circumstances. His connection with the house of Bernhard continued throughout life, first as tutor in the family, afterwards as book-keeper in the manufactory, and eventually as manager if not as partner in the concern. In the intervals of business he published, in' concert with his friend, Tobias Bock, some essays on natural philosophy in Hebrew, for the use of young men studying the Talmud. This publication, which appeared in the קֹהֶלֶת מוּסָר, i.e. "The Hebrew Preacher," gave some offence to the rabbins, and he escaped persecution only by his strict observance of the Oral Law, to which he undeviatingly submitted all the rest of his life, although his internal convictions' were little in accordance with its practices. About this time (1754) he became acquainted with Lessing (q.v.) and Nicolai (q.v.). With the former he formed an intimate friendship, always regarded by Mendelssohn as among the most fortunate circumstances of his life; for in "Lessing, than whom no man was ever more free from the prejudices of creed and nation, Mendelssohn found a hearty sympathy and an effective fellow-laborer in his projects for bettering the condition of the German Jews, an object which then and at all times lay nearest his heart. Indeed, the known friendship of so eminent a man for one of that tribe, in defiance of all the prejudices of his age, was scarcely less important to the Jews in general than it was to Mendelssohn in particular." For two hours every day regularly they met and discussed together literary and philosophical subjects, a circumstance which led Mendelssohn to write his Philosophische Gespriche,the very first effort by which he became distinguished beyond the pale of Judaism. The MS. of these dialogues Mendelssohn left with Lessing for examination; but how great was the former's surprise when one day Lessing returned his dialogues in print, published without the author's knowledge. He next sent forth Pope; ein Metaphysiker (together with Lessing [1755]), and several other essays, and finally his Briefe uber die Empfindungen (1764).

In the same year he also wrote Abhandlungen uber die Evidenz der metaphysischen Wissenschaften as a prize essay for the Berlin Academy, which was crowned by that learned body, who besides unanimously resolved to elect him a member of their number. Frederick the Great, however, generally prejudiced against the Jews, struck the name off the list, and the Jew had to content himself with the consciousness that he enjoyed less than his contemporaries believed him entitled to. Mendelssohn afterwards, at the instigation of Nicolai and Lessing, collected all his philosophical lucubrations, and published them in 1761 under the title of Philosophische Schriften, of which in a short time three editions were published (3d ed. 1777, 2 vols. 8vo). At thirty-one Mendelssohn married a lady from Hamburg, by whom he had several children, among them a son. whose birth gave rise to one of his most celebrated works, the Morgenstunden, which treats on the existence of God. in refutation of Pantheism and Spinozism-the result of many years' inquiry on that subject. Mendelssohn had formerly defined the universe as a creation out of the divine substance, a view involving the main principle of Spinozism, and directly opposed to the notions of deity and creation prevalent in his day. He now attempted, by concessions and modifications, to get rid of the ethical objections usually brought against kindred theories. The work is a fragment; only the first volume appeared (in 1785), the death of the author arresting its progress. The most popular work, however, was his Phadon, oder iiber die Unsterblichkeit der Seele, a colloquy on the doctrine of immortality. The characters are taken from Plato's dialogue of the same name, and the descriptive parts are mere translations of the original. The Jewish philosopher, however, has made Socrates produce new arguments in place of those attributed to him by his disciple Plato, thinking these substitutions better adapted to modern readers. The following is his principal, and, indeed, his only peculiar argument, the rest of the dialogue being employed in its defence, and in expressions of reliance on the goodness of the Deity. For every change three things are required: first, a state of the changeable thing prior to its change; secondly, the state that follows the change; and, thirdly, a middle state, as change does not take place at once, but by degrees. Between being and not-being there is no middle state. Now the soul being simple, and not, as a compound body, capable, of resolution into parts, must, if it perish, be absolutely annihilated; and in its change from death to life, it must pass at once from being to not-being, without, of course, going through any middle state-a change which, according to the three requisitions of change, is impossible.

Thus by "reductio ad absurdum" the immortality of the soul was proved. Kant, in his Kritik der reinen Vernunft (2d ed.; it is not in the 1st ed.; see the complete edition of Kant's works by M. Rosenkianz [Leipsic]), has shown the futility of Mendelssohn's argument, while he admits his acuteness in perceiving that mere incapability of resolution into parts was of itself not sufficient to preserve the immortality of the soul, as had been supposed by many philosophers of the time. Mendelssohn, by assuming that change must be gradual and not sudden, thought that he had established his point, as the soul, being simple, could not admit of gradual resolution. Kant, however, shows that we may conceive a gradual annihilation even without resolution into parts-or, to use his own expression, a diminution of the "intensive magnitude." Thus a deep red color may grow fainter and fainter till at last all the redness is gone, and this without any diminution of the surface colored. Another fallacy in Mendelssohn's argument is that his definition of change applies only to a transition from one state of being to another, and therefore does not include a transition from being to not-being. For if not-being be considered a state of being, there is no occasion for an argument at all, as the continuance of being is assumed in the definition of change, nor would anything be gained by supposing the soul in such a paradoxical state as nonentity with still a sort of being attached to it. This work not only immortalized its author's name, but conferred upon him for the strength of his reasoning the name of " the Jewish Socrates," and "the Jewish Plato" for the amenity of his diction. In less than two years after its first appearance (1767) it went through three large editions, and was translated into Hebrew, and into almost every modern language; English editions were published in 1789 and 1838. Mendelssohn's fame was at its height both among Christians and Jews, and he was lauded both as a philosopher and literary character. Zealous Christians were wondering that so enlightened and exemplary a man should retain the faith of his fathers, and regarded it as. a sacred duty to bring him over to the Church. Foremost among them was John Caspar Lavater (q.v.), who sought to drag him into theological controversy, though with no unkind intentions. In order to bring about this result, he dedicated to Mendelssohn his translation of Bonnet's Inquiry into the Evidences of Christianity, with the request that he would refute it in case he should find the argument untenable; and that, if it should seem to him conclusive, he would " do what policy, love of truth, and probity demanded-what Socrates doubtless would have done, had he read the work and found it unanswerable ;" thus offering him the alternative either to incur the odium of his own people by formally abjuring the faith of his fathers, or to draw upon himself the wrath of the Christian clergy by a public assault on their religion. his was in the year 1769. The position in which Mendelssohn was thus placed was not only most delicate, but also not without peril. He clung to the ancestral religion not only with the tenacity of early habits, but also with the fulness of conviction which profound study of the subject had given him. How was it possible to reply to the arguments brought forward in favor of Christianity without giving offence to the dominant churches, and becoming liable to the severe penalties enacted by the laws against the assailants of the established creeds? Mendelssohn, however, did reply. He wrote a courteous but decided letter to the pastor of Zurich, in which he not only speaks of his "veneration for the moral character of the founder of Christianity," but also defines very fully his position as a liberal-minded and enlightened Jew. This letter not only satisfied all parties, but also drew from Lavater a public apology and retraction of his peremptory challenge.

The agitation caused by this transaction aggravated Mendelssohn's constitutional complaints, threatening his life, and for a long time incapacitating him for intellectual labor. After his recovery he published a Hebrew commentary on Ecclesiastes (Berl. 1769; ibid. 1788), translated into German by Rabe (Anspach, 1771), and into English by Preston (Lond. 1845). The author complains that "nearly all the commentators who have preceded me have almost entirely failed in doing justice to their task of interpretation .. I have not found in one of them an interpretation adequate to the correct explanation of the connection of the verses of the book, but, according to their method, nearly every verse is spoken separately and unconnectedly; and this would not be right in a private and insignificant author, much less in a wise king." As to the design of the book, Mendelssohn thinks " that Solomon wrote it to propound the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, and the necessity of leading a cheerful and contented life, and interspersed these cardinal points with lessons of minor importance, such as worship, politics, domestic economy, etc." Soon after this appeared a German translation of the Pentateuch, made by himself, with a grammatical and exegetical commentary in Hebrew, contributed by several Jewish literati, viz. Sal. Dubno (q.v.), Aaron Jaroslaw, N. IL Wessely (q.v.), and H. Homberg. This important work, which is entitled נְתַיבוֹת הִשָּׁלוֹם סֵפֶר, i.e. The Book of the Paths of Peace (Berlin, 1780-83), is preceded by an elaborate and most valuable introduction, written in Hebrew, called לַנְתַּיבָה אוֹר,.A Light to the Path, in which Mendelssohn discusses various topics connected with Biblical exegesis and literature. The introduction, which was published separately before the completion of the commentary (Dec. 1782), now accompanies the translation and commentary, and is given in German in his Collected Works (Leips. 1845), 7:18 sq.; and in English in the Hebrew Review, edited by Breslau (Lond. 1860). The work soon found its way into the principal synagogues and schools in Germany, and, thus encouraged, he produced afterwards a version of the Psalms and the Song of Solomon, which are considered classical. "It was in this especially," says Da Costa, "that the philosopher kept up the striking resemblance to Maimonides, his celebrated predecessor and model. Both, under the outward forms of Rabbinical Judaism, desired to give an entirely new direction to the religion of the Jews-to reform it, to develop it." Nothing, indeed, could have more powerfully affected the Orientalism of his countrymen than these efforts of Mendelssohn for Biblical criticism from a modern Platonic stand-point. The new medium of vision brought new insight; critical inquiry took the place of fanaticism; the divergences of Shemitic and European thought proved not so irreconcilable after all. Cabalism and other kindred superstitions quietly dropped out of sight; the old dialectical barbarism was extirpated; the Jews who read his Scriptures in the translation attained purity of idiom, and with it the power of appreciating the writings of the great minds of Germany, to whom they had remained strangers. Ere long the best minds of the race became thoroughly associated with the intellectual movement of Germany, content to abandon mystical ambitions and theocratic pretensions; and to find their Canaan in Europe. Mendelssohn's next work declared more clearly (though always with a degree of vagueness) his own ideas on religion than any other work hitherto published. It was written in answer to the treatise of his friend the councillor Dohm (Ueber die biirgerliche Verbesserung der Juden). The statesman in his work "had started from the principle that every amendment must proceed from liberty and equality of rights in society bestowed upon the Jew; from an entire reform in the systems of instruction and education; from free admission to the practice of all arts and sciences, and even a participation in some posts and offices of state; the authority of the synagogue over its members to be maintained, in cases of religious difference, by the power of casting them out of its bosom for a time or entirely."

On this last point Mendelssohn took exception. He would not allow the synagogue or any other religious society to impose any restriction whatever on the rights of thinking and teaching. In the preface to his German translation of Manasseh ben-Israel's (q.v.) Salvation of Israel, he plainly declared his conviction." that every society had certainly the right to exclude its members when they ceased to conform to the principle of the society; but that this rule could not in any way apply to a religious society, whether church or synagogue, because true religion exerts no authority over ideas and opinions, but, being all heart and spirit, only desires to use the power of conviction; and Jews especially should take from Christians, among whom they live, an example of charity, and not of hatred or intolerance, and begin by loving and bearing with each other, that they might themselves be loved and tolerated by others." The influence produced by the writings of Mendelssohn was to destroy all respect. for the Talmud and the rabbinical writers among the Jews, who approved his opinions. This is the more remarkable, inasmuch as Mendelssohn professed all them while to be himself an admirer of those works; and this obvious inconsistency called forth a publication entitled Ein Brief an Mendelssohn, in which this contradiction was clearly pointed out, and the assertion made that he was in reality a Christian, without having the courage to avow his true sentiments. To this attack he replied by his Jerusalem, oder fiber religiose Macht und Judenthum (Berlin, 1783), in which he contended that "the state, which has the right to compel actions, cannot justly attempt to constrain its citizens to unanimity in thought and sentiment; it should, however, seek by wise provisions to produce those sentiments from which good actions spring.

Religious differences should not prejudice civil equality; the true ideal is not unity, but freedom of belief." He says, "All religion is solely a matter of the heart, and should not be under any control, either of the State, Church, or Synagogue;" while at the same time he insists that " the law of Moses was not a law of faith, but merely of statutes and prohibitions." "Whatever may have caused the inward struggles of the philosopher of Berlin," says Da Costa, "it is certain that, without wishing or suspecting it, Mendelssohn-as, six centuries earlier, Maimonides-stirred up among his co-religionists a feeling of void." Soon, however, Mendelssohn was doomed to experience another trial of his sensibility in an attack on his deceased friend Lessing by Jacobi (q.v.), who published Briefe an Mendelssohn iiber die Lehre des Spinoza, in which he charged Lessing with being an "implicit Spinozist" a charge then much severer than at present, when many German philosophers are avowed admirers of Spinoza. Mendelssohn endeavored to refute the charge in a work entitled Moses Mendelssohn an die Freunde Lessing's (1786), in which he stated that "if Lessing was able absolutely and without all further limitation to declare for the system of any man, he was at that time no more in harmony with himself, or he was in a strange humor to make a paradoxical assertion which, in a serious hour, he himself rejected." The answer was considered triumphant, and drew from Kant the remark, "It is Mendelssohn's fault that Jacobi thinks himself a philosopher." In a hurried preparation of this latter work Mendelssohn overtasked his physical powers, and the exhaustion thus produced led to his premature death, which took place Jan. 4, 1786. Ramler wrote this epitaph on Menelssohn : "True to the religion of his forefathers, wise as Socrates, teaching immortality, and becoming immortal like Socrates." Besides many Hebrew and German essays which we have not room to mention, Mendelssohn contributed freely to the Bibliothek der schonen Wissenschaften, edited by Lessing (q.v.). His complete works were collected and edited by his grandson, G. B. Mendelssohn (Leips. 1843-5, 7 vols.). The influence which he exercised. over the Jewish nation is incalculable. He roused the Jews of Germany, if not of the world, from the mental apathy with which in his day they regarded all that had not a distinct reference to religion, On the other hand, he acted in the most beneficial manner on his Christian contemporaries by exterminating the brutal prejudices which they entertained against Jews. and through his most distinguished Christian friends brought about the abrogation of the disgraceful laws with respect to them. (See JEWS).

He effected a reformation in Judaism, and founded that new school of Hebrew literature and Biblical exegesis which has now produced so many and such distinguished Jewish literati not only in Germany, but throughout Europe. No wonder that the Jews express their gratitude to-him and reverence for him in the saying, " From Moses (the law-giver) to Moses (Maimonides) and Moses (Mendelssohn), no one hath arisen like Moses" (למשה ועד משה לא הם כמשה ממשה ). See Kayserling, M. Mendelssohn, seine Leben u. s. Werke (Leips. 1862); Samuels, Memoirs of Moses Mendelssohn, etc. (2d ed. Lond. 1827); Hedge, Prose Writers of Germany, p. 99 sq.; Adler, Versihnung von Gott, Religion, und Menschenthum durch M. Mlendelssohn (Berlin, 1871); Axenfeld, Moses Mendelssohn im Verhdltniss zum Christenthum (Erlangen, 1865); Griatz, Gesch. d. Juden, xi, I sq.; Ueberweg, History of Philosophy, 2:118, 523, 528 (Engl. transl. by Morris, New York, 1874); Milman, Hist. of the Jews, 3:408 sq.; McCaul, Sketches of Judaism and the Jews, p. 43 sq.; Da Costa, Israel and the Gentiles, p. 544 sq.; Schmucker, Hist. of the Modern Jews (Philadelphia, 1867), p. 239 sq.; Kalkar, Israel u. d. Kirche (Hamburg, 1869), p. 117 sq.; Jewish Intelligence (Lond. 1866), p. 31 sq.; Etheridge, Introduction to Hebrew Literature, p. 475 sq.; Miscellany of Hebrew Literature (Londo 1872), p. 22 sq.; Dessauer, Gesch. d. Israeliten (Bres. lau, 1870), p. 497 sq.; Stern, Gesch. d. Judenthums (ibia 1870), p. 54 sq.; Cassel, Zeitfaden fur Jiid. Gesch. u. Literatur (Berlin, 1872), p. 108 sq.; Furst, Bibl. Jud. 2:359-367; De Rossi, Dizionario storico degli autori Ebrei (German transl. by Hamberger), p. 224 sq, id., Bibliotheca Judaica antichristiana, p. 69; Jost, Gesch. d. Israeliten, 9:66; id., Gesch. d. Juden. u. s. Sektel, 3:293 sq.; Zedner, Auswahl historischer Stiicke (Berl. 1840), p. 204 sq.; Farrar, Crit. History of Free Thought; Hurst's Hagenbach, Church Hist. 18th and 19th Century; Christian Remembrancer, Oct. 1866, p. 267. (B. P.)


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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Mendelssohn, Moses'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/m/mendelssohn-moses.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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