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Who is Moses Mendelssohn?

By Shira Schoenberg

Moses Mendelssohn (September 6, 1729 - January 4, 1786) was a German Jewish philosopher to whose ideas the renaissance of European Jews, Haskalah, (the Jewish enlightenment) is indebted. For some he was the third Moses (the other two being the Biblical lawgiver and Moses Maimonides) heralding a new era in the history of the Jewish people. For others, his ideas led towards assimilation, loss of identity for Jews and the dilution of traditional Judaism. He was also the grandfather of the composer Felix Mendelssohn.

Mendelssohn was mainly self-taught. He learned to spell and to philosophize at the same time (according to the historian Graetz). With his scanty earnings he bought a Latin copy of John Locke's Essay concerning the Human Understanding, and mastered it with the aid of a Latin dictionary. He then made the acquaintance of Aaron Solomon Gumperz, who taught him basic French and English. Gumperz rendered a conspicuous service to Mendelssohn and to the cause of enlightenment by introducing him to Lessing in 1754.

Mendelssohn actually met Lessing. Lessing was the great liberator of the German mind. He had already begun his work of toleration, for he had recently produced a drama (Die Juden, 1749), the motive of which was to prove that a Jew can be possessed of nobility of character. Without consulting the author, Lessing published Mendelssohn's Philosophical Conversations (Philosophische Gesprache) anonymously in 1755. In the same year there appeared in Danzig (Gdansk) an anonymous satire, Pope a Metaphysician (Pope ein Metaphysiker), which turned out to be the joint work of Lessing and Mendelssohn.

From this time Mendelssohn's career was one of ever-increasing brilliance. He became (1756-1759) the leading spirit of Friedrich Nicolai's important literary undertakings, the Bibliothek and the Literaturbriefe, and ran some risk (which Frederick's good nature mitigated) by criticizing the poems of the King of Prussia. In 1762 he married Fromet Guggenheim, who survived him by twenty-six years.

In the year following his marriage Mendelssohn won the prize offered by the Berlin Academy for an essay on the application of mathematical proofs to metaphysics; among the competitors were Thomas Abbt and Immanuel Kant. In October 1763 the king granted Mendelssohn the privilege of Protected Jew (Schutz-Jude)-which assured his right to undisturbed residence in Berlin


As a result of his correspondence with Abbt, Mendelssohn resolved to write on the Immortality of the Soul. Materialistic views were at the time rampant and fashionable, and faith in immortality was at a low ebb. At this favourable juncture appeared the Phadon oder uber die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (Phadon or about soul's immortality; 1767). Modeled on Plato's dialogue of the same name, Mendelssohn's work possessed some of the charm of its Greek exemplar.

What most impressed the German world was its beauty and lucidity of style-features to which Mendelssohn still owes his popularity as a writer. The Phadon was an immediate success, and besides being often reprinted in German was speedily translated into nearly all the European languages, including English. The author was hailed as the "German Plato," or the "German Socrates"; royal and other aristocratic friends showered attentions on him, and it is no exaggeration to assert with Kayserling that "no stranger who came to Berlin failed to pay his personal respects to the German Socrates."

Although Mendelssohn was one of the first great champions of Jewish emancipation in the 18th century, he was a staunchly religious Jew in practice and in belief...He maintained that Judaism was less a "divine need, than a revealed life." In the first part of the 19th century, the criticism of Jewish dogmas and traditions was associated with a firm adhesion to the older Jewish mode of living. Reason was applied to beliefs, the historic consciousness to life. Modern reform in Judaism has parted to some extent from this conception. Wikipedia.

Moses Mendelssohn was the first Jew to bring secular culture to those living an Orthodox Jewish life. He valued reason and felt that anyone could arrive logically at religious truths. He argued that what makes Judaism unique is its divine revelation of a code of law. He wrote many philosophical treatises and is considered the father of the Jewish Enlightenment.

Moses Mendelssohn was born in the German state of Dessau on September 6, 1729. As a child, he suffered from a disease that left him with a curvature of the spine. He was the son of a Torah scribe and his family was poor but learned. He began a traditional Jewish education under David Fraenkel, the rabbi of Dessau. When Fraenkel became rabbi of Berlin, the 14-year-old Mendelssohn followed him and studied in Fraenkel's yeshiva in Berlin. He soon became a promising scholar of Talmud and Rabbinics. He received free meals from neighborhood families and took on odd tutoring jobs.

In addition to learning German and Hebrew in Berlin, Mendelssohn also studied some French, Italian, English, Latin and Greek. He took up other secular subjects, in which he excelled, including mathematics, logic and philosophy. In the mid-1750s, he developed friendships with the philosopher Immanuel Kant and also with Gotthold Lessing, a dramatist, literary critic and advocate of enlightened toleration in Germany. With Lessing's encouragement, Mendelssohn began to publish philosophical essays in German.

In 1750, Mendelssohn began to serve as a teacher in the house of Isaac Bernhard, the owner of a silk factory. That same year, Frederick the Great gave him the status of "Jew under extraordinary protection." In 1763, the Prussian Academy of Sciences awarded him a prize for his treatise on "evidence in the metaphysical sciences."

Four years later, he became the bookkeeper of Bernhard's firm and eventually a partner. Throughout his life, he worked as a merchant while continuing to write. In 1779, Lessing wrote the play Nathan the Wise in which a Jewish hero, modeled after Mendelssohn, appears as a spokesman for brotherhood and love of humanity.

Mendelssohn modeled his philosophy after that of Christian Wolff (a prominent philosopher of the Enlightenment) and Gottfried Leibnitz (a European rationalist). He wrote some general philosophical works, including many dealing with the theory of art, but his most well known writings deal with Judaism.

Mendelssohn conceived of God as a perfect Being and had faith in God's wisdom, righteousness, mercy and goodness. He argued that, "the world results from a creative act through which the divine will seeks to realize the highest good." He accepted the existence of miracles and revelation as long as belief in God did not depend on them. He also believed that revelation could not contradict reason. Like the deists, he claimed that reason could discover the reality of God, divine providence and immortality of the soul. He was the first to speak out against the use of excommunication as a religious threat.

At the height of his career, in 1769, Mendelssohn was publicly challenged by a Christian apologist, a Zurich pastor named John Lavater, to defend the superiority of Judaism over Christianity. From then on, he was involved in defending Judaism in print. In 1783, he published Jerusalem, or On Religious Power and Judaism. This study posited that no religious institution should use coercion and emphasized that Judaism does not coerce the mind through dogma.

He argued that through reason all people could discover religious philosophical truths, but what made Judaism unique was its divinely revealed code of legal, ritual and moral law. He said that Jews must live in civil society but only in a way that their right to observe religious laws is granted. He recognized the necessity of multiple religions and respected each one.

Mendelssohn wanted to take the Jews out of a ghetto lifestyle and into secular society. He translated the Bible into German, although it was written in Hebrew letters, with a Hebrew commentary called the Biur.

He campaigned for emancipation and instructed Jews to form bonds with the gentile governments. He tried to improve the relationship between Jews and Christians as he argued for tolerance and humanity. He became the symbol of the Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah.


Cohn-Sherbok, Dan. Fifty Key Jewish Thinkers. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Dimont, Max. Jews, God and History. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962.
Kleinman, Shanon. "Who was Moses Mendelssohn?" Hamevaser.
Kung, Hans. Judaism. New York: Crossroad, 1992.
Seltzer, Robert. Jewish People, Jewish Thought. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1980.

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