• Meyer Grunberg

Birthday of Moses Mendelssohn, 1729

Updated: Dec 4, 2020

On This Day in Jewish History: September 6th, 1729

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#onthisday, 1729, Moses Mendelssohn is born in Anhalt-Dessau, Germany. Known as the father of the Haskala (Jewish Enlightnment) movement, Mendelssohn is both a controversial and revered figure in Jewish history.

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Born into a passionately antisemitic Germany, Mendelssohn lived most of his adult life in Berlin. During his lifetime, there was a strong movement within the German-Jewish community to achieve equality in a region that levied special taxes/laws against them, and generally saw them as sub-human.

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Mendelssohn's writings mostly deal with philosophy and science while still considering himself a devout and practicing Jew. He quickly became "the Jew that Germans liked to love - saying things like, "if only all Jews were like him"

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Mendelssohn always aimed to find the balance of being both a proud German and proud Jew - translating the Torah into German along with Hebrew commentary. This act led to thousands of German-Jews learning German thanks to his translation.

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Some in the Orthodox community saw this as a threat of "Germanizing" the Jews.

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Unfortunately, in his journey to reach a middleground, Mendelssohn compromised on basic Jewish truths like the Unity of God and the immortal soul (saying these were universal) while emphasizing that Jewish laws did not contain any sort of universal truth or lesson.

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Mendelssohn's devotion to reason created this paradox that led many of his followers to deflect from Judaism altogether.

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The movement that followed, Haskala, urged Jews to drop "ancient" mindsets of speaking Yiddish (learn Hebrew or German instead!), a lessened importance in Talmudic studies, and a general widespread assimilation as more and more aspects of Judaism became secularized.

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Although Mendelssohn's intentions were arguably in the right place, the movement he championed did not properly make a synthesis of the Jewish and secular/modern.

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So the question persists: Can modernity and Jewish tradition be made fully coherent?

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Text Source: Jewish Literacy by R' Joseph Telushkin (Chapter 116, pages 229-232)

Image Source: Public Domain


✍: @jewishistoryguy


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