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Faith and Freedom: Moses Mendelssohn’s Theological-Political Thought, by Michah Gottlieb.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.  209 pp.  $55.00.

For a long period, Mendelssohn has been considered either by historians of philosophy— as a Wolffian and popular philosopher missing Kant’s critical philosophy standards—or by scholars of Jewish Studies—as the great reformer, although often with a critical undertone for an alleged tendency of assimilation. Michah Gottlieb, being obviously trained in philosophy as well as in Jewish studies, takes the Jewish and Wolffian philosopher Mendelssohn seriously in both ways and can thus evaluate the great impact of Mendelssohn’s philosophy on his Jewish position as well as the enormous influence of his Jewish roots and religion on his philosophy. The book is an excellent proof of the fruitfulness of such a complex understanding of the Jewish philosopher, his philosophical achievements, and his impact on his Jewish and Christian environment.

 While in philosophy Gottlieb has to show Mendelssohn’s original contribution in general, within Jewish Studies he has to defend his project against two different ways of interpretation. One, neglecting the philosopher, focuses on Mendelssohn’s Judaism and his orthodoxy. David Sorkin even sees Mendelssohn in the Andalusian tradition making him submit philosophy to piety and observance (Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment. University of California Press, 1996). More widespread is the other way seeing Mendelssohn as a deist ready to assimilate his Judaism to Christian enlightened deism. Here Gottlieb focuses on the recent book of Allan Arkush who even considers Mendelssohn’s explicit Jewish credo as disingenuous (Moses Mendelssohn and the Enlightenment, SUNY, 1994). Both positions are convincingly refuted throughout the book.

Gottlieb’s chapters treat (1) the harmony between Judaism and enlightenment philosophy, (2) philosophy and law, presenting Mendelssohn’s political philosophy and how he situates Judaism in modern society, and (3) Jacobi’s attack on rationalism and enlightenment (abusing Mendelssohn as his target). The last chapter provides an extremely thoughtful reconsideration of Mendelssohn’s philosophical idealism in harmony with his modernized but perfectly orthodox Judaism. The introduction offers an interesting survey about the legacy of Mendelssohn in the Jewish world and beyond, discussing the relation of faith and reason and the renewed interest of Jewish liberals in Mendelssohn’s position during the Weimar republic, as well as Leo Strauss’s qualms with Mendelssohn’s liberal and enlightened position. Interestingly, when reconsidering the Pantheismusstreit Gottlieb challenges our common views of the history of philosophy, claiming that at the center of it was not metaphysics or epistemology but ethics and politics; he gives good evidence throughout the book.

The first chapter begins with an introduction to Mendelssohn’s serious and careful study and critical discussion of Maimonides. The author then follows Mendelssohn’s study through his contemporary philosophy, his intense but critical appropriation of Spinoza, and finally his embracing of Leibniz and Wolff as theistic and idealistic philosophers who allowed for a personal and benevolent god.

The second chapter focuses on Mendelssohn’s critical adoption of Maimonides and Spinoza in terms of political philosophy. While he remains close to Maimonides in his high regard for halakha as a way to human perfection and disagrees with Spinoza’s dismissing the law after the end of the Jewish state, Mendelssohn shows the compatibility of halakha with political liberty and religious tolerance as they were taught by Spinoza. However, while Gottlieb’s claim that Mendelssohn criticized Maimonides for holding elitist views is justified, I do not see him criticizing Spinoza in the same way, although Strauss does make such a claim. But Spinoza is the first theorist of democracy and of freedom of speech, and Mendelssohn appreciates this. In this chapter, Gottlieb also offers a convincing explanation of why Mendelssohn could not have followed the Andalusian tradition he was of course familiar with (pp. 55–56): In his time, with reforms on their way that could provide Jewish emancipation (although not yet in Prussia), he had to show a new way for the Jews to integrate as citizens in a modern state, to enjoy political liberty without assimilating to the dominant religion and culture. For this modern Jewish project Mendelssohn had to develop his own position, picking up on modern political philosophy.

Interestingly, the third chapter on the Pantheismusstreit offers a rich discussion of the earlier encounter of Jacobi with Mendelssohn about politics provoked by Jacobi’s Etwas, das Lessing gesagt hat. Gottlieb correctly identifies it as Jacobi’s first attempt to blame Mendelssohn as an alleged supporter of monarchy and limited freedom of speech, and he convincingly refutes this view. The chapter gives then much room for Jacobi’s arguments about faith and reason putting off their critical discussion to the end which is rather unfortunate. While Gottlieb correctly addresses Jacobi’s religious mysticism, he too easily accepts his interpretation of Spinoza as a fatalist (pp. 67–69) giving Jacobi’s prejudice against Spinoza too much credit. Gottlieb recognizes, though, the deep irony of Lessing’s response to Jacobi’s leap into religion against reason and thus correctly states Lessing’s disagreement with Jacobi. But I find the author still too cautious in his attempt to question our common reading of this famous controversy whose history had always been written by the winners—German Christian idealists, dismissing the close intellectual and personal relation of Mendelssohn and Lessing.

The last chapter takes up the various discussions on philosophy, politics, and religion so well accomplished in the previous chapters and uses them to explain Mendelssohn’s position as a Jew—showing that it grew out of his philosophical as well as his theological studies. Gottlieb presents Mendelssohn convincingly as a rationalist idealist who acknowledges the finite realm of human knowledge but insists on its strength within that realm. Especially the explanation of Mendelssohn’s notion of common sense is helpful and original. The author thus can provide an excellent philosophical, theological, and political analysis of Mendelssohn’s Morgenstunden that paves the way for a deeper understanding of his philosophical work that had mostly been ignored in the shadows of Kant’s critical philosophy, although it could well be considered as an alternative.

Gottlieb’s emphasis on the relevance of the then-current discussion on faith and reason for us today makes his investigation especially valuable. He presents Mendelssohn’s deep insights to our contemporary discussion of faith and reason when we struggle with growing tensions between various religions and the political consequences of persecution and war. The author convincingly shows how Nathan the Wise and Jerusalem both display a project of religious tolerance by emphasizing the significance of diversity of religious approaches for the continuous perfection of human beings.  

Ursula Goldenbaum

Emory University