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Moses Mendelssohn: Sage of Modernity, by Shmuel Feiner. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. 237 pp. $25.00.
Moses Mendelssohn, the “father” of modern Jewish thought, is an enormously complicated figure, with an even more complicated legacy. Shmuel Feiner’s Moses Mendelssohn: Sage of Modernity attempts above all to disentangle the man from the myth. In the introduction and the conclusion, Feiner explicitly points out that Mendelssohn’s influence has been disproportionately represented by later interpreters, who either laud or execrate him as the father of the Haskalah and reform in Judaism. Feiner suggests, however, that Mendelssohn’s influence in regard to emancipation and the Haskalah are greatly over-exaggerated. Indeed, his importance is more historical, as “[h]e was among the first Jewish philosophers compelled to deal directly with the challenges of the ‘modern Jewish situation’”(p. 10). Feiner has rich subject matter in the life of Mendelssohn, whose considerable talents placed him in a remarkable and often extraordinarily difficult, if not outright impossible, position regarding the forces of the Enlightenment, the absolutist state, and the Jewish and Christian worlds of his day. Through careful attention to the early successes and later significant challenges that beset Mendelssohn, the heady excitement, the frustration, and ultimately the humiliation of being a Jew who embraced the Enlightenment project is poignantly illustrated.
Feiner does a fine job illuminating the challenges faced by Mendelssohn as a public Jewish intellectual. Mendelssohn’s philosophical acumen was both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, he became wildly famous, and indeed, members of the Prussian Royal Academy of the Sciences elected him to become a member, although the King, Friedrich II, refused to grant approval to this appointment, ostensibly because Mendelssohn was a Jew. Mendelssohn was also widely sought out as a conversation partner by many philosophers, literary figures, and theologians. However, these conversations were not always innocent. In the case of Johann Caspar Lavater, a Swiss theologian, who, taking liberties with comments from a private conversation with Mendelssohn, publicly challenged the famous Jew to refute Christianity or convert. As a result, Mendelssohn found himself caught in the center of controversy in matters of religious tolerance. Though Mendelssohn desired to devote himself to abstract matters of philosophy, the later years of his life were primarily involved with interceding on behalf of threatened Jewish communities, attempts to persuade Christians to reconsider and relinquish their anti-Jewish prejudices, and conflicts with the entrenched rabbinic authorities who saw Mendelssohn and the Enlightenment as a threat.
While Feiner’s biography presents Mendelssohn as a complex individual, both traditionalist and modern, beloved and reviled, influential culturally and yet powerless practically, his philosophy is subordinated to the dramatic events of his life. Feiner, while bringing Mendelssohn and his concerns to life, pays relatively scant attention to the philosophy that made him so famous. One cannot avoid the feeling of there being a certain biographical reductionism at play here, where Mendelssohn’s philosophical works are but mere responses to events in his life. For example, Phaedon, Mendelssohn’s work on the immortality of the soul, is depicted as the attempt of a grieving father to reconcile himself intellectually to the death of his young child. To be sure, there is some truth in this, but it fails to do justice to the complexity of this work and its subtle critiques of Christianity and German culture. Mendelssohn’s most famous book, Jerusalem, is better served by Feiner’s approach, since it is explicitly framed as a response to critics. Nevertheless, even here, one finds more attention to the biographical, to the events driving the work than the inner dimensions and dynamics of the work itself. To be fair to Feiner, trying to depict both Mendelssohn’s life and his philosophy adequately led Alexander Altmann’s magisterial biography to be so voluminous as to be virtually inaccessible to all but graduate students and professors. At the same time, Feiner’s book, which does so much to depict Mendelssohn as a more complex figure than is often recognized, contributes, if only by its silence, to the continual treatment of Mendelssohn as a thinker of mere historical value. Once again Mendelssohn’s philosophy is deemed, if only tacitly, to be secondary to the events of his extraordinary life, and thus not worthy of serious study.
Nevertheless, Feiner’s work is a wonderful contribution to the field of modern Jewish thought, history of German Judaism, and history of the Haskalah. Perhaps its greatest accomplishment is that it renders Mendelssohn, a figure so many people think they know, strange and interesting again. Feiner, making skillful use of letters and other historical documents, paints a vivid portrait of Mendelssohn as someone who, while not without faults, is nevertheless sympathetic and even tragic, trying to stop the surge of historical forces from spiraling out of control. Moses Mendelssohn: Sage of Modernity makes Mendelssohn and his world both accessible and compelling for laymen and undergraduates, and yet it is sophisticated enough to be of interest to scholars actively working on Mendelssohn.