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Lewyn Addresses America

A little politics, a little urbanism- I also blog 100 percent on urbanism at and

This blog rarely touches on religious matters; however, I do like to discuss conferences I’ve been to in order to avoid completely forgetting them, so that’s where this post comes in.

I spent most of today doing something I never could have done in Jacksonville: going to a conference at a local Jewish museum on Moses Mendelssohn, an 18th-c. Jewish thinker most known for supporting freedom of religion, opposing excommunication by rabbis, and defending Judaism before Christian audiences. (For more info on him check the link to the Wikipedia entry).   Since its been about eight years since I read Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem (his most well-known and heavily translated work) some of the proceedings were over my head, but I still learned a little.

Shmuel Feiner of Bar-Ilan spoke about the general atmosphere of German Jewry in the 1700s, which was pretty backwards.  He tells one story of a rabbi who threw a clean-shaven congregant out of his synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, blaming such religious laxity on Mendelssohn.   He and other panelists pointed out that German Jewry was less affected by secular culture and more isolated than Italian or Sephardic Jewry, but (unlike East European Jews) had not been reinvigorated by Hasidism.

Edward Breuer of Hebrew University asked: how did Mendelssohn defend the Biblical republic (governed by a Torah which, on its face, does not seem very religiously tolerant) and yet call for religious tolerance.  He explained that Jewish criminal procedure contains so many safeguards (such as requiring two witnesses for most crimes) that it is in fact quite difficult for anyone to be punished for anything; thus, Jewish law was more tolerant in practice than it might seem at first glance.  (One possible flaw in Mendelssohn’s argument was that many of these procedural safeguards may have been invented later by post-Second Temple rabbis, or might have been ignored in practice).

Michah Gottlieb of NYU asked why Mendelssohn (whose views on revelation and Torah would be considered Orthodox today, in the sense that he believed Torah was Divinely given) opposed coercion in religious matters.  He answered that (1) according to Mendelssohn Torah is an act of benevolence designed to help Jews achieve their Divinely-given potential and (2) religious choices made out of free will are more valuable than coerced observance, because they help Jews internalize this ideology.    Similarly, Mendelssohn defends religious ritual as a way of helping Jews internalize the Torah’s message: for example, eating matzoh on Passover engages one more than reading that a benevolent Deity liberated the Jews from Egypt.

Allan Arkush of Binghamton University pointed out that even though Mendelssohn may in some ways be the father of more than one modern religious movement, he has nothing in common with modern Zionism.  Mendelssohn believed that only supernatural deliverance would bring Jews back to Israel, and accordingly focused on individual rather than collective deliverance.  As a result, 19th-c. Zionists generally did not like him one bit.

Leora Batnitsky of Princeton said “we are all Mendelssonians now”.  How so?  Reform inherited his emphasis on individual conscience.  But Mendelssohn believed in being part of the modern world while following halacha (Jewish religious law) rigorously, a view closer to that of Modern Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism.

Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary said that Mendelssohn was one of the first thinkers to engage in outreach, in the sense that he was defending Judaism to Jews who did (or would, a few years after his death) have the option of being disengaged from Judaism.    By contrast, before the late 18th/early 19th c. – Judaism was like an independent nation; the only way to leave was by going to another “nation” (i.e. converting to Christianity or Islam and having to put up with the other “nation’s” religious orthodoxy).

Someone asked him how come most of Mendelssohn’s children became Christians.  (In fact, two stayed Jewish according to Wikipedia).  Eisen said that Berlin was a very small Jewish community, and this example shows that without the support of a strong community it is difficult to stay Jewish. (PS I think another factor might be that Mendelssohn died when his children were young- his oldest was 21 when he died, and some were much younger, so maybe that made a difference. )

At any rate, I apologize to anyone whose ideas I have mis-described.


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