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It is said the Jewry entered the modern world with a bang, and with lingering whimpers. Indeed, the Jews’ entrée into the cultural universe sponsored by the Enlightenment was sudden, dramatic and fraught with ambiguity. It was heralded by a comedy penned in 1749 by the twenty-one-year-old Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, and first performed in Berlin five years later. It bore the simple but baffling title, “The Jews,” and in a satirical dress carried a powerful moral message in the spirit of the Enlightenment: Jews, Europe’s denigrated outcasts, can be unambiguously virtuous individuals. One need not be blessed by the sanctifying grace of Jesus Christ to attain virtue, “the habitual and firm disposition to do the good.” Virtue is mediated by reason. Although generally well received and lauded for its dramaturgical innovation, it was deemed by some critics as lacking credibility: There are no such Jews. In response, Lessing disclosed that the author of the anonymous and widely acclaimed defense of rational metaphysics, Philosophical Dialogues was a Jew, Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786).
Mendelssohn duly understood that he was assigned by destiny with a double role: He was to represent, indeed, personify the founding principles of the Enlightenment that reason is the ultimate arbiter of truth, theoretical and practical (ethical), and at the same time forge a new image of the Jews. His friendship with Lessing exemplified that enlightened individuals, irrespective of their cultural and religious provenance, could bond as fellow human beings and nurture between them amiable and dignified relations. For they were to meet on the “neutral” ground paved by the ascendency of reason in which the boundaries and impediments marked by religious and cultural differences were if not utterly removed deemed irrelevant. As Mendelssohn joyously declared, “I have the good fortune to include among my friends quite a number of fine men who are not of my faith. We have genuine affection for each another, although in matters of religion we have very different beliefs. I enjoy their company and feel enriched by it” (Letter to John Caspar Lavater, December 12, 1769). They met and bonded neither as a Jew nor as a Christian, but rather as members of the Gelehrtenrepublik, the enlightened Republic of Learned Individuals, a tribunal of reason which was to augur an age of tolerance and the universal fraternity of humanity.
Inspired by this vision, Mendelssohn devoted his talents to philosophy. The lucidity of his exposition and the stylistic felicity of his German – a language he acquired only after he had befriended Lessing in his teenage years – was widely acclaimed. His reputation as leading light of the German Aufklärung was sealed with the publication of Phädon (1767), a metaphysical proof of the immortality of souls styled on Plato’s dialogues of the same title. The popularity of his Phädon, which was soon translated into several European languages, including English, earned for him the affectionate sobriquet as the German Plato or the German Socrates.
Mendelssohn was thus rudely shocked when the reputedly enlightened Swiss theologian Johann Casper Lavater (1741–1801) published in October 1769 a challenge to him to defend on philosophical grounds his continued adherence to Judaism. Should he fail to do so, he should convert to Christianity, which is amenable to rational justification. Taken aback by what he regarded to be a flagrant violation of the ethical protocol of the Enlightenment, Mendelssohn replied two months later with an open letter addressed to his “worthy friend of humanity” in which he sought to remind him of the founding principles of the Enlightenment: to respect religious and cultural differences and to focus on the universal fellowship of reason.
I would like to be able to refute the contemptuous opinion people have of the Jew by virtuous behavior, not by polemics. My religion, my philosophy, and my place in civil society give me serious grounds to avoid all religious controversies and take up in public writings only those truths that are equally important for all religions.
He concludes by noting that even if he were prone to enter a religious disputation,
the status assigned to my coreligionists in civil society is so remote from any free exercise of the intellect that one surely does not increase one’s contentment by learning the truth about the rights of mankind. – I will refrain from further elaboration on this point. He who knows the conditions in which we [Jews] exist, and who has a human heart, will feel more than I can say.
To his utter chagrin, this appeal to the conscience his fellow Aufklärer did not silence those who questioned his dual loyalty to his ancestral faith and the overarching sovereignty of reason. Exasperated, he finally yielded and penned a defense, Jerusalem (1783), in which he forcefully argued that Judaism is not incompatible with the precepts of the Enlightenment.
There were, to be sure, Aufklärer who were attentive to Mendelssohn’s plea to lift the legal restrictions on the Jews and improve their civil status. At his behest the historian of constitutional law and a civil servant in the government of Prussia, Christian Wilhelm von Dohm (1751–1820), wrote a two-volume work entitled “On the Amelioration (Verbesserung) of the Civil Status of the Jews” (1783), passing quickly through two editions. A son of a pastor, Dohm was inspired by the humanitarian ideals of the Enlightenment; hence, he demanded that the Jews should be treated as fellow human beings and granted political equality with the Christian population. Clearly reflecting the views of his friend Mendelssohn, he argued that the Jews’ religious convictions would not prevent their performance of the duties of citizenship.
Although generally pleased with Dohm’s work, Mendelssohn took exception to his endorsement of the popular view of the Jews’ alleged commercial corruption and congenital depravity. Dohm wrote: “Let us concede that Jews are more morally corrupt than other nations.” Yet, as reprehensible as their public morality may be, Dohm held, it was not an incorrigible flaw, for at bottom their inclination to crime is a function of their oppression. With the amelioration of their civic status, Jews will prove to be upright individuals. After all, “the Jew is more man than Jew.” The term Verbesserung thus took on a double meaning: the betterment of the Jews’ civic status would redound to a radical improvement of their behavior. Mendelssohn understandably rejected this line of argument and indicatively objected to the term “civic betterment,” preferring the term “civic admission” (bürgerliche Aufnahme). This legal process would first be called emancipation in 1828, a term barrowed from the heated debates of that year regarding the Catholic accession to Parliament in England.
For Mendelssohn, civic equality was a matter of what Thomas Jefferson called in the preamble to the U.S. constitution of July 1776 an “unalienable right” — a “self-evident truth,” which to his dismay seemed to be qualified by Lessing. In his essay of 1777, “On the Education of the Human Race,” Lessing spoke of the incremental progress of humankind from the “morally uncouth” childhood to enlightened maturity. In Jerusalem, Mendelssohn expressed astonishment how his “late friend Lessing imagined [this questionable process] under the influence of I-don’t-know-which historian of mankind.” Individuals may “progress” in course of their lives intellectually and morally, “but it does not seem to me to have been the purpose of Providence that mankind as a whole advanced steadily here below and perfect itself in the course of time.” He was clearly weary that Lessing’s notion of intellectual-cum-moral progress would have deleterious implications when applied to politics. Conditioning the political acceptance of Jews on their educational enlightenment and moral perfection echoed a parenthetical comment in Dohm’s essay, “if and when they deserve [political rights].” Towards that end, Dohm underscored, “it should be the special endeavor of a wise government to care for the moral education and enlightenment of the Jews.”
For Immanuel Kant, if religion had any abiding justification in the Age of Enlightenment it was to promote “the moral improvement of human beings.” Accordingly, he advocated “the Euthanasia of Judaism”: its purification into a “pure moral religion.” By disencumbering Judaism of “all its ancient statutory teachings,” Jews will “quickly call attention to [themselves] as an educated and civilized people who are ready for all the rights of citizenship.” Notwithstanding his expressed antipathy to Judaism, Kant proudly cultivated friendship with enlightened Jews, among them Mendelssohn. After a visit in the summer of 1777 by Mendelssohn, Kant wrote a letter to Markus Herz (1747–1803), telling him how moved he was by the visit:
Having a man of such gentle disposition, and good spirits and intelligence for a constant and intimate companion in Königsberg would be the kind of spiritual nourishment which is completely lacking here. [...] I beg you to help me retain the friendship of this venerable man.
It was not incidental that Markus Herz, a physician and disciple of Kant, was also a Jew.
Two years after Kant’s letter to Herz, Lessing published “Nathan the Wise,” his paean to friendships that transcend the boundaries of religious difference. The play assigns Nathan, a Jew, to voice and embody the ideals of the Enlightenment — tolerance, friendship forged by intellectual affinities, and love of humanity. Nathan, widely held to be modelled on Lessing’s beloved friend Mendelssohn, at a key moment raises a plaintive protest, “Is a Christian or a Jew sooner a Christian or a Jew than a human being?” As Franz Rosenzweig would comment in a lecture of 1919 on Lessing’s parable of tolerance, Nathan was “abstracted” from the concrete reality of his Judaism. Nathan was a “naked man,” the difference between him and Lessing’s Christian and Muslim were thus “merely a matter of dress, food and drink.” Rosenzweig concluded his lecture by noting that tellingly as the curtain fell on Lessing’s play, there were “no children.”
On the face of it, Nathan the Wise, which featured representatives of the three monotheistic faiths, in dialogue, would seem to have been an inter-faith encounter. Their dialogue is based on a medieval parable of three brothers, each of whom received from their benevolent father identical rings, although each claims that his alone is the original, most pristine one. As rendered by Lessing, the parable serves to repudiate the theological doctrine of supersessionism, allowing the Jews, Christians, and Muslims to embrace one another as brothers, equally loved by their father. Their fraternal embrace, however, is marked by a recognition of their shared humanity (Menschlichkeit), their affiliation to a large, extended family of fellow human beings that unfolds in a transcultural space that fosters and celebrates what they share in common. They are bonded not by interfaith but a transcultural friendship which Lessing has Nathan proclaim as of utmost urgency. Turning to the Templar, who harbors a Christian mistrusts of Jews, Nathan tells him that being human is ever more important than what religion one belongs to. Therefore, “wir müssen, müssen Freunde sein” — “we must, must become friends.”
By creating a secularized, religiously neutral space, the Enlightenment provided the opportunity for Jews and Christians to meet one another as friends, as fellow enlightened human beings.
The burgeoning of critical biblical scholarship among Protestant scholars in the 18th cent. was distinguished by a renewed interest in the “Old Testament,” and hence might have occasioned Christians to reach out to Jews as bearers of biblical faith. Rare, however, was the biblical scholar who would extend his affection and esteem for the ancient Hebrews to contemporary Jews whom they tended to regard as “depraved and corrupt.” Beholden to established Christian theological doctrine, they concluded that the fallen state of the Jews was due to their rejection Jesus Christ. As a consequence, they also forfeited their covenantal relationship to God; indicatively, Rabbinic Judaism was spiritually jejune and intellectually desiccated.
The quest for the historical Jesus initiated by Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694–1768) laid the possibility of an interfaith encounter with contemporary Judaism. A radical Deist, Reimarus sought to distill the teachings of Jesus and his ministry from what he regarded to be their irrational Christological embellishments. He thus focused on Jesus as a mortal Jewish prophet. To be sure, for Reimarus Christianity had some enduring merit.
In the midst of [the New Testament’s] chaos of pure delusion and bad example, we encounter good insight and salutary teaching, mixed in with it, especially respecting moral duties and virtues — less frequently in Moses and the prophets, of course, but more often in glorious morality of Jesus and the apostles.
Lessing, who published Reimarus’s work posthumously in a series of fragments over a period of a few years (1774–78), would endorse his controversial thesis in his aforementioned, “On the Education of the Human Race.” Therein Lessing noted that in order to instruct the peoples of the world to affirm a single universal God and ultimately ascribe to a rational moral faith, God selected “the most rude and unruly people.” Among the lowly Hebrew people, God chose particular individuals to serve to guide their kin and through them humanity to rational and moral perfection. Alas, Lessing averred, the rabbis retarded this process by their “petty, crocked, hair splitting understanding of sacred texts,” and thereby had a deleterious effect on the character of the Hebrew nation. Jesus sought to set his people back on track and to further the “nobler and worthier motives of moral action.” Further, Jesus and his disciples taught that his teachings were “not only destined for the Jews” but for all of humanity.
The vision of a universal ethical religion dedicated to the teachings of Jesus prompted some Jews to consider converting to an enlightened Christianity. In 1799, David Friedländer (1750–1854), who was widely considered to have inherited from his close friend Mendelssohn the leadership of the movement of Enlightenment among the Jews, addressed an open-letter to Wilhelm Abraham Teller (1734–1804), the dean (Probst) of the German Protestant Church who identified with the Enlightenment. In the name of a unspecified number of heads of Jewish households in Berlin, Friedländer proposed that they join the Church as representatives of pristine Judaism and thus be absolved from confession in the divinity of Christ and partaking in the sacraments. Probst Teller summarily dismissed the proposal of “dry baptism.” Consonant with his assertion in his letter to Probst Teller that many of the Mosaic ceremonial laws, especially as prescribed by the rabbis, were obsolete, Friedländer became a precursor of Reform Judaism as did Kant’s disciple Lazarus Ben-David (1762–1832) who urged his fellow Jews, as Kant approvingly reported, “to adopt publicly the religion of Jesus who spoke as a Jew to Jews.”
The celebration of Jesus as a Jewish teacher did not engender a more positive view of the Jews; on the contrary, it only served to accentuate that under the sway of the rabbis they had been become a corrupt and depraved people — a view held by even the most liberal advocates of Enlightenment. It thus became increasingly clear to a growing number of Jews that if they were to be accepted, they would have to correct the prevailing image of Rabbinic and post-biblical Judaism. Apparently at the urging of his fellow Jewish students at the University of Berlin, Leopold Zunz (1794–1886), the son of a Talmud scholar, published in 1818 a long essay, “On Rabbinic Literature.” Addressing the newly emerging scholarly community, which had crystallized with the Enlightenment, Zunz assumed the requisite objective, academic voice to argue with exacting erudite detail that post-biblical Judaism is an ever-evolving intellectually and spiritually vital culture. Its vitality is attested by the fact that it is not limited to scriptural exegesis and Talmudic legalism but also embraced liturgical poetry, philosophy, mysticism as well as mathematics and natural science. Indeed, viewed from the perspective of the ramified creative spirit of post-biblical Judaism, the Jews qua Jews seek integration into the cultural and political order ushered in by the Enlightenment not as interlopers but as those who have made seminal contributions to laying the foundations of the modern world (that is, Europe).
Zunz’s essay may be said to have inaugurated Wissenschaft des Judentums, the publication of scholarly disquisitions on post-biblical Judaism. It was hoped that these publications would not only correct the regnant image of Rabbinic culture but also lead the inclusion of post-biblical Judaism in the academic curriculum of an educated European.
Alas, it was only after the Shoah that this vision, with rare exceptions, was realized.
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