Isidore Singer.

The Jewish encyclopedia : a descriptive record of the history, religion, literature, and customs of the Jewish people from the earliest times to the present day (Volume 8) online

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with liim to learn Greek. Together with
Nicolai. Nicolai he took lessons from Bector
Damm, who was known as a good
Greek scholar; and in a short time he was able to
read all the works of Plato in the original without
assistance of any kind (G. Malkewitz, in " Vossische
Zcitung," May 29, 1881, Supplement; G. A. Kohut,
" Moses Mendelssohn and Rector Damm," New York,
1892). He and Nicolai also visited the "learned
colTee-house," the meeting-place of a limited circle
of scholars to which Mendelssohn belonged and in
which each member read a matiiematical or philo-
sophical paper every fourth week. For this society
Mendelssoiin prepared a treatise containing ob.serva-
tions " Ucber die Wahrscheinlichkeit " (On Proba-
bility), which he requested a fellow member to read

for him, either out of modesty or because he stam-
mered. The substance of this paper was repeated
in his "Morgenstunden."

"When Nicolai projected the "Bibliothek der
Schonen Wissenschaften und der Freien Kilnste " in
1756, Mendelssohn was asked to join its staff, and
he soon became not only one of the most diligent
collaborators, but the very soul of the whole under-
taking. In this magazine he reviewed the latest
works on esthetics and literature, and also published
his own studies on esthetics. MendeLssohn, Les-
sing, and Nicolai began a correspondence on the
subject, in which they discussed the purpose of
tragedy, and the meaning of pity and fear and of
terror and admiration. Upon this correspondence,
b}^ which Mendelssohn influenced directly Les-
sing's "Laokoon," were based two treatises by the
former which first appeared in the "Bibliothek,"
namel}', " Die Hauptgrundsiitze der Schonen Kiinste
und Wissenschaften "and "Ueberdas Erhabene und
Naive in den Schonen Wissenschaften." These
monographs— the first was translated into Italian by
C. Ferdinandi (1779) and the other into Dutch by
Van Goens (1769) — must be ranked among the most
important contributions to pre-Kantian esthetics.

At the end of the first year Mendelssohn retired
from the "Bibliothek," which Nicolai soon discon-
tinued, editing in its stead (after 1759)
Contribu- the "Briefe die Neueste Literalur

tions to Betreffend." The "Literaturbriefe,"
Criticism, one of the most important publications
of German journalism, were revolu-
tionary in character. The criticism which Mendels-
sohn (upon whom a large part of the editorial work
devolved), together with Lessing, introduced was
positive, creative, and essentially German in charac-
ter. Mendelssohn's judgment was always impartial,
sound, and clear-sighted. He, the barely tolerated
Jew, dared to use the columns of the " Literatur-
briefe " to criticize even the poems of Frederick the
Great (1760). The review attracted much atten-
tion ; and an unprincipled scribbler. Von Justi, wish-
ing to take revenge on the Jew and on the " Literatur-
briefe" (which had criticized a book of his as it
deserved), lodged a complaint against the journal.
The "Literaturbriefe" were condemned; and legend
has it that Memdelssolm was ordered to appear be-
fore the king at Sans Souci. He is said to have es-
caped the difficulty by a witty simile which inclined
the king in his favor. "Whoever makes verses,"
he said, "plays at ninepins; and whoever plays at
ninepins, be he king or peasant, must have the ' set-
ter-up ' tell him how he l)owls."

Mendelssohn liad good cause to be satisfied with
his position in life. He lived independently, had
faithful friends, and had already accjuired a fortune,
small though it was. He now wished to have a
home of his own. In Ai)rii, 1761, he went to Ham-
burg, where he was welcomed by Christian ad-
mirers, while the chief rabbi of the
His ci(y, Jonathan Eybeschutz, greeted

Marriag-e. him in a ver}' flattering letter. There
lie became engaged to Fromet Gugen-
heim (b. Oct. 6, 1737; d. at Hamburg ]\Iarch 16,
1812), a plain, jioor, and lowly girl, whom he mar-
ried in June, 1762. During his honeymoon he began




to work at the solution of a question proposed b}'
the Berlin Academy of tSciences for a prize essay,
"Ob die Metaphysischen Wissenschaften eiuer Sol-
chen Evidenz Fahig Sind wie die Mathematischen."
His monograph "Ueber die Evidenz der Metaphy-
sischen Wissenschaften " received the prize of 50
ducats in June, 1763, and gained the victory over
Thomas Abbt and Immanuel Kant, together with
whose essays his was printed. A few months later
(Oct. , 1763) Mendelssohn received the privileges of a
protected Jew. A very often-repeated legend tells
that the privilege was given him upon the interces-
sion of Marquis d'Argens, who said to the king: "A
bad Catholic philosopher begs a bad Protestant
philoso])her to grant the privilege to a bad Jewish
philosopher. There is too much philosophy in all
this for justice not to be on the side of the request."
At the same time the trustees of the Jewish com-
munity in Berlin honored him by exempting him
from the payment of all Jewish taxes; and nine
years later it passed a resolution that the "distin-
guished man" should be eligible to all positions in
the conununity.

Partly owing to the "Literaturbriefe," of which
be the chief col-
laborator until
1765, and part-
ly because of
the prize essay
which had in-
troduced him
to philosoph-
ical circles, and
also on account
of Ids other lit-
erary works,
with poets and
in Germany
and Switzer-
land became more and more close. He stood in
especially intimate relationship to the kindlj' and
versatile young professor Thomas Abbt, in Frank-
fort-on-the-Oder, and toRinteln, then "Consistorial-
rath " in Buckeburg. At the request of the former,
who was constantly meditating upon death, Men-
delssohn began a correspondence concerning the
destiny of man, and on the soul and its fate after
death. This correspondence, to which Mendelssohn
himself published notes, was printed in Mendels-
sohn's "GesammelteSchriften," v. 230-408, andinthe
third volume of"s works. Abbt's questions and
doubts confirmed his friend's decisicm, reached long
before, to write on the immortality of the soul, and
formed the basis of his chief iihilosophical work,
"Phadon " (1767). This follows Plato's dialogue of
the same name. Mendelssohn's argument is that in
the body there must be at least one substance which

is neither corporeal nor composite and

His Avhich \uiites within itself all ideas

"Phadon." and conceptions; the soul, as this

self-existing, indivisible essence, can
not be destroyed. The " Phadon " was the most
widely read book of its time. Its special chaini

Medal Struck in Honor of Mendelssohn's " Phadon."

(In the collection of F. Lobo, Philadelphia.)

was its elegant and lucid style. Never before in
Germany had philosophical questions been treated
in such clear language; so that his contemporaries
with justice called him the "German Plato." The
" Phadon " is one of the best productions of classic
German prose; it was reprinted fifteen times and
translated into nearly all the Europnan languages,
while a number of Hebrew versions were made.
The Crown Prince of Brunswick was so delighted
with it that during a visit to his royal uncle in Ber-
lin in the autumn of 1769, he invited the author to
visit him at the castle, and expressed the wish that
he might induce him to come to Brunswick.

The Count and Countess of Schaumburg-Lippe
became well acquainted with Mendelssohn in Pyr-
mont, where he lived in 1773 on account of his
health, and conversed Avith him about death and
immortality. The Berlin Academy of Sciences
proposed Mendelssohn as a regular member of the
philosophical division, but Frederick the Great
struck his name from the list, because the Empress
Catherine of Russia also wished to be elected. The
queen dowager, Luise Ulrika of Sweden, Fred-
erick's talented sister, took pleasure in conversing

with Mendels-
sohn. No
stranger of im-
portance who
came to Berlin
failed to pay
his personal re-
spects to the
"German Soc-
rates," as Men-
delssohn was
often called
after the ap-
pearance of the

Among those
who c o r r e -
sponded with
Mendelssohn and showed him great honor was Johann
Kaspar Lavater, a preacher in Zurich, who visited
the "Jew Moses " several times in 1763
Centre- and gave, in his "Physiognomik," a
versy with very interesting description of "this
Lavater. man with the Socratic soul." Lava-
ter's most earnest wish was to convert
the Jew who had spoken admiringly of Jesus (al-
though with the limitation, "if Jesus of Nazareth
had been content to remain only a virtuous man "),
and who had demonstrated the inmiortality of the
soul on the grounds of reason instead of the Bible.
In 1769, therefore, Lavater translated the "Idees
sur I'Etat Futur des Etres Vivants, ou Palingenesie
Philosphique " of Charles Bonnet, a professor at
Geneva, entitling his version "Untersuchung der
Beweise fiir das Christenthum," and sent it to Men-
delssohn with an introduction in which he chal-
lenged him "either to refute the book publicly, or,
if he found it logical, to do what wisdom, love of
truth, and honor required and what Socrates would
have done if he liad read the work and found it irre-
futable." This rash step, distasteful to Bonnet and
soon regretted b} Lavater himself, made a painful




impression upon the friends of Mendelssolm and
upon all Berlin theologians, but it was most dis-
tressing to Mendelssohn himself. He, the avowed
enemy of all religious disputes, owed it to his in-
most conviction, to his honor, and to his reputation
to make a public answer, after obtaining permis-
sion from the consistory. The latter willingly al-
lowed him to reply, confiding in his "wisdom and
modesty." Mendelssohn's answer is a model of
Stoic calm and dialectic acuteness. He declared
that his belief in the truths of his own relig-
ion was unshakable. " If I had changed my faith
at heart," he says, "it would be most abject
baseness not to wish to confess the truth according
to my inmost conviction. If I were indifferent to
both religicms, and mocked or scorned all revelation,
I should well know what wisdom would counsel,
were conscience silent. What could keep me from
it?" He declared, moreover, that Bonnet's book
was not at all one which could convert him, and
that he had read many other defenses of Christian-
ity, written by Germans, which were far more thor-
ough and philosophical. This " Schreiben an den
Herrn Diaconus Lavater in Zurich" (Berlin, 1770;
Hebrew translation with annotations by N. H.
Wessely, edited by Solomon Fiichs, ib. 1892) was
followed by the "Autwort an den Herrn Moses
Mendelssohn zu Berlin," dated Feb. 14, 1770, with
"Nacherinnerungen " by Mendelssohn (Berlin, 1770).
Lavater regretted that he had involuntarily dis-
tressed "the most noble of men "and begged his for-

The dispute, however, continued. Although Bon-
net regretted that he had been the innocent cause
of Lavater's action, and although he assured Men-
delssohn of his highest esteem, he tried to refute
his arguments in a new edition which appeared in
the same year, and claimed that "the Berlin Jew had
copied his trashy statements from my foot-notes."
Such a procedure impelled ]Mendelssohn to write his
"Betrachtungen liber Bonnets Palingenesie " ; but
the essay remained unfinished, and exists only as a
sketch. In these observations as well as in letters
to Lavater, to the Crown Prince of Brunswick, and
to others, he expressed his views regarding the doc-
trines of Christianity. Meanwhile a succession of
scribl)lers was meddling in the controversy, espe-
cially a Frankfort lawyer named J. B. KOlbele, who
addressed to him two pamjjhlels (Frankfort-on-the-
Main, 1770), in which spite and calumny rivaled
each other. Mendelssohn made no reply. "Who-
ever is so obviously anxious to irritate me," he
wrote to a friend, "ought to have nuieh difficulty in
succeeding." In this long controversy he found
few defenders, altiiough the theologian Sender
in Halle and Professor Michaelis in Giittingen,
as well as an anonymous citizen of Hamburg,
who wrote " Dienstfreundlich Promemoriaes an
die Welche Herrn Moses Mendelssohn Diirchaus
zum Christen Machen Wollen " (1771), and tiic
satirist Lichtenberg in Gottingen, were his open

This controversy seriously affected Mendelssohn's
health, and compelled him in 1771 to refrain for
several months from all mental activity. In July
of 1773 and 1774 he went to Pyrmont to regain

his health, and there he won the friendship of
the reigning prince and became acciuainted with
Herder, who satirically remarked that "Mordecai
had as large a following as the
Acquaint- grand vizier." After he had gradu-
ance with, ally regained his physical strength,
Herder. Mendelssohn resolved to carry out a
cherished plan of devoting more of
his intellectual activity to the Jews and Judaism.
On account of his interest in philosophy and in
German and esthetic literature, and owing to the
failure of his first attempt to publish a weekly
called "Kohelet Musar" (1750), he had somewhat
neglected Jewish interests. In 1757 he had written
a sermon on the victory of the Prussians at Ross-
bach, and a thanksgiving address after the battle
of Leuthen, while six years later he prepared a ser-
mon to celebrate the peace of Hubertsburg. The
first of these addresses purported to have been de-
livered by Babbi Fkankel, and the last by Eabbi
Aaron Mosessohn in the synagogue at Berlin, and
they had been published without Mendelssohn's
name as author (Kayserling, "Dankpredigt und
Danklieder von Moses Mendelssohn, zum Ersten
Male Herausgegeben und mit Einleitung Versehen,"
Berlin, 1866). This sermon was translated into Eng-
lish at Philadelphia in 1763 ("Publ. of Am. Jew.
Hist. Soc." i. 63, ii. 31, iii. 116; "Allg. Zeit. des
Judenthums," Iviii. 451). Besides these sermons,
the first ones written and published in German by a
Jew, Mendelssohn had annotated Ecclesiastes (Ber-
lin, 1770) and written a commentary to the famous
"Logic" of Maimonides, entitled "Millot ha-Higga-
yon." He gave the work to Samson Kalir. a Jewish
scholar of Jerusalem, who had it printed (Frankfort-
on-the-Oder, 1761) as his own work, but the second
and all following editions appeared under Mendels-
sohn's name.

The controversj'- with Lavater opened the second
period of Mendelssohn's activity, which Avas con-
cerned chiefly with Judaism and the
Jewish. Jews. Being universally honored not
Activities, only as a man, but as a metaphysician
and German writer, he became, almost
uncousciousl)', the chief representative of his core-
ligionists. When the Jews in Endingen and Lengnau
(see Jew. Encyc. i. 1-2, s.v. Aargau). the only
places in Switzerland in which they were then tol-
erated, were threateneil with new restrictions in
1774, they ajipealed to Mendelssohn, asking him to
intercede witli Lavater. Distasteful as it was for
him to have any further relations with his former
opponent, he wrote him a letter asking him to do all
he could for the Jews of Switzerland, and as a result
their rights were protected. When in 1777 several
luindred inipoverished Jews were about to be ex-
pelled from Dresden, where ^Mendelssohn still had
to pay the poll-tax, the president of tiie community
turned to him, and he at once wrote a successful ap-
peal to Freiherr von Ferber, from whom a year ear-
lier he had received an oral assurance of esteem.
At the recjuest of the chief rabl)i of Berlin, Hirschel
r.ewin, Mendelssohn compiled in German the " Ki-
tuaigesetze der Juden " on Jewish civil law (Berlin,
1778 ; 5th ed. 1826). Likewise, at the instance of his
friend Klein, judge and later on professor, he ren-




dered iuto pure German, instead of the former Yid-
dish, the formula of admonition wiiich was spoken
on taking the Jewish oath and which remained in
force until 1869.

Mendelssohn, who in his feelings was both Jew

and German, wished to teach his coreligionists the

German language and thus to prepare

Transla- them for German culture. For his own
tion of the children he began to translate the
Bible. Pentateuch into German ; at the ur-
gent request of Solomon Dubno, how-
ever, who prepared a Hebrew commentary for
the translation, lie decided to publish it under Ins
own name, and at his own expense, and a speci-
men soon appeared, entitled " 'Alim li-Terufah "
(Amsterdam, 1778). The undertaking was greeted
with marked enthusiasm by the people, not only
in Germany, but in Holland, France, and Eng-
land, and was joyfully welcomed by such en-
lightened rabbis as Hirschel Lewin and his rjon Saul
in Frankfort-on-tlie-Oder, while Hartwig Wessely
and Joseph Ilaltern composed poems in honor of the
translator. On the other hand, there were those
who, like Raphael Kohen in Altona and his son-
in-law Hlrsch Janow, placed the German translation
of the Pentateuch under a ban. Toward Ins oppo-
nents ]\Iendelssohu displayed a philosophic calm ;
for he was opposed to all controversies and espe-
cially to those with theologians — "those pugnacious
proclaimersof peace," as he called them. He knew
only too well "how m\ich opposition, hatred, and
persecution are called forth at all times by tiie
slightest innovation, no matter how beneticiai. " The
King of Denmark and the princes and leading men of
the kingdom were among the subscribers to his work.
Early in INIarch, 1780, the Book of Genesis appeared,
to which Dubno had written the greater part of the
commentary; l)ut a few months later this collabo-
rator, alienated by the opponents of Mendelssohn,
left him, so that he himself was obliged to prepare
the entire commentary to Exodus. As assistants for
the remaining parts lie obtained Hartwig Wessely,
Aaron Jaroslav, and Herz Homberg. The whole Pen-
tateuch was finished in 1783, and because of its remark-
able merit it created a stir even in Christian circles.
At the same time the translation of the Psalms ap-
peared — the fruit of ten years' labor — first in German
characters and then in Hebrew type with a Hebrew
commentary by Joel Lowe. Mendelssohn's version
of the Song of Solomon, which was found among
his papers, was published in 1788 by Joel Lowe
and Aaron Wolfson, with a Hebrew commentary.

The translation of the Pentateuch had an im-
portant eflfect in bringing the Jews to share in the
progress of the age. It aroused their interest in the
study of Hebrew grammar, which they had so
long despised, made them eager for German nation-
ality and culture, and inaugurated a new era in the
education of the young and in the Jewish school
system. At Mendelssohn's suggest ion

Influence the Jiidische Freischule was founded
on German at Berlin in 1781, the first organized

Judaism. Jewish school in Germany, after

Avhich many similar institutions were

modeled. There, according to the system planned

by him, instruction was given not only in the Bible

and the Talmud, but also in technical branches and
in German and French.

^Mendelssohn was also the first to advocate the
emancipation of the Jews. When his coreligionists
in Alsace, through their representative Cerfberr in
3Ietz, requested him to prepare a petitiini for them
to lay before the French council of state, he, sec-
onded by Nicolai, persuaded his friend, the coun-
cilor of war, Clir. W. Doiim, to \nulertake the task.
Thus originated the memorial "Ueber die Blirger-
liclie Verbesseruug der Juden," which was the first
monograph to discuss the question of emancipation
scientifically, and in the drafting of whicli Men-
delssohn appears personally to have had some
share ("Zeitschrift fiir die Geschichte der Juden in
Deutschland," v. 75 it seq.). The sensation pro-
duced by this work could not fail to call forth ad-
verse criticism and new polemics against the Jews;
Thereupon Mendelssohn induced liis
Plea for friend Markus Herz to translate the
Emanci- " Vindicite Judaorum " by the Amster-
pation. dam rabbi, M.\nasskh bkn Israel,
from English into German (Berlin,
1782), and wrote for it a preface in which lie replied
to the critics of Dohm's work, remonstrated with
Dohm himself, and energetically oppo.sed the ban
and the canon law. Attacks upon this preface aj)-
peared in periodicals and pamphlets. Cranz, the
author of "Das Forschen nacii Licht \\m\ Pecht,"
who was supported by a certain Heir Morschel, es-
pecially assailed Mendelssohn's principles and de-
manded a public reply. In answer Mendelssohn
wrote his celebrated epoch-making work "Jerusa-
lem, Oder liber Religiose jVIacht und Judenthum "
(Berlin, 1783; translated into Italian, Triest, 1799;
into English by M. Samuels, London, 1838, and by
Isaac Lecser, Philadelphia, 1852; into Hebrew by
A. B. Gottlober, Jitomir, 1867, and by P. Smolen-
skin, Vienna. 1876).

Mendels-sohn's" Jerusalem," which shows frequent
analogies with Spinoza's "Tractatus Tiieologico-
Politicus," but reaches diametrically opposite re-
sults, deals in the first section with the relation of
State and Church, both of which, though having
dilYeicnt objects and methods, should
His " Jeru- promote human happiness. Accord-
salem." ing to Mendelssohn, tlu; Church has
no right to own proin-rty, and Ciiuich
law is essentially contradictory to the nature of re-
ligion. He again opposed energetically the right of
ban and excommunication, and was the first, at least
in Germany, to plead for the separation of Church
and State, and for freedom of belief and conscience.
In the second part he deals with Judaism, which,
according to him, has, in contradistinction to Chris-
tianity, no dogma wliose acceptance is necessary
for salvation. With Leibnitz lie diflerentiated be-
tween eternal truths, which are based on reason and
not on supernatural revelation, and temporary, his-
torical truths. Judaism is no revealed religion in the
usual sense of the term, but only revealed legislation,
laws, conunandments, and regulations, which were
supernaturally given to the Jews through Moses.
Mendelssolm did not recognize miracles as evidences
of eternal truths, nor did he formulate articles of
faith; hence he did not say "I believe," but "Irecog-




nize that to be true. " " The spirit of Judaism is free-
dom in doctrine and conformity in action. " Accord-
ingly he very curiously defined the ceremonial law as
"a kind of writ, living, quickening the mind and
heart, full of meaning, and having the closest af-
finity with speculative religious knowledge." This
is the indissoluble bond which is forever to imite
all those who are born into Judaism. "What
divine law has ordained can not be repealed l)y rea-
son, which is no less divine," is Mendelssohn's reply
to all those who wished to release the Jews from
the Law by sophistry. "Jerusalem," on its appear-
ance, met with little favor, yet Kant, then at the
zenith of his reputation, called it an "irrefutable
book " and regarded it as " the proclamation of a
great reform, which, however, will be slow in mani-
festation and in ]irogress," and wliicli. as he wrote
'• will affect not
only your na-
tion, but others
as well." A host
of reviewers,
among whom
the Berlin theo-
logians ZoUner,
Uhle, and others,
togetlier with
many insignifi-
cant scribblers,
condemned "Je-
rusalem," while
they decried its
author as a ra-
tionalist or even
as an atheist.
The Jews were
little more
pleased. Since,
on the one hand,
he recognized
the basal prin-
ciple of Juda-
ism to be free-
dom of thought

and belief, and, on the other, placed its whole
essence in the ceremonial law, both the Orthodox
party and the reformers claimed him as their
own. He was conservative by na-
Attitude turc, and wished to abolish religious
Toward abuses, such as imtimely l)urial : but
Reform, he stood immovably upon the founda-
tion of the ancestral religion. It was
through no fault of his that his disciples took differ-
ent roads, and that several of his children renounced
Judaism after liis death.

On Feb. 15, 1781, Lessing, Mendelssohn's best and
dearest friend, died. Though in his last years he
had written to Mendelssohn but seldom, yet he liad
erected a noble monument to his friend in "Nathan
der Weise," taking as the model for his hero Men-
delssohn himself (Kay serling, "Moses Mendelssohn,"
2ded., p. 344, and the bibliography on "Nathan"
on p. 342). After Lessing's death Mendelssohn

Online LibraryIsidore SingerThe Jewish encyclopedia : a descriptive record of the history, religion, literature, and customs of the Jewish people from the earliest times to the present day (Volume 8) → online text (page 118 of 169)