Moses Mendelssohn: The Father of Jewish Modernity

This essay is part of the Religious Reformers Series. By studying the past attempts to reform traditional Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc., we can better fight against the contemporary programs to reform our Deen. Read other entries in the series here.

“The evil Moses of Dessau, the leader of the rebels who has the cunning of a snake . . . has begun bringing the foreign harlot among the Jews to make them go whoring after false gods, which is to say, worshiping other gods.”

The above statement was made by Rabbi Akiva Yosef Schlesinger, a disciple of Rabbi Moses Sofer (the Chatam Sofer) known as one of the fathers of the Orthodox resistance against the modern trends within Judaism.[1]

Judaism in Western Europe went through a process of Modernization and Secularization. This movement towards modernity was led by Moses Mendelssohn, who was the son of a Torah scribe. He was born in Dessau, a city in the state of Anhalt-Dessau (modern day Germany) in 1729. His family was poor, but learned. During his childhood, he suffered from a disease that left him with a curvature of the spine.[2]

Many years later, Mendelssohn attributed his physical weakness and the curvature of his spine to the great effort he invested in studying Maimonides:

“He afflicted my flesh and I became feeble because of him.”[3]

Just as a note, before we proceed any further, I highly recommend reading the following article in conjunction with this one: The Secularization of Judaism

Brief Biography

Mendelssohn (1729–1786) had a basic education in the Torah and the Talmud. He studied with David Frankel, the rabbi of Dessau.[4] When Frankel became the rabbi of berlin, the 14-year-old Mendelssohn followed him and studied at Frankel’s yeshiva[5] in Berlin.[6] He then went on to study European knowledge, wisdom, and philosophy in Berlin. He mostly studied all of this on his own, although he did have some tutors. In Berlin, he studied the thought of John Locke, Gottfried von Leibniz, and Christian von Wolff.

Moses Mendelssohn was intelligent, and through his efforts he attracted the attention of a Jewish merchant by the name of Isaac Bernhard. Isaac Bernhard appointed Mendelssohn as a tutor for his children. Mendelssohn had also attracted the attention of the leader of Prussia[7], Frederick the Great. The non-Jewish readers of the writings of Mendelssohn began to refer to him as ‘the Jewish Socrates.’[8]

Important Note: Moses Mendelssohn’s name was Moses Heimann, but he took on a German sounding surname after he studied the secular sciences in Berlin. This reflected the same acculturation to German life that he sought for other Jews.[9]

Berlin in the 18th century was not a friendly place for Jews. There was no such a thing as equal rights. It was only the wealthy and economically useful Jews that were allowed to live in the Prussian capital.[10]

Mendelssohn entered a competition for which he wrote a philosophical essay in 1763, and he won the prize of the Prussian Academy of Arts, ahead of Immanuel Kant. For this achievement, he received the status of a Schȕtzjude, i.e., a Protected Jew.

In the 1750s, Moses Mendelssohn developed friendships with the philosopher Immanuel Kant and also Gotthold Lessing, a dramatist and advocate of enlightened toleration in Germany. It was with the encouragement of Lessing that Mendelssohn began to publish philosophical essays in German.[11]

Work

Mendelssohn authored Phaedo (his most celebrated work), which he based on the work of Plato. This covered the topic of ‘Immortality of the Soul.’

Mendelssohn also wrote a work called Jerusalem. It was published in 1783. This work laid out his philosophy and thought. In this work, Jerusalem, Mendelssohn worked very hard to demonstrate that Judaism is compatible with modernity. He also attempted to draw a separation between Church and State by promoting tolerance.[12] Mendelssohn, in Jerusalem, strived to establish that Judaism is compatible with good citizenship and that traditional Judaism is a rational religion, consonant with the values of the Enlightenment.[13] While doing all of this, he remained a practicing Jew. He did not promote the idea of moving away from traditional Jewish practice. However, he believed that Judaism could be rendered compatible with enlightenment philosophy.

This is exactly what we are witnessing today with Islām, literally unfolding before our very eyes. The Modernists wax lyrical about their love for Islām, and they deny their interfering with the tradition. Meanwhile however, they actually emulate people such as Mendelssohn in their practice.

The book Jerusalem was not met with the support that Mendelssohn had anticipated. The Maskilim objected to its affirmation of the Haskalah and the orthodox class could not accept the dismissal of religious coercion.[14]

What Is the Enlightenment?

“The term Enlightenment refers to a trend in eighteenth-century Western culture toward belief in humanistic values, religious tolerance, the right of humankind to freedom and happiness, and the ability of human society to improve itself, to adopt a more humanitarian way of life. The Enlightenment in central and western Europe was not monolithic. It comprised a variety of agendas and programs pursued in a variety of places. The French Enlightenment, for instance, was characterized by harsh criticism of the church, and in certain quarters by political subversion. The German Enlightenment, on the other hand, was relatively moderate, generally adhering to Protestantism or Catholicism. Eschewing radical political criticism, the German movement sought to attract the educated citizen, and its numbers included such representatives of the establishment as officials, academics, teachers, and clerics. All, however, were united around the Enlightenment project – reformation of society through the power of reason and the belief in natural rights, education, appropriate laws, and responsible rulers. The project might be called salvation through knowledge – knowledge whose dissemination would make people happier, more aware of their world, more moral and independent.”[15]

There is much in above paragraph that resonates with Modernism and Liberalism.

Mendelssohn pushed the idea that Judaism is a religion of reason, but the revealed part of it is law. In the words of Mendelssohn himself:

‘Revelation cannot convince any man of the validity of something his reason cannot understand.’[16]

What he meant by this was that the laws of Judaism could be drawn from reason, and revelation was not required for this. This led him to dividing Judaism into two parts. The first part was the rational part, covering beliefs. The second part was revealed, covering law. What Mendelssohn did was preach the idea that the dogmas of Judaism could be worked out by any common person.

Mendelssohn also pushed the idea that coercion has no place in Jewish law. This however, contradicts herem.[17]

According to Mendelssohn, the power of the Biblical Jewish State passed away with the destruction of the Temple. For this reason, Jews in today’s time are mandated to obey the law of the land.[18]

But if Jews are to obey the law of the land, what meaning does the Torah have?

He says the Torah is binding only in terms of individual conscience. Mendelssohn argues that that Torah cannot be dismissed entirely because there were hundreds of thousands of people that witnessed its revelation, so it is to remain until God publicly abrogates it. Hence, he calls upon Jews to follow their conscience and remain true to their tradition.[19]

One of the major flaws in Moses Mendelssohn’s methodology was viewing the religion under the lens of philosophy. The modernists of today have no philosophy—they adopt as their philosophy whatever they feel is rational or in alignment with their desires. They use the philosophy of desires to dig at the foundations of Islām, attempting to cause the building to crumble. What they don’t realize is that this building will never collapse, rather they themselves will collapse under the weight and pressure of their continuously changing desires which are ceaselessly exerted on their minds, hearts, and souls by their own wishful thinking.

RELATED: Siding with Paganism: Judaism and Christianity Against Islam

Mendelssohn’s Motto

“Judaism is not a revealed religion (geoffenbarte Religion) but a revealed law (geoffenbartes Gesetz).”[20]

This idea, repeated many times by Mendelssohn, was simply reinforcing the attack upon the belief system of Jews. Outwardly it seemed rational, but it stripped the Jews of their faith. In the same way today, we find Muslims and Compassionate Imams who campaign and chant slogans, but they are stripping the Muslim community of their faith. These Muslims continue to live in a dream world, where they think that they are upholding the beliefs and teachings of Islam, whereas in reality they are championing something else completely.

Love of Philosophy

Mendelssohn details his love for philosophy as follows,

‘Ah philosophy! In my younger days you were my beloved wife who was my consolation in all my tribulations, and now…I shall fear to go to you as a man would fear approaching his beloved in whose bones resides decay…And yet my desire for you heightened and I was unable to quell my desire, and would often risk my life to make love to you.”[21]

Muslims Following the Jews Down the Rabbit Hole

One of the primary aims of Mendelssohn was to liberate the Jews from prejudice and oppression. As the status quo stands today, we find Muslims falling into precisely the same trap. With the goal of avoiding oppression or labelling in mind, Muslims in various parts of the world are going all out to try and please the Jews and Christians. They will trying anything and everything to avoid traditional Islāmic teachings and to completely remove Allāh Ta’ālā and Sayyidunā Muḥammad Rasūlullāh ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam from the equation. Modernist and Liberal scholars and Imāms bend over backwards all over the place. They twist and distort the message of the Noble Qur’ān in order to fit in and to impress upon their audiences that Islām is absolutely compatible with modernity. Moses Mendelssohn had hoped to acquire civil rights for the Jews, and the Modernists and Liberals of today are peddling this very same message!

Mendelssohn also published a book called Biur, an explanation of the Torah. This included a translation of the text of the Torah from Hebrew to German, but using German characters. He did this to encourage Jews towards abandoning Yiddish. The Biur was basically the text that sparked the Haskalah movement. This translation was intended to provide a ‘first step towards culture’ for the Jews.[22]

Abandonment of one’s language and culture is a major step towards abandoning one’s values, morals, and even beliefs.

Mendelssohn wrote articles for a weekly periodical called Kohelet Musar (Preacher of Morals) on how Jews could encounter and find God through the Natural Sciences, as well as by studying the Torah. This publication was well received, although it was short lived.

Haskalah

Moses Mendelssohn was the founder of the Haskalah, which simply refers to the Jewish Enlightenment that occurred during the 18th century. This was an intellectual movement in Europe that lasted from the 1770s to the 1880s. The word Haskalah comes from the Hebrew word sekhel, meaning ‘reason’ or ‘intellect.’ The Haskalah Movement encouraged Jews to study secular subjects, to learn the European languages and to enter into fields such as agriculture, crafts, the arts and science.[23]

The Haskalah focused on prioritizing the importance of reason as a source of truth, rather than religion. Hence, this led to a decline of religion during the Haskalah or Enlightenment period.[24]

The purpose of the enlightenment was basically to overthrow the authority and position of the religious leaders. This paved the way for a process of selection, in which those aspects of Judaism which don’t fit with modern times are simply filtered out. By means of this, the authority of the Torah is irreparably damaged.[25]

This, we find, is the same path being tread by Compassionate Imams and Modernist scholars, who use every trick they can; and every ounce of strength that they can muster, to damage the authority of the ‘Ulamā’ and subvert the classical texts that detail the laws of Islām. They use fancy names like Fiqh Al-Aqalliyāt (Fiqh for Minorities), Al-Fiqh Al-Iftirādī and so on, to achieve their nefarious ends at the expense of the tradition.

RELATED: The Maqasid of the Shari`ah: Nuanced Application or Genuine Abuse?

The Haskalah began in Galicia (Germany, Poland and Central Europe) and later spread to Eastern Europe. One of the major changes that the Haskalah influenced was in the sphere of education. The Maskilim (advocates of the Haskalah) tried to remove the Talmud from its central position in Jewish education. Jewish studies were studied in the curricula, but the emphasis was placed on secular education in order to help the Jews integrate into society.[26]

The first Haskalah School was founded in Berlin in 1778. It imparted free education for poor children and the curriculum included German, French, arithmetic, geography, history, art, some Bible studies and Hebrew. The school started with 70 students. Other schools for the Haskalah began in Dessau and Frankfurt on the Main.[27]

The Haskalah also brought changes to girls’ education. Daughters of wealthy families would study with private teachers. The Maskilim had established schools for poorer girls in Breslau, Dessau, Koenigsberg and Hamburg. Some Haskalah schools taught Yiddish, handiwork, art and singing.[28]

With the Haskalah, Yiddish and its usage came to an end. Hebrew and the European languages were revived. German writers had claimed that Jews were deceiving non-Jews by using Yiddish in business transactions, and Mendelssohn felt that Yiddish was ‘ridiculous, ungrammatical, and a cause of moral corruption.’ Reformers called for the removal of Yiddish from Jewish schools.[29]

A Swiss Theologian, Johann Kaspar Lavater, had challenged Moses Mendelssohn to a debate, in an attempt to make the latter see reason and convert to Christianity. Mendelssohn preferred not to engage for fear for the Jews.

Consequences of the Haskalah

The Haskalah resulted in the rise of the Jewish Reform Movement. The objective of this movement was to bring Judaism closer to contemporary European standards of behaviour.[30] The Compassionate Imams try to do the same thing. They play a double agent role, presenting themselves to the ruling class as being ‘concerned citizens’ and ‘benefactors of humanity,’ and before their followers they act as traditional Muslims. They try very hard to portray themselves as being in tune with the times, but they find it difficult to cope with hiding their true colors when they have to face traditional Muslims. They cannot be pro-LGBTQ and genuine Muslims at the same time. They cannot be Perennialists and true Muslims at the same time.

Quite interestingly, the Reform Movement tried to stem the tide of Jews who had became estranged from traditional rituals converting to Christianity. Subḥānallāh, this is what we are witnessing now, as clear as day. While these Compassionate Imams push their liberal and modernist agenda, they look on at the dwindling number of traditional practicing Muslims. I wonder, does it not bother them at all to see the rotten fruits of their dastardly handiwork?

In Germany, synagogues allowed mixing of the sexes, references to Zion or Jerusalem were removed, and prayers were reworded. The focus of observing law shifted to ethical commandments rather than ritual observance.[31]

The Reform Movement,[32] which was in fact a Liberal Movement, brought church bells into the synagogue. The idea of Messianism was problematic for the goal of emancipation. Hence, passages in their literature that referred to this were removed. The word synagogue was changed to temple. The Conservative Movement[33] was the other Liberal Movement that tried to cope with the fast pace of change that Judaism was facing. This movement agreed with the aspect of changing Jewish practice, but it disagreed with the manner in which this was to be done.

All of this was opposed by the Orthodox camp. They felt that it challenged the very existence of Judaism and had to be rejected completely.[34]

The Haskalah ended with a large number of Jews assimilating. The struggle for emancipation led to immigration and Zionism.[35]

Failure

To Mendelssohn’s great disappointment, Jerusalem—his most important philosophical treatise—did not take Jewish society by storm. On top of this, rabbis and Maskilim alike paid little attention to it.[36]

All in all, Moses Mendelssohn failed in his attempt to make Judaism compatible with the modern world. This is attested to by Jews even today. His students converted to Christianity. Almost all of his children converted to Christianity too. Only one daughter and one son of his remained Jewish, but their children even later converted to Christianity. This is a clear lesson for all those who want to modernize Islām. An attempt to play with the book of Allāh Ta’ālā and the blessed Sunnah of Sayyidunā Muḥammad Rasūlullāh ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam will definitely end in failure.

The Haskalah and the Maskilim (activists of the Haskalah) who took it on, were seen as the bogeymen of traditional Judaism. Later on, the Maskilim became disenchanted with traditional Judaism and strayed increasingly further away from it. They began to integrate; have male and female mixed seating at synagogue services; prayers for the return to Israel were omitted from services; Jewish schools began to emphasize secular studies over Torah studies; etc.

Even though the Jews made all of this effort to assimilate, anti-Jewish literature boomed in Germany during the first few decades of the 19th century. In 1819, Jews were killed in riots that took place on the streets. Jews then felt that the only way towards social acceptance was conversion to Christianity.

RELATED: How “Sexual Revolution” Gave Rise to Nazism

All forms of modern Judaism (Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodoxy) have been affected by the thought of Moses Mendelssohn. Jews willingly attest to this. However, the striking question that arises from all of this is:

Why did the traditional Jewish clergy not stand in the way of the modernization of Judaism?

The Orthodox Jews were against the Haskalah from the start. The reason for this was that it challenged rabbinic orthodoxy and the role of the Talmud in education. However, they were also affected by it and soon opened schools that taught both Judaic and general studies.[37] We learn from this part of history that Muslims who follow this particular trend, i.e., moving away from keeping the Noble Qur’ān at the center of education, will end up modernizing completely.[38]

Haskalah and Emancipation

‘Emancipation’ was a term that Jews borrowed from American culture.[39] It is used by Jews to denote the granting of equal rights to Jews in Europe. This is because the Jews were basically living as alien citizens and were subject to taxation and other forms of humiliation. This kind of ‘humiliation’ has in fact been described in the Noble Qur’ān:

‘They have been put under humiliation [by Allāh] wherever they are overtaken, except for a rope [i.e., covenant] from Allāh and a rope (i.e., treaty) from the people (i.e., the Muslims). And they have drawn upon themselves anger from Allāh and have been put under destitution. That is because they disbelieved in (i.e., rejected) the verses of Allāh and killed the prophets without right. That is because they disobeyed and [habitually] transgressed.’[40]

The Jews wanted to emancipate themselves from this state, and they desired to express themselves politically, economically and socially. While this may seem to be a noble venture, it was an attempt to flee from the anger of Allāh Ta’ālā that they had earned. Yet Muslims today are following in their footsteps, also earning disgrace and humiliation. In 1791, the French had decided that the Jews were now suited to be called French and were to be given equal rights.[41] Within a decade, there were already complaints being made about how the Jews were now exploiting their rights to oppress non-Jews. Napoleon summoned a Sanhedrin to deal with this problem.[42] Basically, this was an attempt to establish the grand court of the Jews that had been extinct for centuries.

In Western Europe, the Jews understood from the Haskalah that they would get equal rights if only ‘they acted appropriately.’ In comparison to the East, the Haskalah played out very differently in the West. The Eastern Sphere of the Haskalah incorporated Revolution through Socialism or Zionism, Limited Support, Yiddish, improving spoken Russian and Hebrew. Whereas the Western Sphere of the Haskalah comprised of Emancipation, Assimilation, learning German, Liberal Support and Denominationalism.

The lesson to be taken away from this piece is that Moses Mendelssohn planted the ideas of Modernity within the public sphere, which took root and sprouted later. The same goes with the Modernists and Liberals of today. They often dress in Muslim garb, but they preach nothing but Modernist and liberal ideology, which stinks of waste and rotten, decayed flesh.

The summary of the argument of Mendelssohn was for the liberalization of Judaism, grounding it in universal rationalism while simultaneously calling for the abolition of the religion’s coercive authority.

In his final days, too, Mendelssohn felt haunted by the demon of anti-Jewish prejudice. In one of his last letters, some two and a half months before his death, he wrote in a tone bordering on despair:

“The prejudices against my nation are too deeply rooted as to enable their easy eradication.”[43]

If this proves anything, it proves, from the horse’s mouth, that the anger of Allāh Ta’ālā upon Bani Israel and their disgrace cannot be wished or washed away, regardless of how much effort is made to move away from its sphere of effect. One of the things that came to light towards the end of the life of Mendelssohn was that his good friend, Lessing, with whom he communicated frequently, was actually an atheist. This ties in with Muḥammad ‘Abduh, who befriended Afghānī, the Persian Freemason.

RELATED: Muhammad ‘Abduh: Leading 19th Century Modernist Reformer

May Allāh Ta’ālā save us all from following in the footsteps of those who have gone astray. Āmīn.

Notes

Sources:

  1. The Biography and Hermeneutics of Moses Mendelssohn, Josias De La Cruz Haywood
  2. Mendelssohn: Philosopher of the Enlightenment, Shmuel Feiner, Yale University Press, 2010
  3. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Moses-Mendelssohn
  4. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/moses-mendelssohn/
  5. https://youtu.be/zt78_Rwgbro
  6. https://youtu.be/WZyjy2AHMpM
  7. https://youtu.be/99J0Yvbs19w
  8. https://youtu.be/n9XH0B80liQ
  9. https://henryabramson.com/2014/03/04/the-haskalah-essential-lectures-in-jewish-history-dr-henry-abramson/

Footnotes:

  1. Mendelssohn: Philosopher of the Enlightenment, Shmuel Feiner, p.10
  2. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/moses-mendelssohn
  3. Mendelssohn: Philosopher of the Enlightenment, Shmuel Feiner, p.27
  4. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/moses-mendelssohn/
  5. https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/4407857/jewish/What-Is-a-Yeshiva.htm
  6. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/moses-mendelssohn
  7. Today this is part of Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Denmark, Czech Republic, Belgium
  8. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/moses-mendelssohn/
  9. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Moses-Mendelssohn
  10. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/moses-mendelssohn/
  11. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/moses-mendelssohn
  12. Moses Mendelssohn got these ideas from John Locke [1632 – 1704]
  13. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/moses-mendelssohn/
  14. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/moses-mendelssohn/
  15. Mendelssohn: Philosopher of the Enlightenment, Shmuel Feiner, pp. 12-13
  16. The Biography and Hermeneutics of Moses Mendelssohn, Josias De La Cruz Haywood p.7
  17. https://www.thetorah.com/article/obliterating-cherem
  18. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/moses-mendelssohn/
  19. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/moses-mendelssohn/
  20. Mendelssohn: Philosopher of the Enlightenment, Shmuel Feiner, p.205
  21. Mendelssohn: Philosopher of the Enlightenment, Shmuel Feiner, p.30
  22. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/moses-mendelssohn/
  23. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/moses-mendelssohn
  24. https://henryabramson.com/2014/03/04/the-haskalah-essential-lectures-in-jewish-history-dr-henry-abramson/
  25. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/moses-mendelssohn/
  26. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/moses-mendelssohn
  27. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/moses-mendelssohn
  28. Ibid
  29. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-haskalah
  30. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-haskalah
  31. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-haskalah
  32. Associated with Abraham Geiger
  33. Associated with Zechariah Frankel
  34. https://henryabramson.com/2014/03/04/the-haskalah-essential-lectures-in-jewish-history-dr-henry-abramson/
  35. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-haskalah
  36. Mendelssohn: Philosopher of the Enlightenment, Shmuel Feiner, p.187
  37. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-haskalah
  38. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-haskalah
  39. https://www.britannica.com/event/Emancipation-Proclamation
  40. Sūrah āl-‘Imrān: 112
  41. https://henryabramson.com/2014/03/04/the-haskalah-essential-lectures-in-jewish-history-dr-henry-abramson/
  42. https://www.jewishhistory.org/napoleons-sanhedrin/
  43. Mendelssohn: Philosopher of the Enlightenment, Shmuel Feiner, p.190

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Hunter

Jazakhallah for this excellent article. Truly an eye-opening piece, and I wish we Muslims reflect on it and learned our lesson before falling into the same hole.