Moses Mendelssohn: Father of the Haskalah
By NORMAN MASSEY
The Haskalah, the
Jewish Enlightenment, was the period of Jewish Renaissance that followed the
European Enlightenment. Its leading figure was the great German Jewish
philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. Though the Jews in Germany and Western Europe
were ghettoized culturally and spiritually, they could not escape the influence
and political effects of the European enlightenment. This process of
“Europeanization” was making inroads especially among the Jewish upper class.
Intellectual giants such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and
others sparked the “Century of Enlightenment” in Europe. Many of these thinkers
were the founders of a group of European progressive intellectuals known as the
Encyclopedists. Mendelssohn, greatly
influenced by this intellectual community, transmitted the “Century of
Enlightenment” to European Jewry.
Fueling the “Century of Enlightenment,” and the Haskalah, were the burgeoning economic and social developments sweeping
European society. Europe had entered a period of revolt against feudalism. The
climax came with the French Revolution in 1789-1793, which proclaimed a “Spring
to all Nations” with its call for “Liberte,
Egalite et Fraternite.” The French Revolution allowed Jews, for the first
time in Jewish history, to be citizens with equal rights.
The freethinking Moses Mendelssohn called for a parallel revolt in Jewish life.
Just as the Encyclopedists provided the intellectual basis for the French
Revolution, so Mendelssohn and his followers prepared the groundwork for the
great Jewish Revolution against the domination of the clerics and religious
dogmatism. The Haskalah, which lasted
100 years until the 1870s, saw a great number of the movement’s activists—thinkers,
writers, poets, and scholars—spearhead the struggle to lead European Jewry out
of its intellectual darkness. From Germany, under Mendelssohn’s leadership, the
movement spread eastward to Poland, Russia, Austria, etc.
Mendelssohn was born in Dessau, Germany, in 1729. His father was a great Jewish
scholar and his first teacher. Very early on, Mendelssohn Sr. recognized his
son’s brilliant mind, and enrolled him in the Yeshivah of the Chief Rabbi of
Dessau, David Frankel. Under Frankel’s tutelage the young student became deeply
engrossed in the ideas of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides). Mendelssohn,
unlike many of the Yiddish-speaking Jews of his period, had mastered German and
Latin. Thus he was chosen to edit all correspondence between the Jewish kehillah (community council) and the
German government. Mendelssohn hoped that Jews would increasingly speak German
rather than Yiddish, though other Maskilim
yearned for Hebrew to become the literary language of Jewry.
When Frankel moved to Berlin, Mendelssohn followed. There, he befriended
progressive Jewish and Christian thinkers such as Moshe Zamoscz, eminent
scholar Dr. Abraham Kirsch, and Ephraim Lessing. In Berlin he quickly acquired
a reputation as a respected thinker, and has since earned the role in Jewish
history of the great Maskil, the
pioneer ideologue of the Haskalah.
Mendelssohn strove to free Jewry from its hermetically sealed caste existence.
However, as opposed to his friends, the Encyclopedists, Mendelssohn was neither
atheist nor wholly rationalist. The essence of his book Jerusalem, was a call to the Jewish kehillah, and the rabbis, to observe human practices, act with
tolerance, outlaw the use of herem (a
sort of excommunication) and encourage desegregation. Unfortunately, many
abhorred these liberal ideas.
Mendelssohn went on to translate the Hebrew Bible into German, accompanied by
his own overview. Discarding ancient scholastic piety, he brought a fresh
interpretation to biblical critique based on scientific data. Sadly though, every
rabbinate in Europe banned his translation as heretical. Nevertheless, it was
avidly studied clandestinely by young people in many of the progressive
Yeshivas of Germany, Poland, and Russia.
Jewish historian Simon Dubnow formulated Mendelssohn’s role: “He was a writer
whose personal charisma exerted far greater influence that his actual writing.
As a leader of men he was much more effective than as a literary figure. He
could inspire people, and direct them to participate in positive communal
activities. Two main objectives prevailed amongst his disciples and
colleagues—‘restructure the Jewish educational system and develop a dynamic
literature in the Hebrew language.’”
The foundation for these goals was laid during his lifetime. In 1778 the first
Jewish Free School was founded, where subjects were taught in German. These
included general studies, Hebrew grammar, and Hebrew Bible. The new school was
meant to correct the drawbacks of the traditional heder where curriculum consisted of one main subject—the Talmud.
This was a revolutionary innovation during this period.
The most important function of the Haskalah,
as Mendelssohn saw it, was to sound the death knell of rabbinic dogmatism. He
was able to incite many Jews to think, rationalize and question the hitherto
unassailable rabbinic traditions. When he died in 1786, at the age of 57, his
funeral was the occasion for the gathering by the German intellectual elite.
Scholars, writers, poets, and intellectual from across Europe came to pay their
Mendelssohn once wrote, “Differences in one’s faith must not bar one from
enjoying his civil rights to the fullest. Governments must be on guard always
to maintain the principles of tolerance, freedom of thought and convictions.”
Mendelssohn the rationalist had this to say: “I do not wish to recognize any
eternal truths other than those that the human spirit can conceive.”
This essay is
excerpted from an article that originally appeared inCanadian
Jewish Outlook (Vancouver, BC, Canada), March 1985. It was reprinted inThe Canadian Jewish Outlook
Anthology, edited by Henry M. Rosenthal and S. Cathy Berson, New
Star Books, Vancouver, 1988. It is reprinted with permission from the