Moses Mendelssohn: Father of the Haskalah


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 last respects.

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 publisher.