The Reading Room

The Haskalah Comes of Age with Moses Mendelssohn

Born in Dessau to a poor family, his father a scribe, Moses Mendelssohn was educated privately by his father and a local rabbi, David Frankel, who not only taught him the Talmud and the Bible but also introduced him to philosophy and the works of Maimonides. 
When Mendelssohn was fourteen, Frankel was called to Berlin to a prestigious Jewish academy. Mendelssohn followed him and gained admission. He dutifully studied the curriculum of rote memorization, interpretation, and endless parsing of the Torah, the Talmud, and medieval Jewish texts.
He assembled an impressive and eclectic series of mentors to teach him Latin, geometry, physics, and other subjects. Even so, he was mostly self-taught, using his scant funds to buy a copy of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding—the seminal work of Enlightenment philosophy—and painfully working his way through it with the aid of a Latin dictionary. Another Jewish Enlightenment figure, Aaron Solomon Gumpertz, befriended Mendelssohn and taught him French and English.
Completing his academy education in 1750, he began tutoring the children of a wealthy silk merchant, Isaac Bernhard. He won the confidence and clearly the affection of Bernhard, who made him successively bookkeeper and then partner in his business. It became the foundation of the Mendelssohn family fortune.
We hear little more of this, though. Mendelssohn continued his education in Berlin and his intelligence and character began to show. He was introduced, possibly by Gumpertz, to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781), a playwright and philosopher who became a famous European Enlightenment personage and Mendelssohn’s lifelong friend.
Lessing, a Lutheran, already had produced a drama, Die Juden, with the theme—then generally viewed as untrue, indeed, preposterous—that a Jew could have not only moral character but also nobility of character. His new friend, Mendelssohn, became Lessing’s exemplar for this idea and Lessing produced another play, Nathan the Wise, unmistakably about Mendelssohn. In effect, Lessing was introducing Mendelssohn into Berlin society with Lessing’s prestige to back him. The friendship ripened remarkably rapidly into an intellectual alliance.
Within a few years (1756), Mendelssohn had become the driving intellect of two important literary projects, both of another Enlightenment leader, Friedrich Nicolai: the reformist journal Allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek and the Briefe, die neueste Litteratur betreffend
Mendelssohn married in 1762 (his wife would survive him by twenty-six years) and began to have children who would make their own reputations (most notably, his grandson, the composer Felix Mendelssohn). Just one year later, Mendelssohn’s arrival on the Berlin intellectual scene was heralded when he won the Berlin Academy contest’s first prize for an essay, “On Evidence in the Metaphysical Sciences,” applying mathematical proofs to metaphysics (fundamental philosophical propositions). Taking second prize was arguably modern philosophy’s future most famous and influential philosopher, Immanuel Kant.
The prize began Mendelssohn’s intellectual ascent to leadership of the Haskalah and, more broadly, prominence in the European Enlightenment. It did require an unusual and even idiosyncratic incident, however, to focus Mendelssohn specifically on the role of the Jewish intellectual, and the Jewish religion, in his era. The challenge came from a Christian seminary student who in an informal visit pressed Mendelssohn on the question: Why cannot you embrace Jesus as your savior? The young man followed up with a book that publicly challenged Mendelssohn on the issue. Today, it is difficult to credit, but the historical record is consistent that this challenge so upset and obsessed Mendelssohn for so long that he became gravely ill. The cause of his illness, consistently misdiagnosed at the time, still is not known for sure, but his physicians advised that he leave philosophy strictly alone.
The evidence that he did not is the nineteen-volume set we have today of his collected writings. He became influential in the German-Jewish community, throughout Germany, and well beyond for his publications. At the same time, he became a force in movements to reform Jewish education (backing the creation of a model Jewish “free school” in Berlin), legislation for lifting restrictions on German Jews, famous pleas for religious tolerance, and, naturally, the longed-for “new library” of works accessible to Jews because they were published in German. Around Mendelssohn gathered disciples who made their names in the Haskalah during that generation and later generations.
What, then, were the essential ideas of the Haskalah, those principles and changes advocated—demanded—by the maskilim? Ideas that according to Professor Feiner battered the foundations of the traditional (rabbinic) Jewish leadership by force of rationalism and by association of Mendelssohn and his disciples with the “social framework of the German intellectual elite.”
The Haskalah assailed society “from within and without” with Enlightenment ideas and values specifically applicable to Jews: 
  • Advocacy of a secular state neutral to all religion.
  • A new debate about the place of Jews in society, one not on a Christian theological track but on a rationalist track.
  • Growing influence on emancipative legislation applied to Jews and others.
  • Reiteration of the idea and arguments for religious tolerance, giving intellectuals and statesmen for the first time persuasive arguments for eliminating discrimination against Jews—framed by the Haskalah as one of the dark “prejudices” identified by the European Enlightenment.
  • The Enlightenment idea that God could be known by his creation and the idealizing of the beauty of that creation.
  • The promotion of Hebrew as potentially a potent and appealing language of literature, philosophy, history, and other fields, a literary esthetic already adopted by Enlightenment nations such as France, England, and Italy.
A Prussian citizen and a Jew, with restricted rights in Germany, Mendelssohn necessarily moved cautiously in answering the famous question: What is enlightenment? Yes, ideas of the Haskalah could provoke the powerful traditional Jewish scholarly community—often to rage. And Haskalah ideas also could provoke the diverse sects that were dividing the Ashkenazi community: sects promoting mysticism, “enthusiasm,” “the coming end of times,” or hyperconservatism.
But leaders of the Haskalah could not risk provoking the absolute monarchs of Germany, Austria, Russia, and other nations. Thus, both Mendelssohn and his friend Immanuel Kant foresaw and consistently labored to forestall the potential of the Enlightenment, and the Haskalah, in particular, to foment public revolution aimed at overturning the ancien régime. That occurred, of course, in France, in 1789. Mendelssohn did not live to see it, but Kant did.
Mendelssohn died in January 1786 after giving his publisher his final work, To the Friends of Lessing, which (among other things) defended his dear friend, who had died five years earlier, from charges of “Spinozism.”
Mendelssohn lies in the Jewish Cemetery of Berlin, the traditional Hebrew inscription on his gravestone reads: “Here rests the wise Reb Moses of Dessau. . . . May his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life.” The cemetery, almost destroyed during the Nazi era, was restored in 2007–8, including Mendelssohn’s gravestone.
The Haskalah, vibrant in the public sphere in Berlin and Königsberg in the 1780s, lost momentum by the end of the century. One cause was a “success,” as Jews assimilated into German society, but they also increasingly converted to Christianity (an unwanted “success”). Mendelssohn’s grandson, Alexander (died 1871), was his last male descendent to practice Judaism. 
A new generation of adherents bore the Haskalah eastward to Poland, Lithuania, and Russia. In the nineteenth-century evolution of the enlightenment, these ideas became widespread in the Jewish scholarly elite of Eastern Europe. But the dominant conflict always presented by the Haskalah persisted. It was the dual promise of hope and a threat: was the Haskalah “a joyful era” of intellectual, social, and religious liberation or the end of the centuries of security, often survival itself, that had been dependent upon “the old order”?
Professor Feiner writes that “many chapters in the modern social and cultural history of the Jews are no more than recapitulations of the argument between those who welcomed the enlightenment, sensing in it a promise, and those who had no doubt that it was the worst enemy ever to rise up against Judaism.”
One, but only one, expression of this conflict might be seen in the parallel growth in Eastern Europe of the Haskalah and the Hasidism, the latter a sect known for religious conservatism, social seclusion, and Orthodox Jewish practice. It is a division that today continues worldwide.