Monday, June 7, 2021

How a Jewish Hunchback Conquered the Gates of Berlin and Opened the Doors of the West for both Jews and Christians, both Politically and Intellectually

How a Jewish Hunchback Conquered the Gates of Berlin and Opened the Doors of the West for both Jews and Christians, both Politically and Intellectually

Moses Mendelssohn- From Moses to Moses to Moses

This is the link to my discussion on You Tube

These are my notes:

Moses Mendelssohn- From Moses to Moses to Moses

How a Jewish Hunchback Conquered the Gates of Berlin and Opened the Doors of the West for both Jews and Christians, both politically and intellectually.  Public domain


I. Introduction:

Back in 1985, I was on part of a Rabbi’s delegation to Germany. Met with representatives of Foreign Ministry-“We Germans suffered a great loss with the disappearance of the Jews. German -speaking Jews were the vehicle whereby Germany’s culture was spread throughout the world.” Crying over spilt milk, but true-the ideals of Goethe, Kant, Marx, and the like were spread into East Europe, Russia, westward to America. Starting in the 1930’s- America’s institutions would be reshaped by a surge of German Jewish refugees.




I now quote from my book, Courage of the Spirit.(

Two and a half centuries ago, a hunchback Talmud scholar named Moses Mendelssohn made his way from his native town of Dessau and journeyed to Berlin to follow his teacher. The young Mendelssohn soon became one of the foremost philosophers of his day, the inspiration for the opening of German society to Jews, and the opening of Jews to German thought. His teachings were the foundation of what became the Jewish Enlightenment, known as the Haskalah.


Berlin would continue to be the magnet for the great figures of modern Jewish history, and the German Kulturkreise, the Sphere of Cultural Influence, would give rise to a marvelous symbiosis between Judaism and modernity. Looking back through history from the post-Holocaust perspective, such a combination of German and Jewish seems almost unbelievable—a mythical chimera.


In the twentieth century, in the aftermath of World War II, the movement of seminal Jewish figures to Berlin continued. The city served as the meeting ground between the world of classic Jewish tradition and modernity.


Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik came from the Torah world of East Europe, pursued a modern gymnasia education and higher academic studies in Poland, and came to Berlin to undertake a doctorate on the teachings of Hermann Cohen, one of Germany’s most notable philosophers, both in German and in Jewish intellectual circles. Soloveitchik would later become the “Rav,” the teacher par excellence, of what has been described as Modern Orthodox Judaism.


Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a distinguished student of Talmud and Chasidism in the tradition of the Lithuanian Chabad-Lubavitch movement, came to Berlin to pursue advanced studies in philosophy, mathematics, and physics. He later inherited the mantle of Rebbe (Rabbi) of Chabad Chasidism and was a primary force in outreach from the closed Chasidic world to the larger secular Jewish community.


Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the heir to a Chasidic dynasty of Apt, came from Warsaw to Berlin as a Yiddish poet. He attended the liberal rabbinic academy, the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, for ordination, and the University of Berlin for his doctoral studies. This same scion of Chasidic pietism served as a gateway for both Christians and Jews to discover the depth of Jewish piety confronting a disbelieving world. In the march for human dignity in Selma, Alabama, in the 1960s, Rabbi Heschel linked arms with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., making an undeniable statement of the solidarity of faith in a period of American history marked by division.


It was my privilege, as a student in rabbinical school, to have served as Rabbi Heschel’s assistant.


The symbol of German intellectual achievement, par excellence, is none other than Albert Einstein, who also made his way to Berlin to continue his scientific work. Einstein was a universal, secular thinker who was also committed to the Jewish people, if not in the sense of traditional faith, but as an emblem of German-Jewish symbiosis.


So, too, my father came to Berlin.


The route for Jewish culture would also lead to Vienna ( where my father grew up, land of Waltz, Herzl , Buber and Freud) and Frankfurt ( where I was born, home to Goethe, the Rothschilds, and Rosenzweig).

Jews had become the driving force of economics, science, culture up till the Holocaust. German literature- Heinrich Heine, the modern financial system-the Rothschild father & sons, political science & philosophy-Karl Marx, later, Marcuse, Adorno, Arendt, psychology- Freud , science- Einstein. In addition, German had become the language of culture of Europe – the Hapsburgs of Austria had family in every royal court. The German speaking countries colonized their neighbors, instead of overseas territories- Poland- Galicia-Alsace-Lorraine-and inherited Yiddish speaking Jews who easily picked up German.

Jewish culture, world wide, was inspired, in creation and in reaction, by this German-Jewish symbiosis.  

A new approach arose: Haskalah- The Jewish Enlightenment, which led to the rise of our major modern movements, Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, the Jewish socialist movements, Yiddish as a literary language, the rebirth of Hebrew, the rise of cultural and political Zionism. It was paralleled, in tandem, with the political principal of “ Emancipation” of Jews, the same term used for the end of slavery in the US and for ending of serfdom in Tsarist Russia. The medieval structure of the Jew as a separate nation was eliminated on paper:  “The Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals.” Clermont-Tonnere.

Assimilation- both positive, in sense of gaining rights and working freely in majority society.

The Jewish variation- “Be a man in the streets and a Jew at home”— Y L Gordon, a major Hebrew poet of East Europe.

Negative in the sense of disappearing as a Jew. Conversion-now became an acceptable option: Disraeli-Marx-Heine. To borrow from Henry of Navarre, the Protestant who became Catholic king of France” Paris is worth a Mass.” This would affect Mendelssohn’s very own children & grandchildren, including the famous composer Felix Mendelssohn.


The nickname for German Jews- Yeke-1) the short coat of German fashion ( Jacke) as opposed top the East European long coat ( capote) 2) Abbreviation for: Yehudi kasha Oref-Stiff-necked Jew: Overly punctual, overly literal, overly meticulous.



A .How did we get from the ghetto Jew, locked up in the concentration camps that Jews were kept in to the vibrant and highly creative and influential Jewish of modernity? Jews of central Europe-socially isolated from their Christian neighbors- locked in ghetto, over crowded conditions, prone to fire, prone to riots from their neighbors. Even as simple a matter of marriage depended on whether there was room in the ghetto for another Jewish household. Occupations restricted to crafts & sales of merchandise. Disconnected from European civilization, it would seem.

Albert Friedlander, European Judaism, Vol 19/20 1985/86

This held true till the French Revolution & Napoleon , when gates of Ghettos torn down, and Jews began to get civil rights. Within a few decades, the Europeans found that Jews were now taking over professions and universities. ( Modern antisemitism  was invented as a political tool in response to Jewish success.) How was that change possible?



B. Trends –

1)      The wars of religion-   Protestant versus Catholic, first in 1500’s, later, 1600’s, with 30 Years War. Laid foundations for religious tolerance.

2)      The rise of modern science and primacy of reason over faith.

3)      Rights of Man, rise of power of parliaments versus the king.

4)      Even the kings were “ enlightened”=enlightened despots- Frederick of Prussia, Peter the Great of Russia , Maria Theresa of Austria.

Example of change- Ramban was chased out of Barcelona because he won the debate against Christianity, and his friend, the king, couldn’t save him. One of my ancestors, Rabbi Yom Tov Lippman Heller, had been falsely accused of defaming Christianity, was first sentenced to death, but then exiled from Prague to Cracow. That was but a century before our hero of this account was born. We will see how tables had turned in the space of a century.



II. Moses Mendelssohn of Dessau

What was he acclaimed for?

(Dahlstrom, Daniel, "Moses Mendelssohn", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.)

Moses Mendelssohn (b. 1729, d. 1786) was a creative and eclectic thinker whose writings on metaphysics and aesthetics, political theory and theology, together with his Jewish heritage, placed him at the focal point of the German Enlightenment for over three decades.. . . . Dubbed “the Jewish Luther,” Mendelssohn also contributed significantly to the life of the Jewish community and letters in Germany, campaigning for Jews’ civil rights and translating the Pentateuch and the Psalms into German. …

What was his beginning?( from Jewish Encyclopedia)


Moses Mendelssohn (Moses ben Menahem-Mendel; abbreviated RaMBeMaN);  born at Dessau Sept. 6, 1729; died at Berlin Jan. 4, 1786. Mendelssohn's father was a poor Torah scribe… continued his studies under the rabbi of Dessau, David Fränkel, who introduced him to Maimonides' "Moreh Nebukim." His unremitting application to his studies brought on an illness which left him with curvature of the spine. In Oct., 1743, Mendelssohn went to Berlin, where Fränkel had been called as rabbi a few months earlier.

From The Other Side of the River by  Liliana Ruth Fierstein, published in

Cadernos de lingua e literature Hebraica, 8( 2010). 187.

( Imagine the impact Mendelssohn had on the gatekeeper and later, the leaders of Germany—an intellectual version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, a bent over back, long nose, receding forehead. The ultimate outsider)

Studied mathematics and Latin. …then French and English. …taste for science and Leibnitz-Wolffian philosophy.


From my library, The Collected Works of Moses Mendelssohn, 1844 edition


Worked as bookkeeper and was largely self-taught. Was introduced to the leading thinkers of the newly emergent Prussian state. proficiency in languages, mathematics, philosophy, and poetry. Became friends by playing chess  with Gotthold Ephraim Lessing  a German writer, philosopher, dramatistpublicist and art critic, and an outstanding representative of the Enlightenment era. Lessing promoted Mendelssohn, published one of his works without his knowing. Soon: and even the court was eager to know "the young Hebrew who wrote in German.”

Mendelssohn was asked to join  staff, Bibliothek der Schönen Wissenschaften und der Freien Künste" in 1756, and he soon became not only one of the most diligent collaborators, but the very soul of the whole undertaking.

Engaged to Fromet Gugenheim (b. Oct. 6, 1737; d. at Hamburg March 16, 1812), a plain, poor, and lowly girl, whom he married in June, 1762.

How does he win her over? This is the tale:

In Auerbach’s version of the romance, Moses, already smitten, notices that his hump has uneased the young damsel and is about to take his leave: “At last, after he had cleverly steered the discussion in this direction, she asked, ‘Do you also believe that marriages are sealed in heaven?’ To which Mendelssohn replied, ‘Most assuredly, and what’s more, let me tell you something extraordinary that happened to me. When a child is born, you see, an announcement is made in heaven: this one or that one will be matched with her or her. And so when it came my turn to be born, my future wife was announced to me, whereby I was also told, that, alas, she would have a hump – a really terrible one. ‘Dear God,’ said I, ‘a girl who’s deformed can easily become bitter and hardened; a girl should be beautiful. Dear Lord, then give me the hump, but let the girl be svelte and pleasing!’” Whereupon Fromet, so the story goes, embraces him, overcome. This anecdote probably does contain a core of truth, at least when it comes to the charm which Fromet’s suitor exhibits in winning over the bride and the openness with which she allows herself to be swept off her feet.


 During his honeymoon he began to work at the solution of a question proposed by the Berlin Academy of Sciences for a prize essay, "Ob die Metaphysischen Wissenschaften einer Solchen Evidenz Fähig Sind wie die Mathematischen." His monograph "Ueber die Evidenz der Metaphysischen 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.  





Summary of his great works ( from Stanford entry)

 Rational psychology

In Phaedo or On the Immortality of the Soul, loosely modeled on Plato’s dialogue, Mendelssohn combines a paean to Socrates with an elaboration of the dreadful personal, moral, and political implications if a person’s life is her “highest good.”

 Natural Theology

From the beginning of his career to the end, Mendelssohn consistently upheld the demonstrability of God’s existence. However, not all arguments were equally compelling in his view. In the Prize Essay he contends that probable arguments for God’s existence based upon beauty, order, and design are more eloquent and edifying but less certain and convincing than strict demonstrations “I am, therefore there is a God.” (Philosophical Writings, p. 289; Gesammelte Schriften, 3/2, pp. 78, 83f).


Mendelssohn’s ethics is a form of perfectionism, resembling the rationalist perfectionism of Christian Wolff’s ethics but also significantly departing from it in ways that echo Mendelssohn’s appreciation of aesthetic and affective dimensions of moral life.


In On the Main Principles of the Fine Arts and Sciences, Mendelssohn sets out from the assumption that the human spirit has learned to imitate beauty, “the self-empowered mistress of all our sentiments,” in works of art.





From Jewish Encylopedia

The Public Defense of Judaism:

 A depiction of Mendelssohn facing his opponent , Lavater, while his friend, Lessing, looks on.


Among those who corresponded with Mendelssohn and showed him great honor was Johann Kaspar Lavater, a preacher in Zurich.(Sent a book on Christianity by Bonnet) to Mendelssohn with an introduction in which he challenged 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 had read the work and found it irrefutable”…most distressing to Mendelssohn himself. avowed enemy of all religious disputes, owed it to his inmost conviction, to his honor, and to his reputation to make a public answer, after obtaining permission from the consistory ( Church court). The latter willingly allowed 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 religion 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 religions, and mocked or scorned all revelation, I should well know what wisdom would counsel, were conscience silent. What could keep me from it?" … Lavater regretted that he had involuntarily distressed "the most noble of men" and begged his forgiveness.

(A century earlier, Mendelssohn would have been burned at the stake.)


The new Jewish phase:

 After he had gradually regained his physical strength, Mendelssohn resolved to carry out a cherished plan of devoting more of his intellectual activity to the Jews and Judaism.(1773)

The controversy with Lavater opened the second period of Mendelssohn's activity, which was concerned chiefly with Judaism and the Jews. Being universally honored not only as a man, but as a metaphysician and German writer, he became, almost unconsciously, the chief representative of his coreligionists. 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 tolerated, were threatened with new restrictions in 1774, they appealed to Mendelssohn, asking him to intercede with 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 hundred impoverished Jews were about to be expelled from Dresden, where Mendelssohn still had to pay the poll-tax, the president of the community turned to him, and he at once wrote a successful appeal to Freiherr von Ferber, …. At the request of the chief rabbi of Berlin, Hirschel Lewin, Mendelssohn compiled in German the "Ritualgesetze 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 rendered into pure German, instead of the former Yiddish, the formula of admonition which 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 them for German culture. For his own children he began to translate the Pentateuch into German.. publish it under his own name, and at his own expense  …1778. The undertaking was greeted with marked enthusiasm by the people, not only in Germany, but in Holland, France, and England/ Praised by liberal Rabbis, put under ban by traditonalists..

Finished Pentateuch 1783, later Psalms and Song of Songs. The translation was popular among Christians as well.

At Mendelssohn's suggestion the Jüdische Freischule was founded at Berlin in 1781, the first organized Jewish school in Germany, after which 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. "Ueber die Bürgerliche Verbesserung der Juden," which was the first monograph to discuss the question of emancipation scientifically, and in the drafting of which Mendelssohn appears personally to have had some share 

Christian attacks on this request for rights led to his seminal work Jerusalem.

From my library, original edition, Jerusalem or Regarding Religious Power and Judaism, Mendelssohn’s work placing Judaism above Christianity as the religion of reason.1783



Mendelssohn's "Jerusalem," …deals in the first section with the relation of State and Church, both of which, though having different objects and methods, should promote human happiness. According to Mendelssohn, the Church has no right to own property, and Church law is essentially contradictory to the nature of religion. 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 Christianity, no dogma whose acceptance is necessary for salvation. With Leibnitz he differentiated between eternal truths, which are based on reason and not on supernatural revelation, and temporary, historical truths. Judaism is no revealed religion in the usual sense of the term, but only revealed legislation, laws, commandments, and regulations, which were supernaturally given to the Jews through Moses. Mendelssohn did not recognize miracles as evidences of eternal truths, nor did he formulate articles of faith; hence he did not say "I believe," but "I recognizethat to be true." "The spirit of Judaism is freedom in doctrine and conformity in action." Accordingly 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 affinity with speculative religious knowledge." This is the indissoluble bond which is forever to unite all those who are born into Judaism. "What divine law has ordained can not be repealed by reason, 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 appearance, 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 manifestation and in progress," and which, as he wrote Mendelssohn, "will affect not only your nation, but others as well."

 “The state has physical power and uses it when necessary; the power of religion is love and beneficence(Jerusalem (1983), p. 45).

 “Judaism boasts of no exclusive revelation of eternal truths that are indispensable to salvation, of no revealed religion in the sense in which that term is usually understood. Revealed religion is one thing, revealed legislation, another” (Jerusalem (1983), p. 97).


… Judaism is — for good reasons — a religion of the spoken rather than the written word, relying on an a living tradition to transmit and interpret divine legislation. . . . Mendelssohn notes that Judaism relies, not upon written phrases or formulations that are “established forever, immutable,” but instead upon a “living tradition passed on by oral instruction,” capable of keeping pace with changing times and circumstances (Jerusalem (1983),




Lessing, Mendelssohn's best and dearest friend… had erected a noble monument to his friend in "Nathan der Weise," taking as the model for his hero Mendelssohn himself.

Nathan the Wise is regarded as the best representative of the Enlightenment, the movement of intellectual change, and deals with one of the brightest ideals of this movement, unalienable rights; these rights imply certain laws, which cannot be violated, religious tolerance that has to be supported, and the idea of being free in ideas, interests, religion, and words.

The doors of European civilization were swung open for the Jew, even if but for a short century and a half!



About the play:


A synopsis of the play by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

Nathan, a jewish merchant returning to Jerusalem after a business journey, learns that his adopted daughter, Recha, has been rescued from a fire at his home by a young German Templar of the Third Crusade, a captive whom the Saracen, Sultan Saladin, spared because he resembles Saladin's brother.

Nathan, to whom it was said God had given "the greatest gift, wisdom, and the most worthless, riches," goes to thank the Templar who wanders daily about the Saviour's tomb. The youth first scorns the thanks and the offered reward of a Jew: "...If you insist upon a reward, this mantle was slightly scorched in the flames when I rescued your daughter ... When it is all in rags ... I will come to borrow the money from you to buy another."

Nathan takes in his hand the scorched cloth and the Templar sees a tear fall upon it. He asks in surprise: "Are there good jews in this world?" Nathan replies: "There are good men in every land. The tree of life has many branches and roots. Let not the topmost twig presume to think that it alone has sprung from mother earth.... We did not choose our races for ourselves. Jews, Moslems, Christians--all alike are men. Let me hope I have found in you--a man."

The Templar apologizes and takes Nathan's hand in friendship.

The Sultan, Saladin, is disturbed by the continuing warfare between Christians and Moslems. He calls in ( as in the Story of the Kuzari), a Jew, Nathen, known as the Wise. Which iof the three religions is the true one? He answers with this parable.


You Tube Nathan the Wise- German version, 1st minute ( operate English subtitles) 1967 version


 then English version Parable of the three Rings


video at 8:32 minutes. S retelling of the parable of 3 rings.

You can view this on your own:

The Parable of the Three Rings

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing


In the Orient in ancient times there lived a man who possessed a ring of inestimable worth. Its stone was an opal that emitted a hundred colors, but its real value lay in its ability to make its wearer beloved of God and man. The ring passed from father to most favored son for many generations, until finally its owner was a father with three sons, all equally deserving. Unable to decide which of the three sons was most worthy, the father commissioned a master artisan to make two exact copies of the ring, then gave each son a ring, and each son believed that he alone had inherited the original and true ring.

But instead of harmony, the father's plan brought only discord to his heirs. Shortly after the father died, each of the sons claimed to be the sole ruler of the father's house, each basing his claim to authority on the ring given to him by the father. The discord grew even stronger and more hateful when a close examination of the rings failed to disclose any differences.

"But wait," interrupted Saladin, "surely you do not mean to tell me that there are no differences between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity!"

"You are right, Sultan," replied Nathan. "Their teachings and practices differ in ways that can be seen by all. However, in each case, the teachings and practices are based on beliefs and faith, beliefs and faith that at their roots are the same. Which of us can prove that our beliefs and our faith are more reliable than those of others?"

"I understand," said Saladin. "Now continue with your tale."

"The story is nearly at its end," replied Nathan.

The dispute among the brothers grew until their case was finally brought before a judge. After hearing the history of the original ring and its miraculous powers, the judge pronounced his conclusion: "The authentic ring," he said, "had the power to make its owner beloved of God and man, but each of your rings has brought only hatred and strife. None of you is loved by others; each loves only himself. Therefore I must conclude that none of you has the original ring. Your father must have lost it, then attempted to hide his loss by having three counterfeit rings made, and these are the rings that cause you so much grief."

The judge continued: "Or it may be that your father, weary of the tyranny of a single ring, made duplicates, which he gave to you. Let each of you demonstrate his belief in the power of his ring by conducting his life in such a manner that he fully merits -- as anciently promised -- the love of God and man.

"Marvelous! Marvelous!" exclaimed Saladin. "Your tale has set my mind at rest. You may go."







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