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.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moses_Mendelssohn#/media/File:Moses_Mendelson_P7160073.JPG Public domain
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
So, too, my father came
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
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.
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.
Mendelssohn of Dessau
What was he
(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
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,
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).
( 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
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
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, dramatist, publicist 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
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.
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
his great works ( from Stanford entry)
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.”
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.
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.
century earlier, Mendelssohn would have been burned at the stake.)
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”
“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),
… 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
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
You Tube Nathan the Wise- German
version, 1st minute ( operate English subtitles) 1967 version
then English version Parable of the three
The Parable of the Three
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.
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.
wait," interrupted Saladin, "surely you do not mean to tell me that
there are no differences between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity!"
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?"
understand," said Saladin. "Now continue with your tale."
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."
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!" exclaimed Saladin. "Your tale has set my mind at rest.
You may go."