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Faith and Freedom:
Moses Mendelssohn’s Theological-Political Thought

by Michah Gottlieb
Oxford, 209 pages, $55

Jewish historians used to speak of Moses Mendelssohn, the late-eighteenth-century German Jewish thinker, as the man who single-handedly launched his previously ghettoized people into modernity. In recent years, revisionists have scaled down his role, questioning the extent of his contribution to the Jews’ progress both in his own land and in other countries where Jewish communities entered the modern world without benefiting from his aid or his example. But even the people who downplay his significance as an agent of historical change acknowledge the pathbreaking character of his writings, and just about everyone grants that he was the founder of modern Jewish philosophy.

While no small number of writers have examined and analyzed Mendelssohn’s philosophy of Judaism and situated it within the history of modern Jewish thought, Michah Gottlieb is the first in some time to argue that his “thought remains an option worthy of consideration.” His book is a model of dispassionate scholarship, yet he makes no attempt to conceal his desire to strengthen the reputation and enhance the appeal of a man he regards as an exemplary exponent of a rational, tolerant, and humanistic religion.

A self-described disciple of G. W. Leibniz and Christian Wolff, Mendelssohn was at the same time an upholder of the Jewish religion, which he held to be entirely in keeping with the teachings of reason. In his book Jerusalem, published in 1783, he explained how Judaism constituted not a revealed religion but a system of divinely revealed legislation aimed at strengthening the Jews’ grip on the universally accessible principles of natural religion as well as the rest of the world’s awareness of them. His synthesis constituted what the historian Michael Meyer has aptly described as a merely “ephemeral solution,” but his effort nevertheless established a general precedent that in the succeeding centuries would be followed by a host of Jewish thinkers in Europe and America who endeavored to reconcile Judaism with the new philosophies of their own day.

In his reconsideration of Mendelssohn, Gottlieb does not attempt to resuscitate his old-fashioned metaphysics. He defends neither his version of the cosmological proof for God’s existence, his unique twist on Leibniz’ idea that God created the best of all possible worlds, nor his once-celebrated demonstrations of the soul’s immortality. But he does describe very sympathetically the position to which Mendelssohn ultimately retreated, toward the end of his life, when he acknowledged his inability to parry the assault on metaphysics spearheaded by the man he considered both a friend and the “all-crusher,” Immanuel Kant.

Instead of continuing to depict the tenets of natural religion as demonstrably correct, Mendelssohn reoriented himself toward what Gottlieb calls “pragmatic religious idealism,” endorsing “a notion of ‘finite truth,’ which involves intersubjective agreement.” He believed that the “important role played by the principles of natural religion in promoting our perfection . . . justified [our] living in accordance with this finite truth despite our being unable to demonstrate that reality in itself conforms to it.”

By contrast, the practice of the Jewish religion was, in his eyes, not a necessary ingredient of human happiness but an obligation that God had placed on the Jews alone, as the biblical record attested. That this ancient narrative could be considered altogether trustworthy was something he was prepared to affirm, even at a time when it was increasingly subject to doubt. He did so with arguments that were essentially medieval and that Gottlieb discusses only briefly, in his book’s footnotes. Mendelssohn could not have been very much troubled by what was in his time the nascent science of biblical criticism, Gottlieb tells us repeatedly, because he simply could not “imagine that his faith tradition d[id] not cohere with his other deeply held beliefs.”

I am not convinced that Mendelssohn suffered from such a lack of imagination, but whether or not he did, it is hard to see how the thinker Gottlieb presents could pose a viable theological alternative to anyone who did not share his uncritical stance toward revelation. Gottlieb’s nonchalance toward this fundamental limitation of Mendelssohn’s thought suggests that his own strong sympathy for Mendelssohn has less to do with the foundations of his philosophy than with its practical ramifications.

Indeed, Gottlieb enthusiastically underscores how Mendelssohn’s support for religious pluralism “is appropriate to life in a cosmopolitan, diverse society,” applauding his theologically based opposition to any kind of religious coercion and his emphasis on how religious beliefs promote “individual flourishing.” All in all, Gottlieb argues, “Mendelssohn’s skill in showing how an enlightened, tolerant concept of Judaism can be drawn from Jewish sources provides an important model for how a premodern religious tradition can be brought into harmony with modern humanistic principles.”

There is no reason to dispute the accuracy of his characterization of Mendelssohn’s achievement with respect to the Jewish religion. Where he is less than completely convincing, however, is in his analysis of Mendelssohn’s basic intention and mode of operation. I myself have suggested, in a book Gottlieb politely criticizes, that Mendelssohn’s approach to Judaism was essentially an instrumental one. His arguments in support of the historicity of revelation and his attempt to demonstrate that traditional Judaism is receptive to the idea of liberty of conscience are suspiciously flimsy. The latter in particular appears to have been designed not to explicate ancient texts but to force the Jewish religion into line with his own entirely philosophical preference for a liberal order supportive of individual freedom.

Gottlieb argues that it is wrong to see things in such a light. One has to regard Mendelssohn not as a historian but above all as a theologian. “While the historian often sees the theologian as reshaping tradition, the theologian sees himself as uncovering the deep truth of his received tradition. So I see Mendelssohn’s attempt to reconcile Judaism with Enlightenment philosophy as a sincere theological enterprise guided by his conviction that ‘truth cannot conflict with truth,’ rather than as an intentional act of obfuscation and deceit.”

The alternative to seeing Mendelssohn as an utterly sincere interpreter of a sacred tradition, however, is not to regard him as a trickster and a liar. It is to see him as a rationalist and a defender of freedom who felt constrained, for a variety of reasons, to proceed cautiously to advance the liberal cause, to which he was truly loyal, without generating unnecessary and harmful friction with the existing authorities. One need not regard such a stance toward a biblical religion as the best one to take. But one cannot simply dismiss it as duplicity.

One cannot say with certainty that as an interpreter of Judaism Mendelssohn was covertly implementing a purely philosophical agenda, any more than one can prove that”as many scholars have contended”John Locke and some other early modern Christian thinkers were pursuing a similar strategy with respect to their own religion. Does it really matter, in any case, whether Mendelssohn’s reconciliation of Judaism with liberalism was something in which he truly believed or was merely tactical? For Gottlieb, at least, this seems to be a question of more than scholarly interest. For only if he was truly sincere can one honestly adduce Mendelssohn as an exemplar of rational, tolerant, and humanistic religion capable of serving as a model for contemporary Jews.

But Gottlieb is concerned not only with his own co-religionists. He very much believes that we have arrived at a moment when Mendelssohn’s message ought to obtain a broad hearing. Since September 11, 2001, he tells us, as “wars dragged on and the threat of Islamic terror remained, many people have experienced a growing sense that the identity politics that marked the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s are at a dead end. In this context, Mendelssohn’s religious cosmopolitanism, which unites a deep attachment to Judaism with a commitment to the humane ideals of the Enlightenment seems prescient and worthy of reconsideration.”

I am not at all sure what this means. I do not know who these rather shell-shocked former practitioners of identity politics might be or what makes them into people who could be receptive to the lessons embedded in Moses Mendelssohn’s philosophy of religion and who could apply them to religions other than Judaism. But if such people are actually out there, I suppose that reading the works of a life-affirming thinker from the eighteenth century is far from the worst way that they could spend their time.

Allan Arkush is professor of Judaic studies at Binghamton University and the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books.