It may seem odd that our representative for Reform Judaism is person who was not a Reform Jew at all. In fact, he died over 20 years before the first Reform temple was created. Well, Mendelssohn is widely (but not universally) considered to be the father of Reform Judaism so that alone should justify the choice. He earned this title for a good reason. It was his unorthodox ideas about Judaism and how it should fit into the modern enlightened world of 18th century Germany that laid the groundwork for the future of Reform Judaism.
Perhaps fate has been cruel to Mendelssohn. He is arguably the most famous personality in a movement that not only would he likely not have supported, but would have been in active opposition. His beliefs really fit squarely into what is now called Modern Orthodox, yet most card-carrying Modern Orthodox Jews would not want to be seen reading one of Mendelssohn’s books. He is probably the only Jewish scholar to be praised by both Orthodox and Reform leaders. Early Reformists revered him, and no less an authority than Samson Rafael Hirsch, though sometimes critical, was nevertheless lavish in his praise.
Mendelssohn was a product of the German Enlightenment Movement, a major component of the general Enlightenment that captivated European intellectuals during the 17th and 18th centuries. The Enlightenment, or Haskalah, was one of the most important intellectual trends in the history of mankind. It represented a radical shift in human thinking, and, to a large degree, has dominated Western thought ever since. It overthrew the dominance of the religion in deciding how human beings should look at the world and their situation in life. The playing field between man and God had been leveled.
Mendelssohn had been educated in the best of Jewish tradition and was an accomplished Torah scholar as a teen. Through tutors and self-education he became an expert in the deepest areas of Enlightenment thought. It was this combination that became his life’s mission – to integrate the two into one magnificent unity. It bore an uncanny resemblance to what illustrious predecessor, Maimonides, for whom Mendelssohn had the greatest respect, had attempted 600 years earlier. Maimonides dealt with the reconciliation of philosophy and Judaism. Mendelssohn faced what may have been a greater challenge – the reconciliation of Judaism with a system of thought that not only had the backing of philosophy, but also of the ever-growing power of science.
Enlightenment thinking was not just pie-in-the-sky theorizing by a few philosophers with their recently translated manuscripts of Aristotle as their chief source. It was the human mind open to new ideas with no limitations and very little restrictions as far as established dogma to contend with. If it made sense rationally, or could be proven scientifically, it was true, regardless of what the Church or the Talmud had to say about it. Not only was scripture and rabbinic literature up for criticism, even God, to some degree, was on trial. This was the battle that would lead many to the inevitable destiny of atheism.
A second challenge that Mendelssohn faced throughout his life was from his many Christian peers and friends. They questioned him as to how he could remain a believing Jew in the face of the many irrational aspects of his religion. They claimed that there was no possible way to remain a faithful Jew and an enlightened thinker. Some went so far as to urge him to convert to Christianity, a faith that, in their eyes had been expunged of its irrational elements and fit perfectly with the rational world they inhabited.
His magnum opus, ‘Jerusalem, or on Religious Power and Judaism’, written around 1782, was composed as a response to both challenges. It is nothing short of magnificent in its creativity and willingness to face tough issues. It deals with Christianity head on and makes a valiant attempt to convert Judaism into a rationally based religion. In it, he introduced his most famous idea – that Judaism is a religion of deed and not creed. In section 15 of the Part II we find the following in response to the difficulty in communicating the essential ideas of religion and life:
‘It was to remedy these defects that the lawgiver of this nation gave the ceremonial law. Religious and moral teachings were to be connected with men’s everyday doings and not-doings. The law didn’t require them to engage in reflection; it prescribed only behavior, only doings and not-doings. The great maxim of this constitution seems to have been: Men must be impelled to perform actions and only induced to engage in reflection. Therefore, each of these prescribed actions, each practice, each ceremony had its meaning, its genuine significance, which was precisely fitted to the theoretical knowledge of religion and the teachings of morality, and would lead a man in search of truth to reflect on these sacred matters or to seek instruction from wise men…’
He further refined this idea in a review he wrote of a book by a Swiss philosopher named Charles Bonnet called ‘Palingenesis’ which attempted to prove the immortality of the soul. ‘Sacred reason gives me the most certain conviction that God calls human beings to salvation through the practice of virtue. The divine religion into which I was born teaches me that all peoples of the earth are saved if they live in accordance with the laws of reason; and that for special purposes God has imposed on my nation alone certain special beliefs and obligatory actions of which He has absolved the rest of the human race.’
The above, is the core of Mendelssohn’s take on Judaism. According to him, religion should never compel anyone to think or believe a certain way. Beliefs are the province of each human being. Of course, there are proper beliefs and improper beliefs, but each person must make their way through that maze and discover the truth on their own. All a religion should do is ‘induce to engage in reflection’. With proper direction through proper ‘ceremonial law’, the Jews would have the wherewithal to discover the essentials of Judaism that would enable them to lead the life that God hoped them to lead. But the choice to search for these essentials and the ultimate conclusions that each person would reach, were entirely in the hands of the individual.
An important component of Mendelssohn’s thought was that the essential truths of reality were accessible to each person through the use of their rational mind. This was vintage Enlightenment. Judaism didn’t offer its adherents anything that natural human reason couldn’t adequately provide, other than a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, and lifelong program to inculcate these truths into their lives. Judaism, to Mendelssohn, was not a collection of secret truths that were revealed through prophetic or mystical insights. It was bringing rational truths into practice through specific laws and by recalling events of the past through ceremony. Those laws and ceremonies then had to be translated into virtuous deeds in the present.
Mendelssohn, perhaps inadvertently, granted Jews of the future a great amount of freedom in their religious practice. While he himself strongly advocated strict observance of the law, both Biblical and rabbinic, he opened the door for liberal interpretation. Whatever was rational should be retained; whatever wasn’t could be discarded. After all, Mendelssohn himself said that religion could never conflict with rational thought. This was where many scholars of Mendelssohn believed that he ultimately failed. Judaism has a healthy share of irrational practice, let alone irrational beliefs and historical events. At the end of the day one could ask Mendelssohn where he stood on this matter – would he uphold Judaism even when it went against reason, or would he abandon part of it. We know that he remained a faithfully practicing Jew till the end of his life. What we don’t know is what he would have done had he lived another 30 years.
One crucial facet that can be gleaned from these Mendelssohn quotes is his take on the purpose of life. Salvation is to lead a life of virtue. How to do this is ingrained into our minds and learned through a lifetime of thinking, asking, and practicing. But it is within our grasp to find and to do. We need no prophets or sons of God or miracles to figure out what we are supposed to do. All those may help or they may not. Regardless, we still can and must persevere in our task. Virtue is the handmaiden of reason, its royal road to salvation. The marriage of Judaism and Enlightenment, if such a union can be created and not end with divorce, happens through the cultivation of virtue as a life goal. How any person finds virtue is their own task. Jews, he would say, must find it in the context of a Jewish life. Gentiles can find it through their own religion or through the rational wisdom of the human mind. But God’s purpose, the salvation of the human race, could only come about through virtue.
Virtue certainly seems like a noble goal for life. But how does one go about attaining it? To simply stumble around using whatever pieces of wisdom that can be found on subway walls, tenement halls, and boxes of herbal tea seems a little haphazard. To hope that one will somehow figure it out through reason, in the best tradition of Enlightenment, seems kind of outdated. It requires a good deal of diligence, experience, and hard-earned wisdom. It may even require talking to people who are older and wiser, who may have learned a thing or two in the course of their lives. The fact is, there are few things in life worth more than virtue, and perhaps there are none.
If Mendelssohn were alive, he might tell Jews – Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Reconstructionist Jews, Orthodox Jews, and unaffiliated Jews – that their tradition is rich with things that actively or subtly enhance the drive and the wisdom needed for virtue. Maybe all the Jews who have ignored him for so many years, despite paying lip service to his ideas, should look back at what he actually wrote. They may find that although a good deal of the Torah is irrational and doesn’t fit well into modern life, there is also a good deal that is quite rational and rather wise. They may find that even doing some of those irrational things changes them into a different person, one who is a little more aware of purpose and meaning, and one who cares a little more about where they are heading. They may find that it is a cleansing experience to actually get out and do something that Jews have been doing for a few thousand years which forged them into a unique and worthy people. So far, it’s worked pretty well. Maybe it would make us all a little more virtuous.
Food for Thought
Mendelssohn’s attempt to update Judaism into the rational world of the Enlightenment was unquestionably well-intentioned. But Judaism is loaded with all kinds of non-rational traditions, laws, and customs. Is the attempt to rationalize Judaism an exercise in futility?
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