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Politics, Tradition, History: Rabbinic Judaism and the Eighteenth-Century Struggle for Civil Equality*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 June 2011

Edward Breuer
University of Pennsylvania


Sometime in the early summer of 1782, Moses Mendelssohn received word that a pamphlet, entitled Das Forschen nach Licht und Recht (The Searching for Light and Right) and signed only as “S***,” was being prepared for publication. Enunciating the concerns of an Enlightenment-minded Christian writer, this pamphlet explicitly challenged Mendelssohn to clarify two issues of public interest: his increasingly outspoken advocacy for the civil admission of Jews into Prussian society, and the future shape of Judaism within a modern tolerant state. For Mendelssohn, the impending publication of the pamphlet was disconcerting because it insisted on linking his personal religious integrity to the broader political debate over civil integration. Given that his political campaign on behalf of his coreligionists was predicated upon the removal of confessional considerations from the public realm, this particular linkage became a source of no small irritation. Mendelssohn, however, quickly determined that the challenge could not be left unanswered. Indeed, it was in response to this tract and its appended postscript that Mendelssohn penned Jerusalem, his most articulate and enduring statement on religious tolerance and political equality.

Research Article
Copyright © President and Fellows of Harvard College 1992

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1 The full title is Das Forschen nach Licht und Recht in einem Schreiben an den Herrn Moses Mendelssohn auf Veranlassung seiner merkwürdigen Vorrede zu Manasseh Ben Israel (Berlin: Maurer, 1782Google Scholar ; reprinted in F. Bamberger, et al., eds., Moses Mendelssohn Gesam-melte Schriflen Jubiläumsausgabe [19 vols.; Stuttgart: Frommann, 1971-91] 8. 73-92).

2 Mendelssohn, Moses, Jerusalem, oder über religiöse Macht und Judentum (Berlin: Maurer, 1783Google Scholar ; reprinted in Bamberger, el al., Gesammelte Schriften, 8. 99-204).

3 See Kayserling, Meyer, Moses Mendelssohn. Sein Leben und seine Werke (Leipzig: Hermann Mendelssohn, 1888) 370—417Google Scholar ; Guttmann, Julius, “Mendelssohn's Jerusalem and Spinoza's Theologico-Political Treatise,” in Jospe, Alfred, ed., Studies in Jewish Thought: An Anthology of German Jewish Scholarship (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1981) 361–86Google Scholar ; Meyer, Michael, Origins of the Modern Jew (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1967) 4652Google Scholar ; Altmann, Alexander, Moses Mendelssohn: A Biographical Study (University, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1973) 421552Google Scholar ; idem, “The Philosophical Roots of Moses Mendelssohn's Plea for Emancipation,” in idem, Essays in Jewish Intellectual History (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1981) 154-69; Rawidowicz, Simon, yunim Be-Mahshevet Yisrael (2 vols.; Jerusalem: Mas, 1971) 2. 70117Google Scholar ; Funkenstein, Amos, “The Political Theory of Jewish Emancipation from Mendelssohn to Herzl,” in Grab, Walter, ed., Deutsche Aufklärung undjudenemanzipation (Tel Aviv: University of Tel Aviv, 1980) 1521Google Scholar ; Eisen, Arnold, “Divine Legislation as ‘Ceremonial Script’: Mendelssohn on the Commandments,” AJS Review 15 (1990) 239–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Ages, Arnold, French Enlightenment and the Rabbinic Tradition (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1970).Google Scholar

5 Dohm, Christian Wilhelm, Über die bürgerliche Verbesserung der Juden (Berlin/Stettin: Friedrich Nicolai, 1781)Google Scholar . For more information on Dohm, see Dambacher, Ilsegret, Christian Wilhelm von Dohm (Frankfurt a. M.: Lang, 1974)Google Scholar ; on his writing on behalf of the Jews, see Möller, Horst, “Aufklärung, Judenemanzipation und Staat: Ursprung und Wirkung von Dohms Schrift ‘Über die bürgerliche Verbesserung der Juden,’” in Grab, Deutsche Aufklärung und Judenemanzipation, 119–49Google Scholar ; Liberles, Robert, “Dohm's Treatise on the Jews—A Defence of the Enlightenment,” Leo Baeck Institute Year Book 33 (1988) 2942CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 See , Aitmann, Mendelssohn, 455–56Google Scholar ; see also idem, “Moses Mendelssohn on Excommunication: The Ecclesiastical Law Background,” in idem, Essays in Jewish Intellectual History, 170-89.

7 Israel, Manasseh ben, Vindiciae Judaeorum: Or, a Letter in Answer to Certain Questions Propounded by a Noble and Learned Gentleman, Touching the Reproaches Cast on the Nation of the Jews; wherein all Objections are Candidly, and yet Fully Clear'd (London: R. D., 1656).Google Scholar

8 Mendelssohn, Moses, Manasseh Ben Israel, Rettung derjuden. Aus dem Englischen übersetit. Nebst einer Vorrede von Moses Mendelssohn (Berlin/Stettin: Friedrich Nicolai, 1782Google Scholar ; reprinted in Bamberger, et al., Gesammelte Schriften, 8. 1-25).

9 On the identification of Cranz as the anonymous author, see Katz, Jacob, “Le-Mi Anah Mendelson ‘bi-Yerushalyim’ shelo,” Zion 29 (1964) 112–32Google Scholar ; idem, “Nosafot le-'Le-Mi Anah Mendelson ‘bi-Yerushalayim’ shelo,” Zion 36 (1971) 116-17. There is evidence that Mendelssohn was made aware of Cranz's authorship by the early spring of 1783, just as Jerusalem was going to press; see , Aitmann, Mendelssohn, 510—11Google Scholar.

10 Mendelssohn's concerns were not merely academic, as evidenced by his reaction to the rabbinic power wielded by the chief rabbi of Altona-Hamburg, R. Raphael Kohen; see Katz, Jacob, “R. Raphael Kohen, Yerivo shel Moshe Mendelson,” Tarbiz 56 (1987) 243–64Google Scholar.

11 Mörschel, David Ernst, “Postscript,” in Das Forschen nach Licht and Recht, 8. 9192.Google Scholar

12 See , Mendelssohn, Manasseh Ben Israel, 8. 21.Google Scholar

13 , Dohrn, Bürgerliche Verbesserung, 1617.Google Scholar

14 Ibid., 25-27.

15 Ibid., 124-25.

16 See Ibid., 93-94: “I dare count as a positive trait of the Jewish character the unflinching devotion to the law conferred upon their fathers by the divine himself…. Surely, this devotion to the ancient beliefs of their fathers alone gives the character of the Jews a steadfastness that is generally beneficial to the formation of their morality” (my translation).

17 Ibid., 133-44.

18 On Michaelis, see Löwenbrück, Anna-Ruth, “Johann David Michaelis Verdienst urn die philologisch-historische Bibelkritik,” in Reventlow, Henning Graf, et al., eds., Hisiorische Kritik und biblischer Kanon in der deutschen Aufklärung (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1988) 157–70Google Scholar . The work cited by Dohm was Michaelis's, Johann DavidMosaisches Recht (17701775; 6 vols.Google Scholar ; reprinted Reutlingen: Grözinger, 1985) 4. 86-113 (§ 194-96).

19 , Dohm, Bürgerliche Verbesserung, 137.Google Scholar

21 Ibid., 142-43.

22 Ibid., 143-44.

23 Most recently, see Cohen, Jeremy, The Friars and the Jews: The Evolution of Medieval Anti-Judaism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982).Google Scholar

24 , Michaelis, Mosaisches Recht, 1, 4445 (§ 18).Google Scholar

25 Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim, Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechls (1777Google Scholar ; reprinted in Karl Eibl, et al., eds., Gotthold Ephraim Lessing Werke [8 vols.; Munich: Hanser, 1976] 7. 488 [§ 51-52]). On Lessing and his historical view of the development of Judaism, see Hoffmann, Christhard, Juden and Judentum im Werk Deutscher Althistoriker des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderls (Leiden: Brill, 1988) 2425Google Scholar . See also Waller, Martha, Lessings Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts (Berlin: Mattheisen, 1935) 3949Google Scholar . Other important eighteenth-century figures generally sympathetic to Jews and Judaism, such as Montesquieu, also shared a certain criticism of rabbinic exegesis. In a letter published at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Montesquieu seemed to lump together the entire postbiblical tradition—the sages of antiquity along with contemporary rabbis—and described Jewish scholars as having an inferior understanding of the Bible and its language. See Weill, J., “Un Texte de Montesquieu sur le Judaisme,” REJ o.s. 49 (1904) 151–52Google Scholar ; and Hertzberg, Arthur, The French Enlightenment and the Jews (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968) 275Google Scholar.

26 Büsching, Anton Friedrich, Geschichte der Jüdischen Religion (Berlin: Eisfeld, 1779) 181—86Google Scholar . Dohm, who had a personal friendship with Büsching, cited his work in Bürgerliche Verbesserung, 62, 64; see Gronau, W., Christian Wilhelm Von Dohm nach seinem Wollen und Handeln: Ein ographischer Versuch (Lemgo: Meyer, 1824) 30ffGoogle Scholar.

27 Köster, Heinrich M. G. and Roos, Johann Friedrich, eds., Deutsche Encyclopädie, oder Allgemeines Real-Wörterbuch aller Künste und Wissenschaften von einer Gesellschaft Gelehrten (23 vols.; Frankfurt: Varrentrapp Sohn & Wenner, 1778-1807)Google Scholar ; see the entry for “Auslegung der Heiligen Schrift, nach der Meynung der Rabbinen” in 2. 491. Dohm was listed in the Vorrede as a contributor to this publication.

28 , Dohm, Bürgerliche Verbesserung, 139–43.Google Scholar

29 Ibid., 143-44.

30 Mendelssohn, Moses, Briefe, die neueste Littratur betreffend, Enter Theil (1759) 255–60Google Scholar ; reprinted in Bamberger, et al., Gesammelte Schriften, 5.1. 48-49.

31 The best example of this is in the Bible translation and commentary that Mendelssohn published between 1780 and 1783; see my “In Defense of Tradition: The Masoretic Text and Its Rabbinic Interpretation in the Early German Haskalah” (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1990) 260327Google Scholar.

32 In a footnote to the statement that Jews would effectively find their way back to the unalloyed qualities of Mosaic law, Dohm indicated that he had consulted with a “great Jewish scholar” (“grosser jüdischer Gelehrter”) who, citing Talmudic and Maimonidean sources, affirmed that Jews could indeed fulfill their military duties; see , Dohm, Bürgerliche Verbes-serung, 144Google Scholar . Given the similarity of this note to Mendelssohn's own writings on this matter, there is little doubt that the Jewish scholar was Mendelssohn himself. See Mendelssohn's comments to Michaelis's review of , Dohm, “Anmerkungen über diese Beurteilung von Hrn. Mendelssohn,” Über de Bürgerliche Verbesserung der Juden (2d ed.; 2 vols.; Berlin/Stettin: Friedrich Nicolai, 1783) 2. 7277Google Scholar ; also see , Altmann, Mendelssohn, 453–55Google Scholar.

33 Mendelssohn's sensitivity to the tactical value of writings such as that of Dohm and their potentially propitious impact on the German public is apparent in a letter written four years later: “It does not matter to inquiring men who the author of a book is; they read it, examine the arguments, and do not withhold approval if it is merited. But with people of average type, arguments have only a little effect, and most of this has to do with the established authority and altruism of the writer. For this reason it always gave me greater pleasure when I saw Christian prejudice against the Jews contested by a Christian rather than a Jewish author” (my translation). See , Bamberger, et al., Gesammelte Schriften, 13. 316–17Google Scholar . Mendelssohn believed that furthering the cause of Jewish civil equality would best be served by allowing the debate to proceed in its own terms. Here and elsewhere, Mendelssohn respected Dohm's editorial prerogatives and was loath to impose himself; while he was clearly prepared to offer Dohm his ideas and criticisms, there was a certain reluctance and hesitation in his handling of the latter's writings.

34 Mendelssohn's posture toward Dohm's treatise is evident in the oft-repeated example of the word Verbesserung (“improvement”) in the title. Although Mendelssohn seems to have objected to its connotations, he never made an issue of it, preferring quietly to substitute bürgerliche Aufnahme (”acceptance”) in its stead. See Katz, Jacob, “The Term ‘Jewish Emancipation’: Its Origin and Historical Impact,” in Altmann, Alexander, ed., Studies in Nineteenth-Century Jewish Intellectual History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964) 15Google Scholar.

35 There is strong evidence, however, that Mendelssohn proposed to Dohm one small suggestion that functioned to deflect the negative evaluation of rabbinic Judaism. The point in Dohm's text where he apparently referred to Mendelssohn (see above n. 32) was precisely the same place in his treatise that wistfully described the future Jewish return to the spirit of biblical Judaism: “Sie werden alsdann auch ihre religiose Verfassung und Gesetze derselben gemäss umbilden; sie werden auf die feyere und edlere uralte mosaische Verfassung zurück-kommen, und diese nach veränderten Zeiten und Umstände anzuwenden und nach diesen zu erklãren, auch in ihrem Talmud die Befugnisse finden” (my emphasis) (Bürgerliche Verhes-serung, 144). The fact that the last phrase of this sentence was the primary source of obfus-cation on the subject of post-Mosaic Judaism, and the sense of substantive and syntactical disjointedness in the placement of this last phrase, seem to point to the possibility that the words “auch in ihrem Talmud die Befugnisse finden” were added at Mendelssohn's behest. From his perspective, Mendelssohn would have reaffirmed the abiding authority of the Talmud while leaving open the suggestion—which he appeared comfortable expressing—that certain legalistic attitudes and enactments, all of them post-Talmudic, were in need of reform. It also explains Dohm's divergence from the usual handling of the issue of post-Mosaic Judaism. Given the small number of books from which Dohm's discussions of historical Judaism were derived, the only other reasonable source for Dohm's ideas on this subject was Mendelssohn himself. Dohm was not a student of Judaism, nor is there any indication that he had any interest in historical Judaism. His abiding preoccupation, both scholarly and professional, was the study of policies and economies of contemporary Prussia, and it was this concern alone that brought him to write on Jewish civic equality.

36 Michaelis, Johann David, Orientalische und Exegetische Bibliothek 19 (1782) 140Google Scholar ; reprinted in full in Dohm, Bürgerliche Verbesserung (2d ed.) 2. 31-71.

37 Das Forschen, 8. 81.

38 Ibid., 8. 77-78.

39 Ibid., 8. 80-81.

40 See Iggers, Georg G., The German Conception of History (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1968) 2939Google Scholar ; and Reill, Peter Hanns, The German Enlightenment and the Rise of Historic ism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975) 3147Google Scholar.

41 Das Forschen, 8. 81.

42 See , Reill, German Enlightenment and the Rise of Historicism, 5152.Google Scholar

43 Das Forschen, 8. 81.

44 Ibid., 8. 83.

45 Ibid., 8. 85.

47 For example, see , Mendelssohn's early attempt at publishing a Hebrew periodical called Kohelet Mussar (1758Google Scholar ; reprinted in Bamberger, et al., Gesammelte Schriften, 14. 1-21); the introduction to his commentary to , Maimonides'Millot Ha-Higayon (1761Google Scholar ; reprinted in Bamberger, et al., Gesammelte Schriften, 14. 29—30); and the prospectus for his edition of the , Pentateuch, Alim Li-Terufah (Amsterdam: Prupas, 1778Google Scholar ; reprinted in Bamberger, et al., Gesammelte Schriften, 14. 326-31).

48 From , Mendelssohn, Manasseh Ben Israel, 8. 5.Google Scholar

49 See , Eisen, “Mendelssohn on the Commandments,” 239–40.Google Scholar

50 See , Altmann, Mendelssohn, 539–40.Google Scholar

51 An Mendelssohn and his attitude toward the nascent histoicism, see Schwartz, Dov, “Ha-Hitpathut shel ha-Min ha-Enoshi be-Mishnato shel Mendelson—Perek be-Toldotav shel ha-Ra'ayon ha-Meshihi,” Da'at 22 (1989) 109–21Google Scholar ; Liebeschütz, Hans, “Mendelssohn und Lessing in ihrer Stellung zur Geschichte,” in Stein, Siegfried and Loewe, Raphael, eds., Studies in Jewish Religious and Intellectual History (University, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1979) 167–82Google Scholar ; Rotenstreich, Nathan, “Mul Kidman Behinat Hinukh ha-Min ha-Enoshi,” in Almog, Shmuel, et al., eds., Bein Yisrael ie-Umot (Jerusalem: Historical Society of Israel, 1988) 1317Google Scholar.

52 , Mendelssohn, Jerusalem, 8. 163–64Google Scholar ; all English translations of Jerusalem are from Mendelssohn, Moses, Jerusalem, or On Religious Power and Judaism (trans. Arkush, Allan; Hanover: University Press of New England, 1983) 97Google Scholar.

53 , Mendelssohn, Jerusalem, 8. 198Google Scholar ; ET, 133.

54 See Mendelssohn, Moses, “Anmerkungen überdiese Beurteilung von Hrn. Mendelssohn’, in Dohm, Bürgerliche Verbesserung (2d ed.) 2. 7277.Google Scholar

55 , Mendelssohn, Jerusalem, 8. 198–99Google Scholar ; ET, 133-34.

56 Ibid., 8. 168-85 ; ET, 102-20. Various analyses of this section have been offered; see , Funkenstein, “Political Theory of Jewish Emancipation,” 15—21Google Scholar ; , Eisen, “Mendelssohn on the Commandments,” 239–67Google Scholar ; and Jospe, Raphael, “The Superiority of Oral Over Written Communication: Judah Ha-Levi's Kuzari and Modern Jewish Thought,” in Neusner, Jacob, et al., eds., From Ancient Israel to Modern Judaism (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989) 136–51Google Scholar.

57 , Mendelssohn, Jerusalem, 8. 170–74Google Scholar ; ET, 104-8.

58 Ibid., 8. 176-77; ET, 110-11.

59 Ibid., 8. 183; ET, 118.

60 Ibid., 8. 184; ET, 119.

61 Ibid., 8. 184-85; ET, 119.

62 Ibid., 8. 193; ET, 127-28.

63 Ibid., 8. 169; ET, 102.

64 Ibid., 8. 185; ET, 119-20.

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