Moses Mendelssohn and the Orthodox Mind

Moses Mendelssohn
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Zev Eleff and Menachem Butler

In 1986, historian Michael Meyer wrote a provocative essay in the official organ of Reform Judaism’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations. His subject was Moses Mendelssohn, the “Man and the Myth.” It was occasioned by the towering Jewish intellectual’s two-hundredth yahrzeit. Mendelssohn, averred Meyer, was not the “first Reform Jew,” as some in liberal circles had staked the claim. Meyer probably had in mind rabbis and scholars like Gunther Plaut who knew Mendelssohn’s biography but still allowed that at least in a “broader sense” it might be said that Mendelssohn was the “spiritual forefather of Reform.”

The eighteenth century philosopher and prodigious writer served as a guide on embracing modernity, a cardinal plank in Reform creed. He represented the very best of western thought and fought for the rights of Jews in German regions. He translated the Bible into German. His Jerusalem, a political-philosophical text on Judaism in the modern age, was described by Immanuel Kant as “irrefutable.”

However, Mendelssohn was also someone who wished to stand in “two worlds.” He punctiliously observed Jewish law, and at times viewed himself as a representative of authentic Halakhah to Germans, Jews and non-Jews alike.

This was not the stuff of Reform Judaism. And, it was more than just religious observance. On a philosophical plane, Mendelssohn sought to compartmentalize—to varying degrees of success—his Jewish life and his German existence. Reform Judaism did not seek out such partitions. Instead, its adherents, stated Meyer, “recognized that the ongoing task is not merely to live in two worlds; it is to reintegrate them anew in each generation.” For this leading historian, then, “it was and is the modern Orthodox—who themselves attempt to combine an eternal Judaism with participation in contemporary culture—that have the best claim to Mendelssohn as their founding father.”

Meyer’s sensible and sober understanding hardly cohered with the dominant perception of Mendelssohn. In fact, the reception history of Mendelssohn in the United States told an altogether different story. True, in 1830, the traditionalist Daniel Peixotto delivered an important lecture in front of New York’s most important Jews and asked them to “recollect the example of Mendelsohn [sic] in Germany”, for “his life is full of encouragement to all lovers of self-improvement.” Yet, Mendelssohn did not remain an Orthodox posterchild when Reform Judaism gained a foothold around midcentury. In 1845, the Orthodox champion, Isaac Leeser, described the first Reform congregation in New York as a “Mendelssonian Society.” Though in 1850 he capably translated Mendelssohn’s German-language Jerusalem into English, Leeser later cautioned anyone who would listen that while he was an “admirer of this great genius” he was not one of those “blind followers.”

Years later, when the Eastern Europeans vastly outnumbered the German Orthodox on American soil, mentions of Mendelssohn turned much more bitter. Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky probably spoke for most Lithuanian extracts when he from time to time discussed Mendelssohn while elucidating the rabbinic recommendation to “know what to respond to an apikorus,” a heretic (see his commentary on Avot 2:14). By contrast, Reform leaders freely and frequently quoted from Mendelssohn; one rabbi in 1871 suggested that the so-called Jewish Socrates become a part of the general educational curriculum in Reform schools. If not embedded within the curriculum, Mendelssohn continued to loom large in Reform Judaism’s lexicon.

Nonetheless, the Mendelssohn bicentennial of 1986 was reason enough for a certain segment of the Orthodox community to contemplate etching him into some sort of Mount Rushmore, alongside the likes of Rabbis Norman Lamm, Aharon Lichtenstein, Bernard Revel, and Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Surely, Mendelssohn should have received the same modest consideration that the less Talmud-minded and pluralistically-narrow-minded, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Like Mendelssohn, all of these men were masters of Jewish learning and to some degree or another, embraced the modern age. Yet, consideration for Mendelssohn was seldom countenanced. Why not?

Curiously, an answer might be derived from a thirty-year-old exchange in the pages of the Agudath Israel’s Jewish Observer. In December 1986, Rabbi Avi Shafran argued that Mendelssohn’s “story merits our attention, especially today.” In those days, Shafran was not yet employed by the Agudath Israel. He was a popular high school rebbe in Providence, Rhode Island. Ordained by Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman from the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, Shafran was also an up-and-coming Jewish pundit, someone who veered “right” but did so with a healthy dose of nuance. For these abilities and others, chairman Rabbi Moshe Sherer later tapped him director of public affairs and spokesman for the Agudath Israel of America.

The facts used in the article were largely based on Alexander Altmann’s biography of Mendelssohn. Of course, no one in the Agudah orbit could have disputed Altmann’s scholarship or his credentials. He was a German-Orthodox rabbi and scholar, ordained in 1931 at the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin and served as the Communal Rabbi of Manchester. In the 1940s, Altmann was frontrunner for the position of Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth in succession to Rabbi Joseph Hertz. Upon settling in the United States, he served for many decades as a Professor of Jewish Philosophy at Brandeis University, where he emerged, among other things, as the world-renowned expert on the thought of Moses Mendelssohn. Quoting from Altmann was more than just safe. It was smart.

Rabbi Shafran, unlike other Orthodox writers, refused to condemn the philosopher on the grounds of “guilt by association.” True, that Mendelssohn’s descendants converted to Christianity was deeply problematic. His associations with Solomon Maimon and David Friedlander also troubled Shafran, but not enough to indict Mendelssohn. Hatam Sofer and a few other major Orthodox leaders castigated Mendelssohn, but others—from Rabbi Yaakov Emden to the Vilna Gaon—appreciated his unique point of view.

Withal, could the Orthodox rescue the godfather of the Haskalah? For Shafran, Mendelssohn was “not a bad Jew in any clear way; he was just convinced that he knew better than those who were the unchallenged Torah giants of his time.” Writing just about three decades ago, Shafran pithily put it this way: “It is my thesis that Mendelssohn’s mistake can be seen as nothing more than varied manifestations of one central, pervasive theme: a lack of regard for the opinions of Torah scholars and the gedolim of his time.” In a word, he denied Daas Torah, or whatever it was called back then.

This, still, was not enough to convict Mendelssohn. In fact, it was all the more reason to learn from someone who, if alive today, imagined Shafran, “would most likely identify with those who uphold Torah’s eternity and perfection.” The writer concluded:

Rather than condemn Moses Mendelssohn, a man who was dedicated, all said and done, to the ideals of Torah, we would do better, much better, to relate ourselves to him, to understand him, and ultimately to learn from him.

For the lesson of his life is of vital concern for our own lives today: It is not enough, not nearly enough, to be frum.

The response to Rabbi Shafran’s article came fast and furious. The editors of the Agudah monthly received a “large volume of mail expressing strong opinions.” The subsequent issue of the Jewish Observer (January 1987), included an “Editorial Statement” by the Chairman of its Editorial Board, Ernst Bodenheimer. After the publication of Shafran’s article, he confessed:

The Editorial Board weighed the pros and cons of printing an article on Mendelssohn. We were keenly aware that be became identified as the initiator of that way of thinking and that way of life that triggered the tragic defection of broad masses from Torah Judaism. Nevertheless, it was felt that the value of the lessons to be gained by the present generation from such an article, in which his fatal flaws were identified, outweighed the negative aspects of dealing with the subject.

Then the Agudah organ changed its mind. Overwhelmed by the rancor, the editors apologized for making space for this exploration of Mendelssohn’s religious fitness, as well as his Orthodox foibles: “The significance of the responses to the article brings us to reconsider the wisdom of our decision and we see that we were indeed in error in publishing an article on Mendelssohn. For this we apologize to our readers.”

Repentance is never so simple, however. To clean up the theological mess, the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah (Council of Torah Sages) of the Agudath Israel of America invited Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe, to set the record straight. Rabbi Perlow agreed that Mendelssohn was an “observant Jew”—but “culturally he was a thoroughbred German.” His eighteenth century alchemy of Judaism mixed with “Enlightenment and secularity” was far worse than a typical “departure from Jewish tradition.” In the Novominsker Rebbe’s determination, Mendelssohn’s gambit reflected a “schizophrenia of values, a falsification of the Torah ideal, that was doomed to fail.”

Several months later, the magazine’s editors returned to the same topic, reprinting Rabbi Shimon Schwab’s collection of “heretical” Mendelssohn statements. Atonement was achieved with this final installment. There was no lesson learned from Mendelssohn. Nothing from his “shameful” life could be salvaged.

Other Orthodox writers addressed Mendelsohn with more finesse. For example, Rabbi Berel Wein’s historical analysis of Mendelssohn jibed much better with the new-and-improved Agudah understanding of the matter. In 1990, Wein wrote that “Mendelssohn’s own premises about Judaism were tainted by his acceptance of the philosophies of the Enlightenment.” Moreover, this is how he concluded a full chapter on Mendelssohn:

His own weakening observance of a Torah lifestyle, combined with his slavish imitation of Enlightenment values and ideas, distanced him from Jewish perspectives and tradition. By the end of his life, he was the grandfather of Christians, both literally and figuratively. His experience should have been an example for later “reformers” and “enlighteners” as to the true results of non-Jewish thought and behavior.

Rabbi Shafran was defeated. He never aimed to restore Mendelssohn to the highest perch of Orthodox Judaism. Still, he offered a rare sympathetic touch in an effort to glean a genuine lesson from Mendelssohn’s peculiar life. For this, Shafran received some consolation from a ranking leader in the “Centrist Orthodox” arena.

Bodenheimer planned that, “in a coming issue, we expect IY”H to publish some of the many letters received on the topic.” However, none appeared. The silence did not equal acquiescence, of course. Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, then the Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Union, wrote to Rabbi Shafran, upon learning of “some ‘to do’ over [his] article in the recent Jewish Observer.” Found nearly three decades later in the archives of the American Jewish Historical Society, this is the gist of Stolper’s letter:

I am writing, principally, to give you chizuk. I thought your article was magnificent. How else could you point to the enigma and the critical flaw in Mendelssohn’s personality were you not to contrast it with his seeming total loyalty to Torah and mitzvos?

What makes the article so moving and important is that America has spawned—and dangerously continues to span—many enlightened, frum Torah Jews who imbibe this very flaw. To have brought it to light in your skilled, interestingly written and poignant fashion is, in my opinion at least, a mitzvah gedolah.

Like Shafran, Stolper believed there was value in exploring Moses Mendelssohn’s “tragic legacy.” He therefore recommended to Shafran that the latter consider writing for the Orthodox Union’s publications, as well as some of the other journals within the Centrist Orthodox constellation. Nonetheless, Stolper was surely aware that these journals did not have a strong record of useful Mendelssohn discourse.

To the contrary, there was little within the Orthodox Union, Rabbinical Council of America, or Yeshiva University publications reflected on Mendelssohn’s bicentennial. Later in the decade, the RCA published a Mendelssohn-related text: a translation of Maharam Schick’s and Hatam Sofer’s negative attitude toward the ‘wayward’ Jewish thinker. In his introductory remarks to that piece, Prof. Shnayer Leiman noted that “strangely, this passage was not cited in any of the recent discussions of Orthodoxy’s attitude towards Moses Mendelssohn.” By this, he meant the give-and-take in the Agudah magazine, a kind and clever way to indicate that some of the best ammunition against Mendelssohn had not been fired.

Another modest exception was Rabbi Berel Wein who repurposed Mendelssohn as a foil to his own Orthodox champion, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. In more tender terms than how he would eventually put it in his 1990 book, the Monsey-based rabbi-history writer declared about Mendelssohn: “Traditional Jews do not choose to remember him at all and Reform Jews do not see him as their role model or ideal. History has dealt harshly with him.”

Mendelssohn was therefore nowhere. The earnest Reform Jew found him far too halakhic. The Orthodox had more in common, but steered clear of his loaded legacy. Moses Mendelssohn was off-limits, despite his religious observance and noble efforts to engage Judaism with the modern world. Mendelssohn’s memory was already far too tarnished, entangled with unseemly and untouchable notions like assimilation, heterodoxy, and secularism. Some might have considered his mission valiant, a reminder of their own struggle to maintain a religious balance in the shifty middle ground. Owing to all this, though, the Jews who occupied this precarious space sought out more pristine heroes, ones with far less historical baggage than the load weighing painfully upon Mendelssohn’s shoulders.

Menachem Butler is the Special Advisor for Jewish Law Projects at The Julis-Rabinowitz Program on Jewish and Israeli Law at the Harvard Law School, and a co-editor at the Seforim blog. Follow him on Twitter @MyShtender