Finding Your Mendelssohn
Few people in history have legacies as flexible and useful for contemporary typologies as Moses Mendelssohn. In a prior post (link) we used his and R. Ya’akov Emden’s approaches toward halakhic innovation to describe two approaches in our community today. His approach to philosophy and religious tradition, as debated recently by historians, can describe three attitudes toward religion and secularism in Modern Orthodoxy.
A recent book by Prof. Michah Gottlieb, Faith and Freedom: Moses Mendelssohn’s Theological-Political Thought, charts a new path in Mendelssohn studies. Two previous studies of the groundbreaking eighteenth century Jewish philosophers described him in opposite terms. Allan Arkush sees Mendelssohn as a closet atheist (link). Starting as a devout Jew, his philosophical studies disabused him of those beliefs but his attachment to Jewish community and culture forced him to conceal his new attitudes. David Sorkin sees Mendelssohn as the devout Jew who never fully realized his philosophical studies (link). He instead remained satisfied to merely translate his traditional views, faithfully transmitted from Medieval Jewish philosophers, into eighteenth century language.
Gottlieb sees a middle Mendelssohn. Fully accepting his Torah training and his philosophical studies, Mendelssohn was committed to reconciling the two sources of truth. In doing so, he adapted both his Torah and philosophical sources — remaining completely within traditional bounds but innovating a new approach that synthesized the two. Mendlessohn was not just balancing on two pillars but merging them into one, new creation.
We see these three attitudes within contemporary Modern Orthodoxy among scholars accomplished in both Torah and secular studies. Some have substantially modified their religious beliefs well beyond traditional standards but hide them from the general public, preferring to remain in the community for personal reasons. Others read the secular studies through Torah eyes, refusing to budge from their tradition and merely translating it into academic terminology. And then there are the synthesizers, who blaze new trails in multidisciplinary ways, believing they can not only dance at both weddings but even fashion their own, unique step.
A fourth character emerges from Gottlieb’s study. He devotes half his book to the debate between Mendelssohn and Freidrich Jacobi. Aside from the new insights Gottlieb offers into the highly technical dialogue, he also attempts to prove Mendelssohn’s sincerity in his beliefs against Jacobi’s accusations of inconsistency. Jacobi is a disillusioned Christian philosopher, convinced that modern philosophy must lead to heresy. Therefore, he argues, we must reject philosophy for faith, abandon the poisons of enlightenment because they bear no fruit for our souls.
Jacobi reminds me of the disillusioned Modern Orthodox scholar. I know more than one well-trained Modern Orthodox scholar, highly accomplished in both Torah and secular studies, who struggles in early adulthood to find a balance between the two and then retreats into the Charedi world. Disillusioned by the failure to find balance and the perceived lack of religious fidelity among his colleagues, this type of scholar chooses faith over philosophy and often becomes the most bitter, and most eloquent, foe of Modern Orthodoxy.
Gottlieb sees his middle Mendelssohn as a role model for Modern Orthodoxy in the twenty-first century. Not just balance but synthesis, faithful multidisciplinary innovation that is true to both Torah and Mada, is the lesson we can learn from the eighteenth century philosopher. However, we engage in this task with great risk. Should we fail, we risk creating closet heretics of the Arkush-type and defectors of the Jacobi-type. As for me, I truck with the Sorkin-types, remaining irritated by the Arkush- and Jacobi-types, and at times impressed with, at times wary of Gottlieb-type trailblazers.
There is perhaps a sad irony in our look back to Moses Mendelssohn’s life while trying to find our place in the religious world of the twenty-first century. After a quarter of a millennium, after generations of debate and experimentation, we still have not found the right balance between religion and secularism. Perhaps this means that the pursuit is impossible. Our consistent failure to square this circle shows that our obstinate idealism will not face the reality of contradiction. Or maybe it means that there is no single answer, that in this complex and indeterminate matter everyone has to find their own personal resolution, that subjective factors play a role in deciding which type of Mendelssohn we will be.
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