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'A Historical Sensation'

December 30, 2010 By:
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A fictitious meeting of (from left) Moses Mendelssohn, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Johann Casper Lavater as seen in an engraving, after a painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1856

 

Shmuel Feiner begins his new biography, Moses Mendelssohn: Sage of Modernity, published by Yale University Press, with two anecdotes, which he's linked in an effort to define the essence of his subject and the contour of the man's life.

He begins with a summer night in 1780. Mendelssohn is out walking in Berlin with his wife and several of their children when a gang of youths suddenly appear, chanting "Juden! Juden!" and throwing stones.

In the aftermath of the attack, the city's most famous Jew was beseeched by his children: "What have we done to them, Father? Why do they always chase and curse us?" Feiner states that Mendelssohn could not find the words to comfort his children, only murmured, "People, people, when will you stop this?"

Feiner, a professor at Bar Ilan University, goes on to say that Mendelssohn, a reserved individual who never publicly expressed his feelings about this incident, did comment upon it later in a letter to Peter Adolph Winkopp, a young Benedictine monk and one of the philosopher's most ardent admirers.

The episode, which Feiner says was unusual but not unprecedented, had "cracked the veneer of Mendelssohn's respectability, damaged his self-respect, and shook his faith in a most treasured value, one he'd fought for since becoming a public figure -- religious tolerance.

"The country in which I live is allegedly a tolerant one, he wrote bitterly to Winkopp, but in fact I live in it under great stress, and the lack of tolerance assails me from all directions. What should I do? Perhaps lock up my children with me all day long at the silk factory where I work, just as you voluntarily imprison yourself in the monastery? Perhaps in this way I shall be able to spare them such cruel experiences? With cynicism tinged with despair and a sense of fatalism, he added: The situation does not stimulate the literary and philosophical muses of the intellectual."

But as swiftly as he'd opened this window onto he feelings, he closed it and adopted a jaunty tone, assuring his friend that it would be far better for him to address the questions that Winkopp had raised after reading Mendelssohn's bookPhädon. The philosopher never again spoke of the street incident.

Final Farewells 
The biographer then jumps ahead six years to Jan. 4, 1786, a particularly cold day in Berlin, when Mendelssohn died in his home at 68 Spandau St. He was still a young man; it was only four months after he'd turned 56. At 10 o'clock on that January morning, the coffin was borne through the Berlin streets to the old Jewish cemetery on Grosse Hamburger Street.

A large number of Christians joined the family and members of the Berlin Jewish community in paying their final farewells. Shops and businesses in the city had closed out of respect, and the press acknowledged the passing of a great figure, one of the leading lights of German philosophy.

Feiner continues: "The acute tension between these two stories -- the dark repressed tale of a humiliating anti-Jewish attack on Mendelssohn and his family on the streets of Berlin, the widely reported public account of the death of a giant of the German intellectual world -- amplifies our fascination with the life and work of the world's most famous Jew in the 18th century. Mendelssohn was a historical sensation, and his Jewish and Christian contemporaries alike earmarked him as the man who could lead the Jewish transition from the old world of the 'ghetto' -- of cultural and social isolation -- to the new world of Europe, to social and cultural integration, the weakening of the traditional commitment to religion and community."

According to the biographer, after the philosopher's death, the man's reputation took on "mythical proportions" during which this stocky man who'd had black hair, a sparse beard and a pronounced curvature of the spine "became the symbol of Jewish modernism."

"The life story of the Dessau-born scholar, who made a living from clerical work in a silk factory, was known throughout Europe," writes Feiner. "In intellectual circles he represented the ideal of the self-created man who overcame physical disabilities and sometimes hostile environment by dint of intellect and character, and blazed his way to fame. He succeeded in shattering the existential framework into which he was born and resolutely building an international career, thereby gaining international status. His belonging to Jewish society, a people marginalized in European culture for centuries, only enhanced the myth of the Enlightenment hero, thriving against all odds."

Feiner makes it clear that Mendelssohn's achievement -- being accepted into the exalted circles of such acclaimed 18th century contemporaries as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Immanuel Kant -- was unprecedented for a Jew. His published works were all well received, but Phädon, in which the philosopher argued for the immortality of the soul, proved to be a spectacular success, "credited by many as consoling countless readers with reasoned evidence that death is not absolute oblivion but a reward for which mankind should yearn."

Mendelssohn's most striking achievement, though, appears to be, in Feiner's deft retelling of the life, his ability to be an integral part of the Jewish life of his times, religiously and culturally, while just as skillfully commandeering the gentile world.

This accomplishment also offered a glimpse into the future. As the recognized father of the Jewish Enlightenment Movement, Mendelssohn's life and work were harbingers for what would come about in the late 19th century: the emancipation of European Jewry.

According to Feiner, Mendelssohn was also considered the embodiment of a great defining moment in Jewish-Christian relations. His deep friendship with the dramatist Lessing was considered a model for the future when Jews would be granted full human rights and not be forced to convert to achieve them. The Jews of the future would need to heed Mendelssohn's example, it was argued, for, in some sense, his life was a series of attempts to fend off conversion.

"Mendelssohn," writes his most recent biographer, "was the prototype of German Jewry in the era of legal emancipation and social integration into the bourgeoisie, and he provided a sort of respectful entrée into state and society. For German Jewry, which for years had repeatedly to prove its acceptability, its worthiness to exist alongside the majority, to blend in, the historical Mendelssohn was a valuable asset, the ideal representative of those who dreamed of symbiosis between Jewish and Christian Germans."

Mendelssohn's struggles for acceptance on various levels were not easy and took their toll in a psychological sense. The philosopher's occasional though not incidental setbacks are integral to the story Feiner tells here, no matter how often it may seem that Mendelssohn's life was one indisputable triumph after another.

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