An Interview with Michah Gottlieb: Moses Mendelssohn as a Guide for Orthodoxy

Michah Gottlieb is Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought and Philosophy in the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. Previously he taught at Brown University. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Indiana University (2003) under the direction of Frederick C. Beiser, one of the leading experts on 18th and 19th century German thought. Gottlieb earned his M.A. in Judaic Studies, New York University; B.A., McGill University.

Gottlieb recently wrote Faith and Freedom: Moses Mendelssohn’s Theological-Political Thought, Oxford University Press, 2011
and Moses Mendelssohn: Writings on Judaism, Christianity, and the Bible (editor), University Press of New England, 2011

Thirty years ago, Mendelssohn did not seem fresh or interesting because Jews acknowledged that we need tolerance, civil liberties, and rights. As an emigrant community, we acknowledged that we were the heirs of American tolerance. We wanted to be part of democratic America by fighting the intolerant Communists. We also wanted to keep religion and politics separate since based on our European experience that mixture would always lead to the removal of our rights. But with the rise of the religious right in the US and Israel, we now are accustomed to hearing voices that want to mix religion and politics or that do not see the pressing need for tolerance, rights, and liberties. In this new climate, Mendelssohn has taken on new meaning.

Mendelssohn envisioned the removal of irrational dogma and superstition from religion. And the avoidance of using dogma as a litmus test for inclusion or to create boundaries and exclusions. In the last thirty, years we have witnessed more irrationality than the 200 years prior. The Enlightenment project was firmly in place between 1780 until 1980; now we have a return of the magical and dogmatic thinking of the early eighteenth century. We also now have a return to mixing Rabbinic authority with dogmatic criteria of belief.

Many Orthodox considered Mendelssohn was a role model. Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of German Neo-Orthodoxy, praised Mendelssohn as ‘a most brilliant and respected personality whose commanding influence has dominated developments to this day.’ Isaac Hirsch, the latter’s son called Mendelssohn “one of the sages of the world, one of the teachers of truth…For us Moses Mendelssohn will always remain the great and noble Jew.” Zev Yaavetz, the secretary for Religious Zionism founder Isaac Reines, is explicit in his seeking to model the movement on Mendelssohn. In the post WWII period, many modern Orthodox rabbis – Belkin, Jung, Agus, Sol Roth, Jacobovits,-wrote articles on how Orthodoxy was tolerant, already assuming the triumph of Mendelssohn on issues of tolerance, for example see Milton Konvitz.

Alexander Altmann, the biographer of Mendelssohn and Orthodox rabbi who studied at the Berlin Seminary, cast the German philosopher in a heroic bronze as exemplar for our own religious lives. It is worth noting that Altmann, following Mendelssohn, considered philosophy and mysticism as opposites, even in his graduate program. For those who do not know anything about Mendelssohn except the misinformation on the web, start with one of the two biographies, Altmann or Feiner or this entry on his philosophy.

Gottlieb who attended Haredi yeshivot in Israel and self-designates his affiliation as “liberal orthodox” returns us to this exemplar Mendelssohn. For those who have not seen his book, Gottlieb sets up two poles in recent scholarship. David Sorkin’s book on Mendelssohn paints the German scholar as a traditionalist, who similar to his contemporary Catholics returning to scholasticism, Mendelssohn returned to medieval thought, what Sorkin calls “Andalusian tradition.” Allan Arkush’s book paints Mendelssohn as a deist who has not worked out the tensions of his system or more pointedly Arkush claims that Mendelssohn actively seeks to hide these tensions. Gottlieb stakes out his thesis that Mendelssohn was creating a modern form of Orthodoxy that uses the best of G. W. Leibnitz and Christian Wolf. The later two thinkers asserted that the truths of religion and philosophy cannot contradict each other, since reason and faith are both “gifts of God.”

1. Why is Mendelssohn relevant to America today?
Mendelssohn is the Jewish thinker closest in spirit to the American founders. His masterwork, Jerusalem was written in 1783 six years after the Declaration of Independence and is grounded in very similar enlightenment principles. His final footnote in Jerusalem even refers to events in the young US congress.

Mendelssohn is relevant to contemporary American discourse about religion and politics because his life and thought call into question many commonly held polarities such as secular vs. religious or America first vs. multiculturalism. He was committed to values that we often call “secular” such as the pursuit of individual happiness in this world, tolerance, and respect for religious diversity, but he saw these values as deriving from religious principles. Similarly, he combined multiple commitments: to Jews and Judaism as an observant Jew, a fighter for Jewish civil rights, and one who sought to revive living knowledge of Hebrew; to the German nation, as one who sought to revitalize German culture and literature: and to humanity as a whole in his concern with upholding individual freedom and dignity. I believe that Mendelssohn’s complex identifications and commitments open up new paths for thinking about religion, secularism, nationalism, and identity.

If I may add a little plug, there will be a public symposium Sunday September 18th at the Center for Jewish History entitled: “Continuing the Conversation: Moses Mendelssohn and the Legacy of the Enlightenment” that will explore these questions.

2. Why should Mendelssohn be important for Modern Orthodoxy?

Modern Orthodoxy typically seeks models to legitimate its project. It has frequently looked to the Maimonides because of his vast Talmudic and halakhic expertise, his synthesizing Judaism with science and philosophy, and his active career as a physician. However, in my view the central dilemmas facing modern Orthodoxy are not whether having a career is legitimate or how to reconcile the Torah with science, but rather with how to square commitment to Torah and halakha with democratic principles such as tolerance, diversity, and individual rights. Maimonides has no concept of human rights and he does not deem tolerance a value. Thus he rules that one who does not perfect his intellect is not truly a human being; that a Jew without proper belief is not an Israelite, but a heretic whom one is commanded to hate and kill; and that one is not permitted to save a dying Gentile.

In contrast, Mendelssohn seeks to show that religious diversity, tolerance, and respect for human rights are Jewish values. For this reason, the slogan “From Moses to Moses there never arose one as great as Moses” was applied to him even in his own life. Mendelssohn addressed perplexities that Maimonides could not even conceive.

Simon Rawidowicz once said that Mendelssohn was unique among German Jewish thinkers. On the one hand, he was widely hailed as one of the greatest philosophers of the German Enlightenment in his lifetime. At the same time, he was a talmid hakham who conducted a high-level halakhic correspondence with Rabbi Ya’akov Emden. To put it in perspective, this would be as if Karl Marx had debated Tosafot with the Netziv or as if Rav Soloveitchik were a phenomenologist philosopher on par with Husserl or Heidegger.

3. Why has Mendelssohn’s had such a bad reputation? Why do people see him falsely?

I believe that a confluence of two factors have caused this. First, many Zionists, most notably Peretz Smolenskin hated Mendelssohn because they saw him as the father of the maskilic dream that Jews could be respected equal citizens in Gentile states. With rising anti-Jewish agitation in the second half of the nineteenth century, many east European maskilim, concluded that Mendelssohn’s philosophy was bankrupt and that Zionism was the only solution to the Jewish problem. Smolenskin accused Mendelssohn of removing the nationalist element from Judaism.

At the same time, some nineteenth century Ultra-Orthodox Jewish thinkers blamed Mendelssohn for the general decline in Jewish religious observance and increasing assimilation, which they saw as caused by the haskalah. Both Zionists and Orthodox Jews pointed to the conversion of four of Mendelssohn’s six children as evidence of the corruption of his thought. Their arguments seemed to receive irrefutable historical confirmation from the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel. A sophisticated, learned, and enormously influential example of this approach in the American Jewish context is Michael Meyer’s 1967 The Origin of the Modern Jew, which is essentially an extended (albeit polite) polemic against Mendelssohn. One should remember that Meyer is a Reform scholar.

I think that most Jews today see liberal democracy as beneficial for the Jews. The thesis that Zionism is the definitive solution to anti-Semitism is made more questionable by the day.

Furthermore, most people are not Hegelian idealists who believe that the validity of an idea can be measured by later history. History is complex, messy and filled with contingency and surprises. An idea that may seem dead at one period may suddenly be revived later.

The perils of judging a thinker’s ideas by the fate of their descendants is illustrated vividly by considering the case of the two Rabbis most strongly opposed to Mendelssohn’s Bi’ur, Rabbi Raphael Cohen the chief Rabbi of the triple community of Hamburg-Altona-Wandsbeck and Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, the Nodah Beyehudah, Prague’s chief Rabbi. Rabbi Cohen’s most famous grandson was Gabriel Riesser a fighter for Jewish emancipation in the 19th century who was also a leading Reform Jew. The Nodah Beyehudah’s grandson Moses Landau was a Maskil who in 1836 published a 20 volume edition of Mendelssohn’s Bi’ur with his own commentary. What does then does this say about Rabbi Cohen and the Nodah Beyehudah?

4. The Enlightenment project has taken a beating in recent decades. Universal reason is seen as a chimera in recent thought. Do you have thoughts on the beating?

To my mind, the postmodern critique of the Enlightenment is increasingly a spent force. One problem is that postmodernism was used to justify political programs such as multiculturalism, which claimed to give equal respect to minorities, but in fact created segregated communities in which resentment built and religious extremism flourished. I think that the postmodern critique of rational standards of truth has had very grave social, political, and ethical consequences. It has given intellectual legitimacy to all sorts of fanatical, intolerant worldviews in the name of tolerance. If we are going to inhabit a common world, then we need to have a common language and common standards for judging values and ideologies. Reason is still our best hope.

5. Who are your favorite 20th century thinkers and why?

I believe that once one has internalized historical consciousness there is no going back. My favorite thinkers are those who use exacting historical scholarship built upon deep knowledge of languages and texts, to address contemporary theological and political questions. Leo Strauss, especially in his early work, is a model of such an approach and I have enormous respect for his work although I reject most of his conclusions. In many ways my book on Mendelssohn is an extended argument with Strauss. I also admire Isaiah Berlin who was a more talented synthesizer of ideas than Strauss, but to my mind not as careful a reader of texts. Ernst Cassirer, especially his book on the Enlightenment, is another favorite of mine.

7 responses to “An Interview with Michah Gottlieb: Moses Mendelssohn as a Guide for Orthodoxy

  1. Feiner needs more friends: The only Amazon review of his book is from a Coulter-loving, Pat Buchanan follower who thinks the Englightenment — and no doubt Vatican II — is a bad idea.

    I think Gotlieb missed the reason Mendelssohn’s name is still villified by Haredim: The need for every idea to have a singular originator to whom it can be attributed. From the standpoint of history of ideas, it’s obviously ridiculous, but that’s the logic of the Mishna.

    For those of us who don’t have time to read the biography (four copies of which are in the Teaneck library system), could you share some excerpts of how Mendelssohn is important for today? That is to say, examples of Mendelssohn in action?

  2. >I think Gotlieb missed the reason Mendelssohn’s name is still villified by Haredim: The need for every idea to have a singular originator to whom it can be attributed. From the standpoint of history of ideas, it’s obviously ridiculous, but that’s the logic of the Mishna.

    It’s not just the Haredim. Until Smolenskin the Maskilim almost always were unstinting in their praise of Mendelssohn, and they too saw him as a singular originator. Zionists saw Ben Yehuda as the founder of modern Hebrew, etc.

    As it happens, past the popular level of the masses, the Haredim “remember” Mendelssohn’s contemporaries too and do not lack for discussions of them. Wessely, Satanow – they are all vilified in countless journals and books (except of course when selected maskilim are being rehabilitated for certain purposes).

  3. Loved the interview with Michah and can’t wait to read the book(s). I wonder thought what kind of orthodoxy Mendelssohn would model. I’m not sure that “traditionalist” is the right word with which to describe him. While clearly loyal to the world of tradition in which his life and thought are profoundly and genuinely steeped, I’d rather call him post-traditional and post-halakhic, given the full range of his life and thought.

    What strikes me about Mendelssohn for today is the rejection of ecclesiastical authority, and the fluid freedom and poetry and gentle heart with which he conceived Jewish life. As Michah notes, the way he balanced everything (secularism and religion, particularism and universalism, etc etc). By “law,” Mendellsohn clearly meant something that Strauss did not (“obedience”).

    For Reb Yudel, don’t bother with the magnificent Altmann biography. It contains way too much information and I can’t help but think it would bore you to tears. I’d go straight to the second part of Jerusualem and its presentation of “the cermonial law” as “living script” (or what we today might call “performance”); and also the play of Psalms and his dramatic reading (presented in dialogue form) of the Golden Calf, the 13 attributes and the kindness of a forgiving God.

    The question I guess I would ask is whether there is an *institutional* place for this kind of liberalism in the firmament of modern orthodox Judaism.

  4. zjb, how does revealed legislation (and observance) correspond with post-halakhic, even in the full range of his life and thought?

    • Dear S:

      Re: “post-halakhic,” I’d put it this way, I guess. By “post” I don’t mean “anti” or “non.” Consider how the great postmodern Lyotard makes so much hay out Barnett Newmann, a great modernist (abstract expressionist) painter. Or Derrida and Mallarme. In the same way that all the really good post-moderns were “super modern” and “post,” I’d say the same about Mendelssohn, and I’d probably say the same about Rosenzweig (Following this logic, Buber, of course was not post-halakhic).

      Clearly, Mendelssohn was an observant, “halakhic” Jew. But I think he was willing to push halakhah in ways that pushed the boundaries of what might have been *considered* and what might still in some cricles be considered more “traditionalist” forms of halakhic Judaism. Take for instance the flexibility expressed by him re: the controversy with Emden about Jewish burial, i.e. his willingness to bend the halakhah in the interest of the civil state. Or how his interest in “law” had less to do with law (psak) than with the poetry of ceremonial performance (in my opinion). Or his rejection of civic Jewish law after the Hurban. Or his rejection of coercion and coercive religious authority (especially his rejection of the herem). Or his skepticism re: appeals to the authority of miracle as a foundation for Jewish law. Or the easy concourse with gentiles. Or the deep, deep immersion in classical and German culture.

      If you prefer, perhaps “meta-halakhic” is the better term, as it is more current in recent discussions. And perhaps “post-traditional” would also be a better term. I certainly did not mean the term “post-halakhic” to put anyone’s teeth on edge since I don’t see a radical negation in it usage.

      I hope this makes sense to you.
      Best, — zjb

  5. If Mendelssohn was regarded as a third link in “From Moshe to Moshe” in his own lifetime, it must be in part because he viewed himself as such a link. His first published work was a commentary on Maimonides’ first work, the Milot haHigayon. In R Kapach’s edition, it’s characterized as the best commentary available, although RK can’t bring himself to alienate his Charedi readers by actually saying “Mendelssohn” – he calls him RM”D, which, after a bit, I realized must be R’ Moshe Dessauer, or Mendelssohn.

    Some editions of the Biur call him Rambeman – R’ Moshe ben Menachem Mendel – another link to Rambam.

    One calumny I often see online, starting with the previous Lubavitcher rebbe, is attributing to him the statement/idea, “Be a Jew in the home and a man in the street.” Which just goes to show that people don’t know much about RM”D – there’s a widely-quoted letter where he makes a point about refusing to drink non-Jewish wine in the home of a nobleman. Really that statement is due to YL Gordon, in the middle 19th century, and Stanislawski sees it as a call for TIDE, not for abandonment of public displays of Jewishness.

    BTW, one of Sorkin’s essay collections got me interested in Mendelssohn and his circle. I now have a number of books by Mendelssohn and particularly Wessely, who wrote more in Hebrew than in German – I don’t read German.

  6. @ Jon Baker, I also thought that R. Yossef Kappach took into consideration the villification of Mandelson by the Haredim, but considering that Mendelshon himself signed R’ Moshe Dessauer, the question is rather how he signed his commentaty to the “Malechet haHigayon” (as R. K. has it, and not Milot as other translations).
    In any case, Rabbi Kappach suffered enough from the attacks of the Haredim on his father, grand’father and himself to warrant prudence!

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