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The Jewish Enlightenment (Jewish Culture and Contexts)
The Jewish Enlightenment (Jewish Culture and Contexts)
Shmuel Feiner
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003
456 pp., $65.00

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Germans, Jews, and the Claims of Modernity
Germans, Jews, and the Claims of Modernity
Professor Jonathan M. Hess
Yale University Press, 2002
256 pp., $50.00

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Judaism and Enlightenment (Ideas in Context)
Judaism and Enlightenment (Ideas in Context)
Adam Sutcliffe
Cambridge University Press, 2003
340 pp., $118.00

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By Jonathon Kahn


Which Enlightenment?

Moses Mendelssohn and the Haskalah

In 1769, the Swiss theologian Johann Caspar Lavater publicly challenged Moses Mendelssohn, known throughout Germany to Jew and non-Jew alike as the "German Socrates," to refute logically Christianity's conception of the soul. Lavater ratcheted the stakes of his challenge high: If Mendelssohn could not show the Christian notion to be false, Lavater urged him "to do what Socrates would have done" and convert to Christianity. Though Lavater's challenge was seen as unseemly and out-of-step with the protocol of philosophical discourse of the time, it made explicit what was just under the surface in intellectual and religious circles in Europe, and Germany in particular: Where Christian beliefs and ethics were understood as universally available to anyone regardless of time and place, Judaism was forever circumscribed by the time-bound revelation at Sinai and the enforced practice of a culturally specific code of laws. In the age of Enlightenment, Judaism was a parochial anachronism, a coercive atavism, which universalist winds would eventually dry up and blow away.

The fallout from the "Lavater affair" galvanized the rest of Mendelssohn's career; over the next decade Mendelssohn was increasingly pushed by other Christian intellectuals to justify his Judaism. In response, Mendelssohn wrote his great work on religious tolerance, Jerusalem: Or, On Religious Power and Judaism (1783), which argues that Christianity, in relentlessly insisting to others on the universality of its doctrines, coerces religious belief. Judaism, in fact, in demanding only ritual action but not belief, speaks more precisely to the spirit of the Enlightenment age, embodied by Kant's famous call in his essay, "What Is Enlightenment?" (1784) to "argue as much as you please, but obey." Modern critics, however, have long considered Jerusalem a circumspect text, marked by more than just a tincture of apology. After all, Mendelssohn's depiction of Judaism as a paragon of natural reason, without exclusive religious ...

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