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The Jewish Enlightenment (Jewish Culture and Contexts)
The Jewish Enlightenment (Jewish Culture and Contexts)
Shmuel Feiner
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004
456 pp., 74.76

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

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Judaism and Enlightenment (Ideas in Context, Series Number 66)
Judaism and Enlightenment (Ideas in Context, Series Number 66)
Adam Sutcliffe
Cambridge University Press, 2003
340 pp., 109.0

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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 or doctrinal truths, trades in the rationalist currency of Enlightenment philosophy. On these terms, the Mendelssohn-led Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, appears as a series of philosophical capitulations. It should come as no surprise that Kant himself, whose mint casts Enlightenment coin, saw Jerusalem as "the proclamation of a great reform … a reform that is in store not only for your own people but for other nations as well." Kant eagerly anticipated Mendelssohn's conversion to Christianity.

Mendelssohn had other ideas. He had no intention of giving up Judaism, including the strict practice of its rituals. He wanted to become part of German civic life while remaining a Jew. Yet he also knew that full participation in Germany would necessarily require reforming Judaism's strict rabbinic clericalism. Over the last 20 years, scholars have begun to recast our understanding of both Mendelssohn's and the Haskalah's goals. Instead of seeing the Jewish embrace of Enlightenment discourse and values as uncritically assimilationist, these scholars find in the rhetoric of the maskilim (enlightened Jews) a protest against and an attempt to transform the terms of both Enlightenment philosophical thought and Judaism. On this view, the Haskalah was conducting two quite different conversations at the same time. Its appropriation of rationalist language and concepts led to a critique of Enlightenment philosophical and political discourse on terms immanent to that very discourse. (We need not wait for Hegel and the emergence of German Romanticism for critical reevaluations of Kant's Enlightenment; the Haskalah is a contemporaneous counternarrative.) At the same time, the maskilim were using these very criticisms of the Enlightenment to alter the shape, meaning, and look of Jewish tradition.

Three recent books elaborate and further this account of the Jewish Enlightenment. Jonathan Hess' intellectual history Germans, Jews and the Claims of Modernity and Michael Mack's more philosophically driven German Idealism and the Jew: The Inner Anti-Semitism of Philosophy and German Jewish Responses position Mendelssohn at the heart of Haskalah. Shmuel Feiner's well-researched The Jewish Enlightenment claims that Mendelssohn has been "unjustly accorded status of father or founder of Haskalah," and seeks to displace him from that perch by presenting a comprehensive and variegated history of an array of maskilim. A fourth work, Judaism and Enlightenment by Adam Sutcliffe, is a historical account of the place and role of Judaism, and particularly Baruch Spinoza, in the minds of 17th- and early 18th-century non-Jewish Enlightenment intellectuals. What is common to all four texts is the claim that the Haskalah, in its attempt to negotiate multiple tensions—to reform and radicalize, to remain pious while broaching the Enlightenment spirit of universalism and tolerance—enacted a quintessential drama of modernity.

Hess' Germans, Jews, and the Claims of Modernity vividly captures the precarious ambivalence of Mendelssohn's station—that is, just how much difficult stretching was required in order to challenge both normative German notions of Jewish emancipation and Jewish tradition itself. Hess' emphasis is not, however, on the philosophical coherence of Mendelssohn's arguments. Particularly when it comes to his account of German-Jewish dialogue, Hess highlights the way differences in political, economic, and social power influence the shape of Mendelssohn's conversation:

The notion that Germans and Jews might have entered into dialogue in some neutral social space where all power relations were suspended assumes that there could have been at least some basic level of formal equality between participants. For Jews intervening in the emancipation debates, it was precisely the absence of this possibility that was so striking.

Thus, Hess cites Mendelssohn in a private letter to his cousin lamenting the restraint he needed to show in the Lavater affair: "God knows that it was not easy for me to make myself withdraw from the dispute…If it had depended on me alone, I would have wanted to give an entirely different response." Indeed, Hess' remarkable chapter on the fantastical plan of the famous German Orientalist Johann David Michaelis to deport Germany's Jews to an empty "sugar island" of the Caribbean—at once restoring "sugar island Jews" to their ancient Israelite roots of manual labor while alleviating Germany's dependence on European colonial powers for its sugar—speaks to the precarious status of Germany's Jews, even at the height of the Enlightenment. For Michaelis, the Jews were not German enough to be integrated fully into Germany, but German enough so that their forced labor represented indigenous German efforts at self-sufficiency.

Hess reads Jerusalem through Mendelssohn's wariness of provoking anti-Semitism. This leads Hess to what may be the most puzzling part of Jerusalem: Mendelssohn's reappropriation of Jesus as a Jewish reformer whose goal is to separate state politics from freedom of religious conscience. For Mendelssohn, Jesus' strict separation of the political from the religious hearkens back to the early Mosaic covenant. On Mendelssohn's view, Mosaic Judaism did not dictate specific doctrinal or theological beliefs necessary for salvation. This original Judaism, by virtue of its refusal to coerce religious belief, was tolerant of differences in religious practice. Mendelssohn's reading of Jesus thus has two purposes. First, by using his reading of Jesus to make clear the way religious tolerance is central to Mosaic Judaism, Mendelssohn lambastes modern rabbis' increasing use of excommunication as a way of staving off the threat of modernity. Second, the way in which Jerusalem's Jewish Jesus shuns prescribed dogmas represents Mendelssohn's attempt to point out to Germany that its insistence on Jewish acceptance of Christian beliefs before gaining entry to civil society represents a betrayal of its founder's most basic commitments.

Hess persuasively argues that Mendelssohn's Jewish Jesus marks a formative moment in conceiving of modernity in terms of a heterogeneous civil society. Unlike Kantian universalism, which with its aspirations for rational autonomy and its totalizing moral categorical imperative does not allow for cultural diversity, Mendelssohn "makes modernity anti-colonial, using Judaism as its prime exemplar to articulate a universalist vision grounded in an appreciation of cultural religious difference."

In his penultimate chapter, Hess advances a polemical suggestion: that the philosophical standards of the Enlightenment—exemplified by Kant's vision of what counts as enlightened modernity—rely in no small part on a demonizing of Judaism. Mack's German Idealism and the Jew is a full-scale elaboration of this notion, insisting that German idealism from Kant to Hegel is based on an inveterate anti-Semitism. His argument is not mincing: Both Kant and Hegel disdain Jews and Judaism as forever irrationally bound to empirical necessities and worldly-materials. In its insistence on worshiping God through this-worldly ritual practice, Judaism embodies for Kant the state of heteronomy, a slavish dependence on a force other than autonomous reason. For Hegel, Judaism signifies the stubborn inability to dialectically overcome contingency and immediacy. On Mack's view, anti-Semitism needs to be understood not as a reaction against Enlightenment universalism and rationality but as a critical stanchion in its architecture. German idealism thrives on anti-Semitism.

Mack traces an alternative line of Jewish philosophy that begins with Mendelssohn and goes through later figures such as Heinrich Heine, Heinrich Graetz, Sigmund Freud, and Franz Rosenzweig. This Mendelssohnian tradition, Mack suggests, accepted Kant's and Hegel's understanding of Judaism as this-worldly, contingent, and even heteronomous, yet with a crucial difference: according to these thinkers, it is only in heteronomy that human dignity, social justice, love for the other, and finally freedom exist. For Mendelssohn, Judaism is a reasonable religion precisely because it acknowledges that human existence is necessarily enmeshed in social and natural contingencies. Mack finds in Mendelssohn's lineage of Jewish philosophy a different version of reason than Kant's, for which human contingencies represent impediments to reason. Thus Mack cites Graetz, for whom Judaism is a religion whose metaphysics can only be adumbrated through an account of social and political realities: "these material and social purposes are permeated by metaphysical ideas…Knowledge of God and social welfare, religious truth and political theory form the two components of Judaism which are destined to flow through history thoroughly mixed." Mack sees the arc of this type of Jewishness going through Freud's psychoanalysis, which alleviates suffering by helping the patient become more intimate with the specificities of her existence, and Rosenzweig's metaphysics, which shuns Kant's insistence that ethics is fundamentally about treating everyone the same and instead asserts that ethics should be concerned with honoring and caring for the specifics of the other's situation.

If Mack's celebration of contingency, difference, and material and social realities sounds familiar to our contemporary ear, it is because this is the dominant discourse of what Richard Rorty has called the linguistic turn in philosophy. What Mack has done is to root the modern philosophy of contingency and social relations in Mendelssohn's Jewish protest against Kant. Mack, in effect, demands that present representatives of philosophies of contingency pay their due respects and acknowledge that the philosophical, political, and historical theories of our modern times—from multiculturalism, to democratic pluralism, to French theoretical critiques of the Enlightenment—begin with Jewish counternarratives.

This argument is bold but flawed, because it risks ignoring the diversity of Judaism itself. Mack essentializes Judaism as a redemptive philosophy of heteronomy. And though the philosophers of heteronomy in Mack's list are, in fact, Jewish, none of them is representative of anything like a culture of Jewish worshippers. Indeed, to the degree that any of them even practices Judaism, it is an idiosyncratic strain. Amid current conditions of ethnic, religious, and national balkanization, Mack insists that current social theory and practice can learn about pluralism from German Jewish responses to the Enlightenment. A good place to start, however, would have been for Mack to have attended explicitly to what he means by "Jewish."

Sutcliffe's Judaism and the Enlightenment works as a companion to Mack, providing a pre-Kantian account of the way Enlightenment thinkers used Judaism to signify all that was not enlightened: "Like a stubborn shard of intellectual grit, Judaism was an ubiquitous, troubling and often frustrating presence in the minds of early advocates of reason and Enlightenment." Yet Sutcliffe's account does not have a sharp argumentative edge. He is not interested in leveling charges of anti-Semitism, even in cases when his own readings would seem to justify such a charge. It is not clear what more Sutcliffe wants to say about the fact that Christian Enlightenment intellectuals position Judaism in their texts "as the defining antithesis of their authors' own implied values and opinions." Rarely does he lift his head above his encyclopedic account of such examples to provide the reader with a more synoptic interpretive view. This is a text better suited for readers searching for historical details about obscure Enlightenment figures than for those seeking to breathe in the ethos of the time.

Happily, Shmuel Feiner's The Jewish Enlightenment is a piece of historiography that deftly places its detailed historical sketches in a thematic frame. Feiner is interested in a very discrete period from 1765-1800 when the maskil first emerges. First, he dislodges Mendelssohn from his place as founder and father of the Haskalah—but not by "discovering" yet another rarified thinker who has allegedly been unfairly neglected. Instead, Feiner's real service is in expanding the definition of what it was to be a maskil beyond the circle of university-educated Jewish intellectuals.

Feiner's account of the maskilim includes merchants and members of the cultured bourgeoisie who wanted to direct the rationalist economic and political spirit of the age toward reform of Jewish culture; independent autodidacts, neither part of the traditional religious élite nor the emerging university culture, who were drawn to literature, poetry, philology, and biblical studies; and even scholars of the Talmud, members of the religious élite who advanced reform by introducing non-religious material into education. Feiner reconstructs the conversations they had with each other. Indeed, the most captivating section of Feiner's work is his account of the intense furor provoked in the Talmudic world by Berliner Hebrew linguist and biblical scholar Herz Wessely's eight-page pamphlet proposing to reform Jewish education by integrating "the teaching of God" with the "teaching of man."

By shifting the spotlight from Mendelssohn's celebrated negotiations with the German élite, Feiner renders the early Jewish Haskalah above all as an "internal Jewish discourse not intended to serve the tendency to break away from Jewish culture and society," but rather "a conscious endeavor to build an innovative Jewish sphere to renew a Jewish culture out of sense of responsibility for Jewry as a whole." For Feiner, the "early maskilim" project of reforming Judaism for the sake of creating a distinctively Jewish culture needs to be understood as a discrete and "autonomous trend … not dependent on the mature Haskalah movement," which overwhelmingly emphasized assimilation and did not intend to preserve anything distinctively Jewish. This decidedly Jewish Jewish Enlightenment ultimately failed. Particularly sobering is Feiner's presentation of the maskil David Friedlander, who in the 1770s founded the Feischule Hebrew printing house out of concern for Jewish education but by 1799 announced the demise of his own project: "No one reads any of the books written in Hebrew… . I would propose that a sign be placed on all the Hebrew printing houses: Here books are printed that are never read."

Indeed, the example of Freidlander should prompt the reader to hesitate before entirely accepting Feiner's hard-and-fast distinction between the early and mature Haskalah. As Feiner has it, the early maskilim, in their project of Jewish autonomy within modernity, were not an assimilating force. Yet, if the very terms of the early Haskalah were doomed to failure—that is, if these early maskilim could not produce a sustainable Jewish project—is there not a way in which their efforts gave rise to the assimilating drive of the 19th century? Feiner wants to glorify and validate a type of modernist liberal traditionalism that he sees in the early maskilim, yet the impression he leaves is of the precariousness and ultimate futility of such projects.

Reading about the Haskalah is valuable precisely for the way it imparts a sense of the fragility of religious reform in light of modern forces of democratic pluralism. However, what seems most important to take from the Haskalah is not a lesson in the fundamental incompatibility of religious tradition and modernity. The lasting impression of the maskilim is the ingenuity and integrity with which they sought to adapt Judaism for participation in modern civil society. The maskilim felt that Judaism would survive and survive well with a significant amount of change; they are proof that the borders of religious tradition are at times much more elastic than often assumed.

In many ways, the Haskalah throws into relief the ways in which secular modernity itself is guilty of pernicious dogmatisms. That Enlightenment philosophy, which is responsible for some of our most treasured ideals about universal human rights, was rooted in a consistent discourse of anti-Semitism should give us pause. This is not a reason to give up the precious legacies of modernity—including political institutions and legal traditions that have undoubtedly lessened human suffering—yet the deeply problematic roots of Enlightenment thought should be a chastening reminder of its own sins and imperfections.

Jonathon Kahn has a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University's Society of Fellows in the Humanities.

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