Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Evil or Enigma - The Jewish Observer on Rambaman

In the Jewish Observer of December, 1986, there appeared an article entitled "The Enigma of Moses Mendelssohn", which discussed the life and beliefs of the father of the Enlightenment. The article, which was highly critical of Mendelssohn, particularly because he failed to follow the advice and decisions of Torah scholars, noted however that although most of his children and grandchildren converted to other religions, he personally was an observant Jew all his life.

This article caused such an "outcry", that in the next issue of that periodical, the Chairman of the Board of the Observer printed a "mea culpa", apologizing for the article's positive mention of Mendelssohn, whose name is generally anathema in Orthodox circles. In addition, the Observer printed the comments of the Novominsker Rav castigating Mendelssohn; these comments, it noted, were expressed at the specific request of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah of Agudath Israel. (From here.)

The following is a photo of the response in question. I would also note a similar response of the Novominsker Rebbe to the book HaGaon (printed in Yeshurun). Examples of the way in which complications of the present can affect our understanding of the past.

R' Perlow's distinction between R' Hirsch and Mendelssohn is somewhat hard to understand. First of all, R' Hirsch himself was also "culturally a throughbred German" who "glorifed in Enlightment" and "Secular" values. (See the quotation in S. Leiman - Rabbinic Response to Modernity. R' {erlow served as a Dayan for the Washington Heights community and is I am sure well aware of R' Hirsch's position. ). Nor do I quite understand where in his many writings Mendelssohn advocates a "schizophrenia" of values. Admittedly, R' Hirsch does speak against the example that Mendelssohn set as - a fully believing Jew and also the "German Socrates" (See Yitzchok Breuer's Moriah 134-137) but this is not to say that this was Mendelssohn's ideal Yisroel-Mentsch. The differences between R' Hirsch and Mendelssohn is more likely to be attributed to the different times they lived in then to anything else.

Nor, does the claim that Mendlessohn's observance was merely a "circumscribed aspect of his being". Does the following statement:
ואני מעיד עלי שמים וארץ, והנני נשבע לך באל האמת בוראי ובוראך, כאשר השבעתני אתה בקדמתך, שלא אחליף ולא אמיר דתי כל עוד נשמה באפי ורוח אלהי בקרבי
(from his letter to Lavater) anything less then a very sincere affirmation of the centrality of his Judaism to life.
As far as his refernce to the "judgement of Gedolei Yisroel" - I believe M. Hildesheimer in his various articles on the attitude of the Gedolei Yisroel towards Mendelssohn has provided ample proof that their position was hardly as monolithic as R' Perlow contends.

As for the issue of the conversion of Mendlessohn't children. The matter is quite simple, and in fact follows an easily recognizable pattern. Mendelssohn died at the relatively young age of fifty six. His oldest son Joseph was 16 at the time. It is hardly to be wondered that his children growing up in a difficulty period of history without their fathers guidance should lose their connection to Judaism. It is significant that Mendelssohn's oldest children who had the benefit of their father's guidance did remain Jewish. (A similar pattern can be observed in the Chazzan Yossele Rosenblatt who, like Mendelssohn, died young and whose older children remained observant whereas the younger children did not. The same pattern can be seen in other families as well. Interestingly, the chldren of Mendelssohn's colleague - Naftali Hertz Wessely who followed a somehwat similar path - did remain Jewish and observant. I am personally acquainted with a direct descendant of R' Naftali who continues the tradition of his illustrious ancestor.)

I would venture to say that it was Mendelssohn's untimely death more then anything else that caused the failure of his movement. Without the guidance of their mentor at a crucial period, his disciples had not the ability to continue in his path leading to the collapse of the movement.


Lion of Zion said...

"As for the issue of the conversion of Mendlessohn't children. The matter is quite simple, and in fact follows an easily recognizable pattern."

interesting analysis. personally i role my eyes when a person's frumkeit is determined based on how his children turned out. yes, there is a classical basis for this and it does make sense, bu it's a pretty dangerous game to start playing to see who has skeletons in their geneologies.

"Without the guidance of their mentor at a crucial period, his disciples had not the ability to continue in his path leading to the collapse of the movement."

the way i learned this period (about 10 years ago) is that the newer historiography moved down mendelssohn a few notches from his pedastel as the grandfather of the haskalah. iirc there was an interesting article in LBIYB that argues this point. most of his so-called disciples matured independently of his tutelage and some spent minimal time in berlin altogether. mendelssohn is of course elevated to the role he is assigned both because of his literary output, but more importantly because he enjoyed by far the greatest standing in gentile society and was thus the paradigm of haskalah. again, all this is iirc.

avakesh.com said...

I recall a well-written article in "Light" a British Kollel publication of decades ago, in which Emdnelsohn was portrayed as someone whose inner values were Gentile and philosophical and whose observance was therefore by rote. The apostasy of his children and students was blamed on this.

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