Moses Mendelssohn

BookMoses Mendelssohn

Moses Mendelssohn

A Biographical Study

The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization


March 1st, 1984

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Alexander Altmann’s acclaimed, wide-ranging biography of Moses Mendelssohn (1729–96) was first published in 1973, but its stature as the definitive biography remains unquestioned. In fact, there has been no subsequent attempt at an intellectual biography of this towering and unusual figure: no other Jew so deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition was at the same time so much a part of the intellectual life of the German Enlightenment in the second half of the eighteenth century. As such, Moses Mendelssohn came to be recognized as the inaugurator of a new phase in Jewish history; all modern Jews today are in his debt.

Altmann presents Moses Mendelssohn in strictly biographical terms. He does not attempt to assess his significance with the hindsight of historical perspective nor to trace his image in subsequent generations, but rather to observe his life from the period within which it was set. Altmann has written an absorbing and compelling narrative that makes a whole epoch come alive with great drama, for Mendelssohn’s life was a kaleidoscope of the European intellectual scene, Jewish and non-Jewish. As both a prominent philosopher and a believing Jew, Mendelssohn became a spokesman for the Jews and Judaism; he was one of the rare figures who become the symbol of an era. Through Altmann’s skilful use of hitherto unpublished archival material, the reader is introduced to the vast array of people—men of letters, artists, politicians, scientists, philosophers, and theologians—with whom Mendelssohn was in contact, and sometimes in conflict.

What was Mendelssohn’s Judaism like? To what extent did the disparate worlds of Judaism and modern Enlightenment jostle each other in his mind and to what degree could he harmonize them? These questions are not easily answered, and it is only in the aggregate of a multitude of accounts of experiences, reaction, and statements on his part that the answer is to be found. Alexander Altmann’s analysis of this wealth of material is extraordinary in its discernment, subtlety, and clarity of expression.

This masterly work will be of interest not only to those who are concerned with Jewish intellectual history but also to those interested in eighteenth-century cultural and social history, philosophy and theology, literary criticism, aesthetics, and the other areas of intellectual activity in ferment at that time. The general reader will also find much of contemporary relevance in Mendelssohn’s life, not only because of his exemplary devotion to reason and tolerance, but also because of his lifelong struggle with the basic dilemma of the Jew in the modern world: the attraction of assimilation versus the singularity of Jewish life, and the preservation of Jewish identity versus integration in the wider society.

'Alexander Altmann's monumental new biography not only supersedes the Kayserling study but should also serve as a turning point in the historical re-evaluation of Mendelssohn's role in the process of Jewish emancipation ... The happy combination of all these qualities in Professor Altmann makes his work a major achievement of scholarship.'
- Jacob Katz, Commentary

'The definitive biography of Mendelssohn.'
- Salo W. Baron, Jerusalem Post Magazine

'There is an overpowering effect on the reader in studying the results of Professor Altmann's facts compiled as a biography and emerging as so much more: as history, as a record of controversies over religious adherence and strict and faithful Jewish observance, as theological disputation, as remarkable reporting on the philosophic discourses with noted Christians as well as Jews, as commentary on Jewish laws by the hero of the book whose piety and Jewish devotions are respected to this day... Altmann's creative work excels in many respects. It is history par excellence. It is thorough research. It is unsparing in criticism and it recognizes the merits of controversy. It will rank as an indestructible work and will be among the classics in biographic literature.’
- Detroit Jewish News

‘This monumental work is now required reading for everyone interested in Jewish intellectual history and in the spiritual, cultural, and religious development of the Jewish people in modern times.’
Moshe Pelli, Jewish Quarterly Review

‘Generally, Judaica books published by university presses are definitive studies certain to be “classics” a hundred years from now.  Among these is Alexander Altmann's biography... This is a definitive biography... it is written in a beautiful style... I predict that one hundred years from now... Moses Mendelssohn will be read and studied in new and reprinted editions.’
- Jewish Spectator

Author Information

Alexander Altmann (1906–87) was born in Hungary and educated at the Rabbinical Seminary, Berlin, and at the University of Berlin. In 1938 he left Germany for Manchester, England, where he was appointed communal rabbi. While in Manchester he founded the Institute of Jewish Studies that later moved to University College, London. In 1959 he was appointed Professor of Jewish Philosophy at Brandeis University, Massachusetts, and Director of its Lown Institute of Advanced Judaic Studies. A Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, his numerous publications in English, Hebrew, and German range over such diverse fields as classical rabbinic literature, medieval Judaeo-Arabic philosophy, Jewish mysticism, eighteenth-century Enlightenment, and modern Jewish thought. Among his significant contributions to the history of Jewish thought are 'Saadya Gaon: The Book of Doctrines and Beliefs' (1946), 'Studies in Religions, Philosophy and Mysticism' (1969), and 'Studies in Jewish Intellectual History' (1981). In later years, much of Professor Altmann’s scholarly work focused on Moses Mendelssohn and the period of the German Enlightenment, and he took over the editorship of Mendelssohn’s 'Gesammelte Schriften' (collected works). In 1979, the 250th anniversary of Mendelssohn’s birth, he delivered the key lecture in Berlin on ‘Enlightenment and Culture’ at the ceremony marking the city's celebration of Mendelssohn's life.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
Half Title2
Title Page4
Copyright 5
Table of Contents10
List of Illustrations12
1: Years of Growth20
Childhood in Dessau20
The Early Years in Berlin32
The Budding Philosopher42
The Metaphysician67
The Bel Esprit82
A Learned Society91
Kohelet Mussar100
2: Maturity and Fame109
Marriage and Family Life109
Thomas Abbt117
The Prize-Essay129
The Correspondence on the Vocation of Man147
The Phaedon157
Questions and Answers175
Cognate Hebrew Writings196
3: Turning Point: The Lavater Affair211
"Juif de Berlin"211
The Prehistory of the Lavater Affair218
Lavater's Challenge and Mendelssohn's Reply226
First Reactions and Behind-the-Scene Activities; Lavater's Reply and Mendelssohn's Epilogue240
Reverberations of the Conflict251
Literary Concerns and Another Lavater Episode259
4: Changes in the Pattern of Life281
The Strange Illness281
Ups and Downs: A Chronicle of Events288
Hebraica and Judaica303
The Chronicle Continued312
Some Philosophical Preoccupations330
Friends in Unexpected Quarters346
5: The Teacher363
The Avant-Garde of Haskala363
The German Translation of the Pentateuch385
Obstacles on the Road400
Completing the Work422
6: Political Reformer438
Spokesman of his People438
Cooperation with Dohm466
A Momentous Event and a New Tract for the Times478
The Issue of Educational Reform491
The Summer of 1782506
7: Strains and Stresses570
Friendship with Lessing: The Last Phase570
A Projected Essay on Lessing's Character599
Jacobi's Attitude toward Mendelssohn: Antecedents of their Conflict610
An Uneasy Correspondence620
8: Guardian of the Enlightenment655
The Contest655
Literary Activity: 1783–1785670
Morning Hours688
In Combat715
The Social and Domestic Scene729
The End746
Index of Subjects and Names893