Moses Mendelssohn: Philosopher of the Enlightenment
by Shmuel Feiner
The “German Socrates,” Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786) was the most influential Jewish thinker of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A Berlin celebrity and a major figure in the Enlightenment, revered by Immanuel Kant, Mendelssohn suffered the indignities common to Jews of his time while formulating the philosophical foundations of a modern Judaism suited for a new age. His most influential books included the groundbreaking Jerusalem and a translation of the Bible into German that paved the way for generations of Jews to master the language of the larger culture.
Feiner’s book is the first that offers a full, human portrait of this fascinating man—uncommonly modest, acutely aware of his task as an intellectual pioneer, shrewd, traditionally Jewish, yet thoroughly conversant with the world around him—providing a vivid sense of Mendelssohn’s daily life as well as of his philosophical endeavors. Feiner, a leading scholar of Jewish intellectual history, examines Mendelssohn as father and husband, as a friend (Mendelssohn’s long-standing friendship with the German dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was seen as a model for Jews and non-Jews worldwide), as a tireless advocate for his people, and as an equally indefatigable spokesman for the paramount importance of intellectual independence and human dignity.
As Feiner writes in this biography, “We study Moses Mendelssohn not only to reconstruct the principal benchmarks in his life, or to discuss the essentials of his philosophical thinking, but also to reveal the dilemmas inherent in the Jews’ experience of modernity. To scrutinize Mendelssohn’s soul is to discover a tragic tension between, on one hand, the Enlightenment’s liberal fighter, who took aim against religious fanaticism, political oppression, and superstition in the name of reason, morality, and humanism, and, on the other hand, the sensitive, vulnerable man who felt helpless in the face of the invincible forces of what he called ‘the specters of the dead.’ . . . To begin our inquiry, however, we must first go back to the early stages of his life, to discover how the decisive transformation took place—how a talented youth destined to join the elite of rabbinical scholars became a renowned Jewish-German philosopher.”
"Readable and lively..... An excellent introduction to Mendelssohn for students and interested lay readers...."
--Religious Studies Review
"In this brief biography Shmuel Feiner, a scholar of the Jewish Enlightenment and professor of Modern Jewish History at Bar Ilan University, paints a sympathetic picture of this modest man who achieved wide recognition for his groundbreaking thought but whose life was marked by the strains imposed on him as a Jew."Maron L. Waxman, Jewish Book Council
"Mendelssohn's most striking achievement...appears to be, in Feiner's deft retelling of the life, his ability to be an integral part of the Jewish life of his times, religiously and culturally, while just as skillfully commandeering the gentile world."Robert Leiter, Jewish Exponent
"Readable and lively..... An excellent introduction to Mendelssohn for students and interested lay readers as well as a welcome scholarly contribution." Mara Benjamin, Religious Studies Review
“An all-encompassing biography of Mendelssohn...Feiner describes Mendelssohn's intellectual and social ascent in a tight, concise narrative.” Publishers Weekly
“A fascinating portrait of an important Enlightenment figure. . . . . Feiner's biographical bildungsroman is a respectful and balanced treatment of the 'Socrates of Germany' and the 'Father of Reform Judaism'. . . . Expect more high-caliber titles from this new partnership between Yale University Press and the Leon D. Black Foundation.” Library Journal
“Highly recommended.” Choice
“Feiner's Moses Mendelssohn serves as a useful introduction to this complex figure, and fills a longstanding need for a short, accessible biography...Feiner is especially good at positioning the development of Mendelssohn's thought within the contours and challenges of his times.” Jerome Copulsky, Jewish Review of Books