Sunday, October 23, 2011

Shmuel Feiner's Moses Mendelssohn: sage of modernity

Just finished a brief biography of Moses Mendelssohn by Shmuel Feiner of Bar Ilan University.  The book is a brief, concise discussion of Mendelssohn's profound impact on modern Jewish history.  Feiner appreciates the pivotal position of Mendelssohn being at the transition of the Jewish community going from the Ghetto into the mainstream of general culture.  It is a time filled with Jew hatred on the one hand, and great optimism, a direct result of the Enlightenment on the other.

Mendelssohn was the most famous Jew of Central Europe, indefatigable in his defense of his people and their right to practice their ancestral laws.  We learn, nevertheless, that he clashed with the 'rabbinic elite'; his sanguine attitude of 'tolerance of ideas' stood opposed to the rabbinic ban.  In an age of reason, according to Mendelssohn, one should be free to think without coercion.  For example, we learn of a Government decree to delay funerals up to three days (in order to make sure that living people are not buried alive).  This decree was a clear rejection of the Jewish practice to bury within 24 hours.  Mendelssohn offered a creative Halakhic compromise to open 'caves' similar to how Avraham and Sarah were laid to rest at the Cave of HaMachpeilah in the land of Canaan.  The Jewish law could be fulfilled simultaneously with the Government decree; a person would not be trapped in a casket but could literally wake up and walk away.  The eminent Rabbi Yakov Emden bluntly warned him to stay clear of the rabbinic discussion, a veiled threat of rabbinic ban.  For Rabbi Emden and others the novelty and compromise of such an approach was unacceptable since such a change would indefinitely alter an ancient Jewish burial practice through outside pressure of a government decree.  Rabbi Emden showed great restraint in dealing with Mendelssohn possibly because he understood the ramifications of Mendelssohn's fame and influence and how he positively impacted the image of the Jewish community on the the outside world.

Mendelssohn clearly resented the threat and probably harbored strong opinions about the old ways of the rabbis, nevertheless, we are told that he was not a reformer and had advocated no breaches to or suspensions of Jewish Law.  What makes him unique is the fact that his adult life was not spent in the Beis Medrash, Torah Study hall, but rather it was spent in the salons of general philosophy.  When publicly challenged to convert to Christianity, he staunchly refused and rebutted the challenge.  The unfortunate irony is that conversion to Christianity was the fate of his descendents.  Professor Feiner teaches us that Mendelssohn was a complex figure during a watershed period of Jewish history.  His personal impact must be contextualized into the bigger questions of what was happening to the general Jewish community as it integrated into the greater society.  As the subtitle reads he was a indeed a 'Sage of Modernity.'

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