Moses Mendelssohn, a man of our times?

Moses Mendelssohn was the greatest figure of the Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment. As the writer of a major philosophical work, translator of the Hebrew Bible into German, and the founder of a lineage that produced some of Germany’s finest artists and theorists, he was the symbol of Jewry’s eighteenth century entry into European cultural life. Through his life and example, Jews ceased to be intruders, and became honored guests, and sometimes even guides, for their fellow Europeans. The Holocaust did not refute this logic of integration, but completely swallowed it. Today, as fracture and conflict have become commonplaces of life in the West and the wider world, Europe harks back to the spirit of the Enlightenment, seeking to reconnect to this movement from which it drew its power. Mendelssohn could therefore become again a role model and lodestar, this time for us. He will return, however, in a different guise than the one he wore in the era of emancipation.



The meteoric rise of Moses Mendelssohn epitomizes better than the career of most of his contemporaries the promise of the European Enlightenment – or, more precisely, the German Aufklärung –  and the transformations that it portended. One could imagine a biography of Mendelssohn with this blurb on the back-cover: “The story of how a Jewish child from the community of Dessau, reared in the spirit of tradition and obedience, appropriated the high culture and sciences of his time, and became one of the most famous philosophers of the eighteenth century.” Mendelssohn: the picture of a complete achievement in the cultural domain, which was all the more astounding, as, because he was a Jew, none had ever imagined he could be capable of it.      

This is at least the image one knows and loves. If his contemporaries were fond of it, perhaps it was because that he – the son of the ancient people – might, after all, have been expected in early modern Europe. That he was expected would explain both tendencies, the desire that the image was true and the love it encountered everywhere it appeared. To illustrate both motions, one episode in his life can serve as instructive here.

Mendelssohn, according to a no-doubt-embellished anecdote, in 1774 visited Königsberg, unbidden and unannounced, to greet Immanuel Kant. Kant noticed him at the back of the lecture hall and went over to embrace him, to the general surprise of the students who, unaware of the intruder’s identity, had started making anti-Jewish comments just moments before. Once the confusion was dispelled, a throng formed around the two philosophers, as the students applauded the encounter and even shed a few tears. The meeting was too beautiful: this diminutive Jew could invite himself into the Prussian university, and he would not be run off as an intruder. He was an honored guest, despite deep-seated prejudices. He owed this status to the fact that he had demonstrated through his work and person that the Aufklärung was in full tilt. His presence here was a kind of crowning achievement.

A climax of acceptance and celebration, certainly, but subsequent to the rising action of enmity and derision. One does not forget the heckling, agitation and mockery that accompanied the intrusion of a Jew in a place where he had no business. The contradictory reactions, the second coming immediately after the first, are not measured, silent suspicion and then relief, but raucous and explosive, hostility and finally enthusiasm. Mendelssohn existed in this charged atmosphere, where the question vis-a-vis the Jews was the following: “Are the Jews ready for emancipation, or even capable of it?” Mendelssohn responded to that question, and with superlatives: Jews were the most ready of all people. From the depths of recalcitrance and archaism, the Jew, at least this Jew, rose directly to the top. He sped along, overtaking others in the race to modernity, showing that only reason counts, whatever the condition of one’s birth.

In such an account, history and legend speak in one voice: the elements of this quintessential success story were fixed into a received narrative that has come down to us through the generations. Later on, historians sought to nuance and weigh up the facts: where did Mendelssohn come from, what social conditions enabled his ascent, what Judeo-German encounters preceded his, etc.? The best biographies make it possible to sort out the details without being too overwhelmed. What remains is the power of the story, with the projections, wishes and desires, not all of which can be admitted and perhaps not all of which are conscious, which it reveals.

You have reconciled your religion with such freedom of conscience as one would never have thought possible within Judaism, and of which no other religion can boast.

Where does this power come from? Europe, of course, rather than the Jews. In Mendelssohn’s personal success, the wider success of this entity, modern Europe, is at stake, namely its ability to spiritually liberate anyone, including the Jews. Jews were a priori the people most impenetrable to emancipation, and above all other things to intellectual emancipation, the accomplishment from which other forms of emancipation, i.e., civil and political, were supposed to follow. While Europe had still not started down the winding road to Jewish emancipation in the middle of the eighteenth century, the society was nonetheless agog over Mendelssohn, their case study. Mirabeau later on, during the revolutionary period, searched high and low in the Rhine Valley for traces of Mendelssohn, hoping that some of the man’s luster might rub off on him. The whole of Europe marveled at Mendelssohn, because all of Europe was then in the middle of pondering what exactly was coming into being. Hence the enthusiasm, in the exact sense that Kant gave to this feeling in his reflections on the French Revolution: amazement at the clear sign that history was moving in the right direction, that freedom could become a reality. The direction was given by the Aufklärung, accompanied by the exclamation: “So it is true!” Mendelssohn was “a real Jew,” he was not invented for the sake of making one believe in Aufklärung. Not only was he the true author of his books (some thought his friend Lessing had penned them), but he was one of the most brilliant agents, one of the most prominent producers of the Aufklärung.

This is where our problem, imperceptibly, begins to shift. When he spoke of Europe to Europe, or when Europe spoke to itself through him, Mendelssohn was on the same level as Kant. He not only illustrated the      Aufklärung, he defined it. The test case was indeed exceptional, because he did not cloister himself as an exceptional Jew. He guided Jews and Christians alike, forming a single audience; it is for all of them that he lights the way, stipulating that only reason is the true guide. “Let me tell you what the Enlightenment consists of,” we see him write in 1784, in the same Berlin newspaper, in the same didactic tone and with the same authority as Kant. Nevertheless, we must note that for the Jew he never ceased to be, such an act had a very specific meaning. Mendelssohn had to become a European in the superlative, which meant that he had to use his Judaism to propel himself. European success did not only require an exceptional Jew; it required an exceptional European. This is exactly what the Jew strived to be as he occupies the unprecedented position to enlighten Europe by himself. He distinguishes himself by being not a mere participant in the general movement of history, but at the forefront, attracting the movement towards himself.

“Comet”, Wassily Kandinsky, 1900, Munich © wikiart commons     

Such a stance, one can imagine, could lead to questions, not all of them well-intentioned. New suspicions arose, which paved the way from the old-fashioned anti-Jewish persecutions to genuine anti-Semitism, intellectualized or not. At the end of the story, it is right out of this Germany, which saw rise Mendelssohn, that came an unprecedented outburst of hostility. However, in order to see this coming down the pike, one has to pause at this episode and in this period, where there was no suspicion, but perplexity and a certain fixation of attention to what was really at stake. A moment of suspension, in short. Who was this pioneering Jew, and what did he mean to everyone? In which way can one relate to his advance? The question had not escaped Kant. In his correspondence with Mendelssohn, he hailed the publication of Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem in these terms: “You have reconciled your religion with such freedom of conscience as one would never have thought possible within Judaism, and of which no other religion can boast.”

This sentence on its own is revealing. Let us recall that Jerusalem is the main contribution of the Jewish philosopher to examine and regulate the complex relation between power and religion, putting down principles guaranteeing freedom of belief as well as freedom of examination, and thus placing the Enlightenment on solid ground. This contribution arrived to collective surprise – “one would never have thought possible… “. Kant adds nevertheless an important clarification: “no other religion than yours,” and therefore not even Christianity had so far been capable of this kind of operation. A burning question arises from this observation: how to react to this remarkable advance of Judaism, i.e., of the so-called fossil religion, in modern Europe?

The problem is delicate. Certainly, there was admiration, enthusiasm, perhaps even gratitude for having shown the way – what we saw expressed in the Königsberg scene, and which we could also call, in reference to Lessing’s play in which a Mendelssohn stand-in is the hero, the “Nathan the Wise effect”. But there is something else too: the obligation to catch up, which is the great task of the day. The Aufklärung is at work, which means that the backwardness of the Christian majority must be remedied as quickly as possible. The situation of Jewish advance, which could only be circumstantial and temporary, must be brought to an end. For it is the majority that must come of age. Would it be appropriate, then, to dwell too much on the reasons why the most obviously minor minority had found itself in the lead? One could doubt it. In any case, there was a more pressing question : to determine how Christians would get there, and what the result would be for all.

Kant fulfilled this task most completely. Transcendental philosophy defines the Enlightenment in terms of criticism, and made the movement’s progress dependent on a distinction between private and public uses of reason, which Mendelssohn had failed to articulate. Between Kant’s and Mendelssohn’s two 1784 articles on the “uses and abuses of the Enlightenment,” posterity has retained exclusively Kant’s – through to the age of contemporary philosophy, which, from Habermas to Foucault, has celebrated Kant’s proposal, while Mendelssohn’s distinctions have appeared with hindsight to be of little use. Kant expressly refuted the theses of Jerusalem in other of his works: he showed that Mendelssohn, a “popular philosopher”, fell short of a radical conception of the autonomy of reason, as shown by the credence he lent to the adage, anathema to a Kantian: “It may be true in theory, but in practice it is worthless.” Above all, Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason maintained that Judaism, reduced to its ritualism, was an obstacle rather than an aid in the sort of conversion demanded by the Enlightenment, Christianity being in a much better position on this path. Europe via Kant retook the commanding position for the Christian majority. Europe began by saluting Mendelssohn for revealing that an advance was possible, no matter where it came from. In the end, Europe dismissed Mendelssohn for coming up short.

Moses Mendelssohn, par Johann Friedrich Bause, c. 1772. Courtesy Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig.
A Jewish character penetrated and structured Mendelssohn’s discourse of Enlightenment vis-a-vis Europe.

Nevertheless, it turned out that the advance did not come from just anywhere. Whatever one wants to say, the “Nathan the Wise effect” is hard to escape. Mendelssohn was a Jew, and he always spoke in the name of Judaism, even when he addressed Europe and invoked the “truths of reason” which every mind, Jew or non-Jew, was capable of hearing in exactly the same way. Tradition established the same idea through the Noahide laws, the legislation of Noah, which, according to the Torah and the Sages, precedes and prepares that of Moses, the former being applicable to the human race, the latter being restricted to the Jewish people. In this sense, a Jewish character penetrated and structured Mendelssohn’s discourse of Enlightenment vis-a-vis Europe. Judaism merges with European universalism insofar as the latter learns to see what is Jewish about this universalism. It is true that, in order to simplify and to the relief of the Christian majority, one could find it suitable to occlude these Jewish aspects in converting to Christianity. But this was a misunderstanding of Mendelssohn, who balked at such an invitation. His children acted differently. Almost all of them took the plunge, with quite different motives and in both Catholic and Protestant directions. Moses Mendelssohn wanted to remain a Jew, because he felt he was in touch with his time and his context precisely by remaining one. He demanded that this be recognized and accepted by all, without soft-pedaling or concealment.

We can understand his position at least in two ways. One refers us back to his attachment to the faith of his fathers, and thus to an underlying allegiance that only requires tact and respect, without requiring further probing, because it does not, strictly speaking, commit anything of itself to the movement that has been achieved. This movement is one of emancipation without assimilation. It is obvious that this reading is too superficial and does not grasp the depth of Mendelssohn’s commitments, nor the fervor with which he was welcomed. The other interpretation is more accurate: it refers us more substantially to Judaism as Mendelssohn took it up in this period, addressed to modern Jews, but also to Moderns as a whole, of which modern Jews are virtually all a part, that is to say, to which, as we would say today, they are likely to be integrated.

The process of emancipation, in this perspective, would acquire a different valence : it would always be a movement not of assimilation, but of integration. “Integration” asks the question of how to create a Judaism adapted to the European present. Judaism passes through the crucible of the European operation par excellence that is Aufklärung. But Aufklärung understood as capable of translation in Jewish terms. What is required for this is welcoming: Europe must be prepared to welcome such a translation and, by this means, for a description of itself which is properly Jewish terms. More than that, it must be ready to consider that it is essential to it, because it makes visible one of its dimensions, which is necessary for real advance. If this is right, an aspect or a constitutive facet of the Aufklärung would only appear through the Jewish prism. And this would explain why the Jews were not at the forefront by chance. Their advance had a reason, which is a Jewish and European reason, inseparably.

The articulation of the two, as we can see, lies in what has been called integration. Although the word was not yet in use, its conceptual place existed already at that time. It was in this place where that things were played out in a decisive way for Europe. Properly understood, integration stands between emancipation and assimilation to signify the contingency of the knotting. Let us emphasize: not their inadequacy or incompatibility, but only the interstitial space and the play between the two. Integration, then, is the most enigmatic thing in the modern age. It is up to the Jewish experience, embodied by Mendelssohn and periodically echoed in his wake, to identify the coordinates, without completely removing the enigma, but at least by designating it clearly enough as an element to be worked on. It is striking that, with time, these coordinates were no longer so clearly perceptible, as if the enigma had only become thicker. In the end, we must ask ourselves why. But before that, let us try to see what the problem consists of.

Integration has two sides: the integrator and the integrated, the inviter and the guest. It accommodates the intrusion, deactivates the intruder’s status, without abolishing his distinctive singularity. The integrated does not confuse himself with the integrator, otherwise integration would be assimilation; and the integrator perceives the integrated as irreducible to him, otherwise integration would betray emancipation. In short, by loosening the link between emancipation and assimilation, integration sets in motion a dynamic that can alter each of its protagonists. In this case: the Jews change, through the Aufklärung, while Europe change, through the Jews. On both sides, Mendelssohn’s advance means something. It shows that the Jews are changing at the same time as Europe is changing. Integration, with its double alteration on the side of the integrated and the integrator, thus took on its contemporary dictionary meaning. But this meaning is inseparable from the particular historical entities that are Europe and the Jews, whose destinies are linked.

“Proun Interpenetrating Planes”, Lazar Lissitzky © Wikiart commons

It is understandable that the figure of Mendelssohn may have seemed exciting, but also somewhat disturbing as soon as it was examined and pushed to the extreme of its meaning. What is both dissonant and attractive about it is the way it makes integration resonate between emancipation and assimilation, one potentially opening up to the other, but drawing its impetus from somewhere else than the fact to lead to this opening. This is what the Jew who remains a Jew says about Europe, and speaks about it from a Jewish perspective. This is what the modern Jew says, i.e. the integrated intruder, in the movement where he invites himself into the heart of the definition of Europe, which agrees to be redefined by him. Mendelssohn did not have to announce himself in 1774 to visit Kant. Even students steeped in anti-Judaism, once they got over their surprise, must have noticed this. The Aufklärung had to allow a Jew to say what it was to him as a Jew. And it was, strangely enough, willing to do so.

This is what emancipatory change consisted of for the Jews: to describe themselves by describing Europe as the new place of their exile (the Galut). The new sense of the Galut coming from the fact, and only from the fact, that modern Europe had come into being spiritually in becoming the shelter of the Aufklärung. For them, then, remaining Jewish could coincide with transformation, without the need for any act of religious reform (Mendelssohn was, contrary to popular belief, not the Luther of the Jews). The point is an important one, over the long term and beyond the hardships and tribulations: European Jews still accept it as a legacy from Mendelssohn. It constitutes the most condensed expression of the paradox from which Jewish identity has not yet emerged for two centuries, the source of a plurality of discordant but always connected trajectories: to remain is to change, to change is to remain. This structure of equivalence is something that everyone has to work on constantly, since it is tacitly admitted that the secret of change lies in a certain sense of persistence, and that the secret of persistence lies in a certain modality of change. Vagueness and uncertainty, but also the richness of paradoxical equivalence, give way to a myriad of possibilities. Modern Jewish types can be quite disparate, while continuing to call themselves Jewish.


From Mendelssohn’s time down to our own, Europe has failed beyond belief.

In any case, however, it must be repeated, the process can only be envisaged if Europe itself transforms itself by regarding itself through exactly this prism. It must redefine itself in turn under the paradoxical double correlation of change and persistence, as attested by modern Jews. For such is the logic of integration, if we give the word its richest and noblest meaning, extending emancipation without precipitating (but without excluding either) assimilation. In this way Europe integrates, not just individual Jews, exceptional or not, but something that belongs to Judaism and to its particular history. By this Judaizing gesture, it joins its active principle linking persistence and change, a principle which is always in danger of escaping. And it puts itself in a position to effectively integrate anyone – but not in any way.

From Mendelssohn’s time down to our own, Europe has failed beyond belief. It has caused this relationship, which it may have incidentally perceived as constitutive, to founder and fall apart. Let us try to pick up the thread, however tenuous it may be. To do so, let us remain attached to the meaning of the words and concepts that initially linked the two destinies, Jewish and European.

“Integration” is one of those words, common enough, whose appearance practically coincided with the beginning of its conceptual decline. As soon as it appeared, it ceased to be understood in reference to the modern European enigma that motivated its lexical creation. Its density, which held it to its place in a triad and to a certain kind of experience, that of the Jews precisely, was lost in its passage to the explicit. Today, the erosion has come to an end, so much that it has bad press. Its use, after having been widespread, has become increasingly rare. It is not simply that it has been abused. It is just that we hear it differently than we did a decade or two ago. The problem is political. It is suspected of being a way of enjoining homogeneity and offending identities. It is suspected of belonging to an oppressive and domineering republicanism, which is linked to the colonial guilt of Europe, and said inclined to reproduce its operations on the intra-European scene with regard to immigrant populations, a large proportion of which come from the former colonies. The difference between integration and assimilation is completely erased in this case, and the opposition between integration and emancipation intensified. The classic triad of emancipation, integration and assimilation is completely dismembered.

“Rupture”, Alexandre Rodtchenko, 1920; Moscou © wikiart commons

At the same time, in the last sequence of European history, the Enlightenment comes to the fore. It is summoned in a climate that is once again one of anxious anticipation. The context is one in which the old classic enemy, namely obscurantism(in the guise of Islamism, reactionary nationalism, populism and their procession of practical and intellectual regressions) is on the rise. The revival of the Enlightenment is thus intended to be combative: it intends to return to the source of the critical spirit, seeing in it a weapon still available in the European heritage, on condition, however, that it be expunged from its historical compromise with the colonialism of which Europe was the homeland. Radicalized critique allows this by reflecting on itself, i.e. by being self-critical. Europe’s dilemma could be summed up as trying to construct something like a combat self-criticism. In this respect, it is the Kant of “What is Enlightenment?” which is particularly pertinent. This is true, namely, of Michel Foucault’s rereading of Kant, which removes him from the European-centric philosophy of history in order to retain a specific intellectual attitude: the inscription and intervention in the heart of the present of the courage of truth, according to a certain accentuation of the famous sapere aude.

The figure of Mendelssohn then fades ineluctably from the memory of Europeans. Caught between the two fires of an ill-judged integration and a claimed critical break, he became diaphanous. The Jewish question, with its circuit of exchange between the Jewish remnant and the European ferment, has practically no more room to unfold. It must be said that it drew on what today, precisely, is elusive: a resolute belonging, and an assumed historical dynamic. More exactly: the double phenomenon of belonging, of the Jews to Europe, and of Europe to itself through the Jews, and the general emancipatory future that was indicated in this connection. Today, on the contrary, the sense of belonging is being reconfigured in opposition to the one that would make Europe its privileged referent, and another vectorization is being sought in history itself. Universalism is pluralizing, in understanding and in extension, within European societies in search of a grammar of their diversity, and on the international scene where Europe can only find its place by decentering itself.

In this context, it is to be feared that Mendelssohn will once again become an intruder, and European Jews with him. It should be noted, however, that this does not mean a return to the past. What returns him to this status now is that his advance in integration can no longer mean anything else than a reminder of what it is important to turn one’s back on. The modern Jew would become, in short, that very curious individual whom history had not yet seen: the intruder by excess of belonging and of historical consciousness. The phenomenon is no longer a mere possibility. For twenty years now, the limits of verbal hostility have been largely exceeded throughout Europe, and especially in France, which is the epicenter of the crisis in this respect. Violent and murderous anti-Semitism has returned to the fore. The revival of the Enlightenment would obviously like to combat it, just as it wants to combat all manifestations and consequences of obscurantism. Faced with it, it is this time completely disarmed, or rather paralysed.

Enlightenment does not know how to deal with this, because its meaning escapes Enlightenment. It is clear that this is no longer a repetition of pre-modern anti-Judaism, a return to the age before emancipation. What is much less clear is that we are no longer dealing with the tried and tested forms of modern antisemitism, forged throughout the nineteenth century and culminating in Nazism. The singularity of the renewed hostility, and undoubtedly its novelty, is that it is now born of the dilemma with which Europe is grappling in order to think of itself as a historical and political entity endowed with meaning, that is to say, in order to be able to say what it represents, beyond its current stage of combat self-criticism. For what purpose is it fighting? What does it want to build, by going through the sieve of its self-criticism, in terms of belonging and aim? How does it solve the equation between persisting and changing, the integrating enigma where the Jewish question and the European question are, however much we do not want to see it, intertwined? Only if we are willing to ask such questions can the Jews hope to find a place for themselves on this continent. Only then Europe could overcome their new putative intrusion, which has all the characteristics of the intrusion of the integrated.

In the present situation, everyone has to take part in this work of formulation, from their own determined position within European societies. Everyone, and therefore also the Jews. They can, for example, begin to do this, without nostalgia but with memory, by restoring the figure of Mendelssohn to his full European stature.

Bruno Karsenti




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