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Moses Mendelssohn’s Rhetorical Use of Jesus

December 30, 2011

Mendelssohn deduced the following from Jesus’s experience:

  • Jesus was a Jew who never suggested abrogating Jewish law
  • Jesus advocated bearing the dual-burdens of religious fidelity and loyal citizenship: Render unto Caesar/Render unto God (NT Matthew 22:21)
  • Jesus’s dilemma of bearing a dual burden (Caesar/God) also faced contemporary Jews, who would be well-advised to follow Jesus’s advice to his disciples
  • If late 18th century Jews occupied the position of the early disciples of Jesus, the Prussian authorities stood in the position of the Roman authorities of Jesus’s day


  • Jesus suffered as a Jew
  • Just as early Christians were persecuted, so too present-day Jews were suffering under humiliating feudal restrictions
  • Just as Jesus ought to have experienced tolerance from both his coreligionists and from his government, so should Prussian Jews (and by extension, European Jews, generally)

Read the rest from Alan T. Levenson, who also states that, “The Jewish encounter with Christianity has come full circle from medieval polemics to works such as Marc Brettler’s [and Amy-Jill Levine’s] The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Brandeis University Press, 2011)”

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 30, 2011 2:21 pm

    Ah Mendelssohn. Certainly up there with Baruch Spinoza and Shabbatai Tzvi as one of the most controversial Jews of modern times. Our friend S talks about “the 150 year old sport called ‘What Was Wrong With Mendelssohn?'”

    I was a little disappointed that your post did not mention Mendelssohn’s work as a Bible translator or a literary critic! Yep, he fits mainstream into the direct themes of this blog.

    Interest in Mendelssohn remains unabated, though. In the last year, besides the recent Gottlieb anthology (ISBN 1584656859) (which I bought last month and is on my long list of “things I really ought to blog about”), Gottlieb recently wrote an analytical volume on Mendelssohn (ISBN 0195398947), Feiner’s biography was translated into English (ISBN 0300161751), Dahlstrom and Dick translated his Morning Hours (ISBN 1584656859), His Last Works are forthcoming in English soon (ISBN 0252036875).

    Mendelssohn, like Spinoza, is really too big and too singular to be considered a “Jewish philosopher”; he is a “world” philosopher (or, alternatively, a major philosopher who happened to be Jewish). One really needs to understand the philosophical works of Gotthold Lessing to fully understand Mendelssohn, and it helps if one knows the history of the German Enlightenment.

    Like Spinoza, Mendelssohn directly discussed Christianity, and much of his work Jerusalem is devoted to discussing the degree to which Christians should be subject to Jewish law. He was also a strong defender of the unique characteristics of Judaism.

    My main complaint about Alan Levenson’s essay is that it is appallingly shallow and thus distorts Mendelssohn views. Having read everything I can get my hands on translated into English of Mendelssohn work; I can assure you that Mendelssohn did not write in PowerPoint-style bullet points.

    Moreover, I am not that certain about the “full circle” line. The Jewish Annotated New Testament is hardly free of polemics (in truth, the same can be said of many Bible commentaries), nor am I certain that it is all that new. (Consider, for example, Gerald Friedlander’s 1911 (alert: 100 year anniversary!) Jewish Sources of the Sermon on the Mount).

    It is really not possible to discuss Mendelssohn and religious dialogue without discussing the fight with Johan Lavater affair (who challenged Mendelssohn to either refute the arguments of Charles Bonnet or convert to Christianity — and which led to Mendelssohn’s famous pleas for tolerance and avoiding inter-religious conflict); the prolonged argument with F. H. Jacobi on whether Lessing was a pantheist (which led to Mendelssohn’s sublime Morning Hours which I have, in fact, just completed two weeks ago); and Mendelssohn’s highly complex relationship with Spinoza’s intellectual ideas.

    Alan Levenson’s essay is really not at all an adequate introduction to Mendelssohn’s views and it is cartoonish in its one-sided presentation. I would suggest instead that someone interested in Mendelssohn who has Internet access start with his entry in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

  2. December 30, 2011 4:02 pm


    I think you need to consider re-working my post (which is only a quotation from “Alan Levenson’s essay” which you point out to be “appallingly shallow”). I’d like to include your comment in and mostly as the post. Or would you write your analysis as a new post? (Your links also are very useful, the one to S.’s post and to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

  3. December 30, 2011 4:54 pm

    Hmmm, that’s a tough one — Mendelssohn is a complex figure. I am planning to write about him sometime, but probably not until 2012. Maybe a series ….

  4. December 30, 2011 9:07 pm

    Maybe a series

    Definitely a good idea.

  5. Alan Levenson permalink
    January 31, 2012 11:37 am

    I did not discuss Mendelssohn’s Bible translation at length because: a) the essay was capped at 1500 words and b) I devoted an entire chapter to this subject in my book The Making of the Modern Jewish Bible (Rowman and Littlefield, 2011). More original than my work on Mendelssohn, however, are the studies by David Sorkin, Edward Breuer, Allan Arkush and Micah Gottlieb. I was merely pointing in this short column that Mendelssohn’s use of Jesus is quite striking, and to my mind, highly original. (see also the fine discussion by Jonathan Hess).

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