CU Boulder professor makes a case for the contemporary relevance of an Enlightenment superstar
Google the name Mendelssohn, and you’ll have to click the “next page” button to find references to anyone other than the famous 19th-century German composer, Felix.
But only a couple branches away on the composer’s family tree you’ll find his grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, a man who, as the father of the 18th- and 19th-century Jewish Enlightenment, also significantly impacted Western thought and culture.
“He is one of the most prominent Enlightenment philosophers of the 18th century,” says Elias Sacks, assistant professor of religious studies and Jewish studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. “On the Jewish side, he is the founder of modern Jewish thought. He is the first person to give an account of why Judaism matters in the modern world.”
Moses Mendelssohn was born to a rural Prussian Jewish family in 1729. After an early education aimed at cultivating a rabbinical career, he learned mathematics, Latin, French, and English, and became self-taught in German literature and philosophy, as well as current thought among other European philosophers such as John Locke. Mendelssohn went on to write numerous works of criticism, on religion and civil society.
In his new book, “Moses Mendelssohn’s Living Script: Philosophy, Practice, History, Judaism” (Indiana University Press), Sacks shakes up long-held conventional wisdom that Mendelssohn was, for the most part, a thinker for his times not especially relevant to today’s political, cultural and philosophical concerns.
“Traditionally, he is viewed as having a very ahistorical view of the world, and as seeing ideas as timeless truths that stand outside history,” Sacks says. “I make the claim that Mendelssohn was fundamentally interested in history, that he understands us as living in a world that is constantly changing—in a world where philosophical and scientific models are changing, where society is changing. What he was trying to do was create a vision of Jewish tradition that allows people to live in that kind of world.”
Other researchers in the field seem to agree that Sacks has thrown down the gauntlet where Mendelssohn is concerned.
“Scholars will take issue with this or that in Sacks’ arguments, but they will not be able to ignore his work,” says Michael A. Meyer, Adolph S. Ochs professor of Jewish History at Hebrew Union College and author of “Judaism within Modernity.” “It forces a rethinking of Mendelssohn's thought at a time when attention is again being focused on this Jewish thinker.”
“For me, he’s interesting because he in many ways represents the first Jewish encounter with many of the things we associate with the modern world,” says Sacks, who grew up in New York City and earned degrees at Harvard, Columbia and Princeton before coming to CU Boulder in 2012.
“He is the first Jewish philosopher to think about what it might mean to live in a diverse state and political community, with people coming from different religious backgrounds… Mendelssohn is interested in why it’s important for the state not just to tolerate, but to be inclusive toward diverse religious communities.”
Though openly admired, Mendelssohn was often publicly challenged to convert to Christianity — a sign of his society’s ingrained anti-Jewish sentiment. His nomination to a prestigious intellectual organization was vetoed by the king simply because he was Jewish, and it was widely believed that Prussian Jews did not possess sufficient character to be full members of society.
Mendelssohn’s concerns as a philosopher were broad, but his works include such titles as, “Jerusalem, or On Religious Power and Judaism,” which promoted and led to greater tolerance.
“He’s so brilliant, so tolerant, so significant that many of his non-Jewish contemporaries can’t believe he’s really so committed to Judaism. That he is a hugely influential Enlightenment philosopher who produces important works on beauty, music, morality and God, but also prominently identifies as a Jew is utterly bewildering to many of his contemporaries,” Sacks says.
In North America, I can think of one English-language book written on him in the last 30 years. I want to recover him for people in diverse fields — Jewish studies, religious studies, political theory, philosophy. We need to recover his voice and let him speak again.”
Mendelssohn is not generally taught in college courses surveying Western thought, reflecting the long-held view that he was somewhat parochial in his interests.
“He is generally seen as someone who doesn’t have much to offer us. He’s seen as a product of his era who meant very well, but ultimately didn’t quite make a persuasive claim,” Sacks says.
But having dug deeply into the philosopher’s work, including lesser-known texts written in a challenging, scholarly Hebrew, Sacks argues that Mendelssohn is indeed relevant to modern problems.
“He gives us helpful ways of thinking about the ways in which religious rituals function, the way religious traditions develop and change over time, and how religion can play a role in political life,” he says.
Much of Sacks’ teaching at CU-Boulder focuses on the relevance of religion in the 21st century, including such tantalizingly titled classes as “Religion and Contemporary Society,” “God and Politics” and “Love & Desire in Judaism and Christianity.”
In the first course, “we look at hot-button social issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, torture and climate change, and how they play out across diverse religious traditions,” he says.
Sacks is now engaged in research he hopes will help re-establish the importance of another Jewish thinker, the 19th-century Ukrainian philosopher Nachman Krochmal.
“Everyone in Jewish studies knows his name and cites him as an important eastern European thinker, but nobody reads him, especially in North America,” Sacks says. “In North America, I can think of one English-language book written on him in the last 30 years. I want to recover him for people in diverse fields — Jewish studies, religious studies, political theory, philosophy. We need to recover his voice and let him speak again.”