The Uses of Friendships: Moses Mendelssohn

Published December 1, 2017


The very fact that we can relate to ancient friends, learning from them as from our contemporaries, offers frustrating evidence of the limits of progress. It suggests that certain kinds of human problems are permanent, so that the challenges that bedevilled men and women centuries ago still confront us now, however far we might imagine our societies have come. “What has been is what shall be, what is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”

And yet, some of the ancient friends from whom I learn the most are those who have struggled with the fact that some things actually are new under the sun. The challenge of contending with change has sent me looking for their help. That challenge often involves a tension between the good that progress makes possible and the danger it poses to the good we have inherited or are called to perpetuate. We can never resolve that tension, but we also must not let it blind us to either kind of good, or let it turn us against one another. And friendship itself actually turns out to be a crucial ingredient in this complicated balancing act.

One ancient friend in particular might help us see how. The help he can offer is not straightforward or simple: He is hardly a model of how to settle these tensions. But he can show us how to treat them seriously, to wrestle with them, and to keep them from hardening our hearts against our neighbours.

This ancient friend is Moses Mendelssohn: a pivotal figure in the German Enlightenment and in what has been called the Jewish Enlightenment (or “Haskalah”) of the eighteenth century. Mendelssohn’s exceptional life story helps endear him as an ancient friend. It is the tale of a rise from obscurity and disadvantage to astonishing prominence achieved somehow without becoming uprooted. He was born in September 1729 in the German city of Dessau to a relatively poor and undistinguished Jewish family. In 1743, when Mendelssohn was fourteen, the local rabbi who was his teacher left for a position in Berlin, and Mendelssohn’s father made the fateful decision to allow young Moses to follow him there and continue his Jewish education. In a much more cosmopolitan environment, in the explosive intellectual atmosphere of the mid-eighteenth century, this teenager reached far beyond his traditional studies. Without any instructor to lead him through this secular terrain, he devoured the works of the English and French Enlightenment philosophers, reached back to the Greeks and Romans, and engaged (in time face to face) with the emerging German thinkers of his time.

At first, he made an impression in person, and by his extraordinary capacity for intellectual exchange through friendship. He became particularly close to G.E. Lessing—another promising young man, the same age as Mendelssohn, who would go on to become a philosopher, playwright, and art critic. From the age of twenty-one, the two—a Christian and a Jew—became inseparable.

It was Lessing who first pressed his friend to write and publish. And in 1755, at the age of twenty-six, Mendelssohn published the first of his many philosophical essays. His interests sprawled across the range of what we now might call the humanities and social sciences. Like the young Edmund Burke (Mendelssohn’s almost exact contemporary) he had an early interest in aesthetics, focused in particular on the meaning of the sublime. He soon published studies of English poetry, critiques of the political philosophy of Rousseau, and reflections on the immortality of the soul.

Mendelssohn was, in this sense, a full participant in the German Enlightenment—sharing in its interests and deeply engaged in its debates and controversies. But unlike any other prominent figure in that circle, he was also an unabashed believing and practicing Jew.

His Judaism made him both a curiosity and a target. And Mendelssohn’s response to the pressures he faced was an extraordinary combination of confidence and caution. He did not downplay his Judaism, and indeed along with his philosophical works he published books and essays on Jewish questions—some in Hebrew for Jewish readers (like commentaries on Maimonides and on the book of Ecclesiastes) and some in German for a wider audience (like one of his best-known works, Jerusalem, or On Religious Power and Judaism). He was open about his practice and commitment to Jewish tradition, and at the same time he was a full-fledged member of an elite circle of otherwise Christian thinkers and writers. This made him controversial in both worlds.

We might imagine now that the pressures he confronted took the form of hostile prejudice, oppression, or exclusion. And there was certainly some of that. But the more common pressure he endured, and the one he worked to address in ways that might particularly interest us, was a less hostile but in some ways more challenging force: It was a pressure to convert.

Again and again, Mendelssohn found himself confronted by well-meaning Christians, even friends, who argued that he was simply too wise and sensible to remain a Jew, and pressing him to explain his resistance to their Christianity. He also gave thought to the related set of pressures on the Jewish world more generally in an era of self-confident enlightenment, which threatened to draw Jews away from their traditional communities.

Mendelssohn proposed a set of responses to these broader pressures that combined traditional practice and the confident assertion of the word of God as Jews understood it with a forthright case for toleration in the intellectual sphere. He urged German Jews to defend their understanding of their sacred texts against attempts to hijack them, even going so far as to produce his own translations of the Pentateuch and the Psalms, which he believed Protestant German translators had willfully deformed to advance their theological views.

But that Jewish understanding of the Scriptures, he insisted, did not preclude philosophical engagement with the broader world, and an appreciation of its merits. Jews could be useful to that world as Jews, and could find it useful to them too. Mendelssohn went exceptionally far (much too far for some Jewish observers in his time and since) in acknowledging the philosophical wisdom he found in Christianity, and particularly praising the character of Jesus as a teacher of morality—even in his Hebrew writings, intended for Jews. But he denied the charge, levelled by some of those who sought his conversion, that the dictates of reason—the very Enlightenment ideals he championed—demanded that he abandon the faith of his fathers.

His case for fidelity to his inherited faith began with its being inherited. On some fundamental questions, he acknowledged, “I have dogmatically taken the side of my tribe, and I do not believe I could ever alter my principles.” This was his right, he asserted, and he argued that Enlightenment principles required that everyone be given “the same right that I claim for myself,” so that toleration in part meant avoiding all intellectual coercion.

But that was far from the end of the story. Mendelssohn argued that the truths revealed uniquely to Judaism were laws to govern practice rooted in divine imperatives that ran deeper than any of the questions the Enlightenment took up. They could therefore accommodate and even reinforce some Enlightenment ideals while also letting Jews exemplify holiness in practice—there was room within a life of faith and fidelity for different forms of philosophical inquiry.

He has been much criticized for this, and not without reason, as he seems at times to suggest that Judaism consists in revealed legislation more than revealed religion—a set of rules that add up to a divinely ordered way of life but not a set of truths that add up to the deepest understanding of reality. And this, he suggested, meant that Judaism was an inherently tolerant religion on nearly all matters intellectual, and that its tolerance was of just the sort separately demanded by Enlightenment principles.

Toleration did not amount to peaceful mutual disdain, though. It could be much more than that precisely because of friendship. Indeed, the idea of friendship was central to Mendelssohn’s response to the pressures he confronted. Friendship could help avoid turning disagreement into hostility. In making this argument, he flaunted his friendship with Lessing, publishing a kind of essay on friendship (formulated as a letter to Lessing) that offers an intense, idealized treatment of the possibilities of friendship as a source of both intellectual camaraderie and human meaning. It proposes the possibility of intellectual friendship overcoming differences of doctrine and belief without demeaning them, and so serving as a bridge in practice between conflicting and equally unpalatable alternatives that seemed unbridgeable in theory. And it is clearly a response, as well, to the pressures for conversion directed at Mendelssohn—pressures often offered in friendship, but which he implies risked running counter to the very idea of friendship.

It may seem strange to suggest that there are pertinent lessons for our time in this facet of Mendelssohn’s thought. We imagine that religious believers now don’t live with pressures to convert. Even Jews rarely face them explicitly today, and surely Christians almost never do. There are radical secular threats to religious practice and institutions, but not challenges to faith in its own terms.

Yet that is too narrow a reading of our situation. In fact, our society’s secular culture is constantly pressing in on those who espouse pre-liberal faiths, and what it says—in its most inviting and least hostile forms—is basically that these believers are surely too wise and sensible to remain people of faith. Our progressive society thinks religious people should be able to reason their way to its own practices and beliefs, which it takes to be obvious rational truths, and morally superior too. It sounds like some of what Mendelssohn heard from his friends.

Believers let themselves off too easily when they imagine their foremost task is to defend their way of life against head-on assaults by declared enemies who wish to destroy them. The sometimes even greater challenge is to perpetuate their way of life in the face of alternatives that offer themselves up as more wise, more just, more humane, and more advanced—but that are missing something critical. And today’s believers must stand their ground without making enemies of their neighbours or losing their friends. They must be persuasive even in a mode of resistance.

One key strategy in this endeavour must be to begin by offering up their alternative as a superior way of life—as a better answer in practice to yearnings their secular neighbours cannot help but feel—precisely by modelling holiness while at the same time insisting on the necessity of toleration for all. It is a complex stance, both assertive and defensive, suited to a complex task.

Mendelssohn offers an extraordinary model of how to steadfastly resist the pressure to convert while still remaining friends with the people exerting it. But he also offers a cautionary tale. To note that the project of Jewish integration into German civil life ultimately failed would be to give a perverse new meaning to understatement. But perhaps even more relevant is the fact that four of Mendelssohn’s six children ultimately did convert, melting into the German elite. That is not proof against his methods, but it is evidence nonetheless.

The lessons our friends offer us are often of this sort, mixing models of excellence with cautionary teachings. Mendelssohn does not hold some secret answer to the challenges that confront our age. But he offers a model of taking such challenges seriously, and of keeping in mind the importance not only of toleration and of steadfastness but also of friendship, which can sometimes bridge the two.

Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs, a quarterly journal of essays on domestic policy and politics. He is also the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor to National Review and the Weekly Standard.

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