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Moses Mendelssohn, Reply to Johann Caspar Lavater (1769)

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If, after so many years of research, my decision had not been wholly in favor of my own religion, then it would have been necessary to for me acknowledge this through a public act [i.e., conversion to Christianity]. I cannot comprehend what could bind me to so strict a religion, and one so generally despised, if I were not convinced in my heart of its truth. Whatever the result of my inquiries, as soon as I found the religion of my fathers to be untrue, I had to abandon it. If I had been inwardly attracted to another [religion], it would have been despicably base, in defiance of this inner conviction, not to acknowledge this truth. And what could have tempted me to such baseness? I have already averred that, in this case, wisdom, love of truth, and honesty would lead me in one and the same direction.

Were I indifferent toward both religions, and scornful or contemptuous of all revelation, then I would have known very well what wisdom advises when conscience remains silent. What would have stopped me? Fear of my coreligionists? Their worldly power is far too slight to make me fearful of them. Obstinacy? Sloth? Attachment to habitual beliefs? I have dedicated the better part of my life to inquiry. Surely, men will grant me credit for being reflective enough not to sacrifice the fruits of my inquiries to such weaknesses.

Therefore, as you see, had I lacked a sincere belief in my own religion, the result of my inquiries would have made itself visible in a public act. But because [those inquiries] strengthened me in my fathers’ [religion], I was able to continue quietly on my way without having to account for my convictions to the world. I will not deny that I have perceived in my religion human additions and abuses which, unfortunately, do too much to dim its luster. What friend of truth can boast that his religion is free from all damaging human embellishments? All of us who seek Truth recognize the lethal breath of hypocrisy and superstition and wish we could expunge it without doing harm to the true and the good. For my part, I am as convinced of the essentials of my religion – and unshakably so – as you and Mr. Bonnet could be of yours. And I hereby swear before the God of Truth, your and my creator and preserver, He whom you invoked in your letter to me, that I shall remain steadfast in my principles so long as my whole soul does not alter its nature. The distance from your religion which I acknowledged to you and your friends has not diminished in the meantime. And my respect for the moral character of its founder? You ought not have remained silent about the qualification that I expressly added and must now once again concede. At some point in his life a man must put an end to certain inquiries in order to move on. I may say that in the matter of religion I did this some years ago. I read, compared, contemplated, and took a stance.

And for my part, Judaism could have been toppled to the ground in every polemical textbook, and triumphantly introduced in every school exercise, without my ever having to engage in a dispute about it. Any expert or semi-expert in rabbinic matters might, on the basis of outmoded texts that no reasonable Jew reads anymore, or even knows about, arrive at the most absurd concept of Judaism for himself and his audience, and still I would not object in the slightest. I would like to be able to refute the contemptuous opinion people have of the Jew by virtuous behavior, not by polemics. My religion, my philosophy, and my place in civil society give me serious grounds to avoid all religious controversies and take up in public writings only those truths that are equally important for all religions.

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