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Moses Mendelssohn, Reply to Johann Caspar Lavater (1769)

Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) achieved fame and distinction as the father of the Jewish Haskalah or Enlightenment, which entailed reconciling the Jewish religion with the broad universalist principles of the European Enlightenment. Mendelssohn pioneered Jewish engagement in non-Jewish intellectual life in Germany, embracing the philosophical project begun by Leibniz and developed thereafter by Christian Wolff. Mendelssohn remained faithful to Orthodox Judaism, but challenged Jewish traditionalism by translating the Pentateuch into German and by generally advocating the adoption of the High German language and other forms of acculturation into German society. After the Swiss clergyman Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801) challenged him to convert to Christianity, he penned the following reply, which silenced Lavater and earned Mendelssohn much respect among Enlightenment intellectuals. Noteworthy are Mendelssohn’s very pointed formulation of the disadvantages faced by Jews in Christian society and his measured praise for the degree of toleration enjoyed by the small Jewish community in Frederick II’s Prussia.

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Open Letter to Deacon Lavater of Zurich from Moses Mendelssohn

Worthy Friend of Humanity!

You have deemed it fitting to dedicate your translation of Mr. Bonnet’s Inquiry into the Evidence for Christianity* to me, and in your dedication you have appealed to me most solemnly and before the eyes of the public: “to refute this work, insofar as I find its essential arguments in support of Christianity to be incorrect, but insofar as I find them correct, to do what wisdom, love of truth, and honesty call upon me to do – what Socrates would have done, had he read this work and found it irrefutable [ . . . ],” that is, abandon the religion of my fathers and profess the one defended by Mr. Bonnet. For surely, even if I were so base as to counterbalance wisdom with the love of truth and honesty, in this case I would certainly place all three on the same side of the scale.

I am fully convinced that your actions flow from pure motives and can attribute to you none but the most loving and humane of intentions. I would be unworthy of the respect of any honorable man should I not reply with a thankful heart to your affectionate dedication. I cannot deny, however, that this step on your part has disturbed me extraordinarily. I could scarcely have expected, from a Lavater, such a public challenge.

Since you will still remember the confidential discussion which I had the pleasure of having with you and your estimable friends in my drawing room, you cannot have forgotten how frequently I tried to steer the conversation away from religion and toward more innocuous subjects, and how strenuously you and your friends had to press me before I dared express my attitude about something so dear to the heart. Unless I am mistaken, assurances had been given beforehand that the words spoken there would never be made public. – Yet I would rather be wrong than blame you for breaking this promise. – But if I so carefully tried to avoid making a declaration in my own drawing room among a small number of worthy men, of whose good will I had reason to be assured, it ought to be all the easier to understand how very averse I would be to making such a declaration public. That the voice challenging me to make it is not a contemptible one is a further cause of embarrassment to me. What, then, has moved you – against my inclination, which is known to you – to draw me out of the crowd and lead me to a public arena that I very much wished never to enter? And even if you ascribed my reluctance to mere timidity or diffidence, does not such weakness merit forbearance and leniency from any loving heart?

My reluctance to enter into religious controversies has never been the result of fear or weakness, however. I may say that I did not start examining my religion only yesterday. Indeed, early on, I recognized it as a duty to examine my opinions and acts, and if, since my youth, I have dedicated my leisure hours to worldly wisdom and the humanities, it was solely with the intention of preparing myself for this necessary [self-] examination. I could have had no other motives for this. In my situation I could not expect the slightest temporal advantage from such studies. I knew well that I could not prosper in worldly affairs in this way. And as for pleasure? – Oh, my worthy friend of humanity! The status assigned to my coreligionists in civil society is so remote from any free exercise of the intellect that one surely does not increase one’s contentment by learning the truth about the rights of mankind. – I will refrain from further elaboration on this point. He who knows the conditions in which we exist, and who has a human heart, will feel more than I can say.

* The Swiss cleric Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801) translated Palingénésie philosophique (1769), a work by his compatriot Charles Bonnet (1720-1793), from French into German. His challenge to Mendelssohn, “the German Socrates,” came in a specially printed dedication – trans.

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