Moses Mendelssohn's Hebrew Writings

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Edward Breuer
Edward Breuer
Yale Judaica Series
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , May
     560 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In their impressive new work, Moses Mendelssohn’s Hebrew Writings, Edward Breuer and David Sorkin acknowledge that “the Mendelssohn evident in these selections … may be disconcertingly different from the one conventionally depicted on the basis of the German writings” (2). This is a cautious comment, predicting only that readers may be surprised and even discomfited by this new translation of Hebrew works by the German-Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786). Yet despite its measured tone, this sentence points to what may be the most significant achievement of this groundbreaking volume: it productively defamiliarizes one of modern Judaism’s best known thinkers.

Mendelssohn requires little introduction. Often described as the founder of modern Jewish thought, he wrote extensively in German and Hebrew on metaphysics, aesthetics, politics, and religion. However, while German works such as his 1783 Jerusalem, or on Religious Power and Judaism are well known, his Hebrew oeuvre has often been neglected. This material has only recently received sustained scholarly attention, and a 2011 collection edited by Michah Gottlieb marked the first time that a significant selection appeared in English (full disclosure: I served as the translator of the Hebrew writings for that volume).

With Moses Mendelssohn’s Hebrew Writings, Breuer and Sorkin offer English translations of a much wider range of works than has previously been available. The volume includes Breuer’s translations of selections from Qohelet Musar (“Preacher of Morals”), a short-lived journal from the 1750s; Be’ur Millot ha-Higgayon (“Commentary on the Treatise on Logical Terms”), a 1761 commentary on a logical primer by Maimonides; Sefer Megillat Qohelet (“Commentary on Ecclesiastes”), a 1770 commentary on the biblical book of Ecclesiastes; and Sefer Netivot ha-Shalom (“The Paths of Peace,” often called the Be’ur or “Elucidation”), a monumental Hebrew commentary on and German translation of the Pentateuch published in the early 1780s. The volume also includes introductions by Breuer and Sorkin to each individual text and to the Hebrew writings as a whole, along with extensive annotations covering the details of Mendelssohn’s arguments.

This is a rich, extremely learned work. The translations are models of precision and elegance, and the introductions and annotations provide detailed yet accessible explanations of content that may be obscure for many readers, including Mendelssohn’s creative appropriation of premodern exegetical and philosophical sources, engagement with Enlightenment philosophy and critical Bible scholarship, and use of diverse material to illuminate the meaning of biblical texts, ranging from early modern chemistry, biology, and physics to technical aspects of Hebrew grammar to the accents or cantillation marks governing the Bible’s liturgical recitation. Again and again, we are confronted with the sheer breadth of Mendelssohn’s concerns. The Be’ur’s gloss on Genesis 3:22 develops a philosophical argument about desire and human flourishing while weaving together reflections on immortality, medieval exegesis, biblical accents, and Hebrew grammar; Megillat Qohelet’s treatment of Ecclesiastes 8:1-2 blends references to Hebrew verbal roots, cantillation marks, and the nature of evil while exploring the emotional impact of metaphysical knowledge and the nature of political obligation and accountability.

Far from a mere curiosity, this breadth is crucial to what I described as these translations’ most important achievement: their defamiliarization of Mendelssohn. Many of us who study his Hebrew works still take our bearings from his German corpus, drawing on the former to illuminate the latter—mining texts such as the Be’ur, for example, to better understand widely discussed arguments such as  Jerusalem’s claims about idolatry (that Jewish law protects adherents from conflating representations of the deity with the deity itself) and universalism and particularism (that practices incumbent only upon Jews point to universally accessible truths). This approach has shed important light on Mendelssohn, but it also runs the risk of casting his German writings as the source of his “real” intellectual agenda. Breuer and Sorkin avoid this peril, frequently treating Mendelssohn’s German writings as resources to illuminate his Hebrew works. Breuer and Sorkin cite Jerusalemon idolatry, universalism, and particularism, but they do so relatively briefly in the course of exploring the treatment of language and logic in Be’ur Millot ha-Higgayon, and their emphasis is on how the concerns informing that commentary are echoed in other Hebrew works as well as in Jerusalem’s arguments. Mendelssohn’s German treatise is invoked, that is, not as a privileged source of his intellectual agenda, but rather as one text among many that shed light on a specific Hebrew work—as further evidence that the concerns of a Hebrew commentary pervade his thought more generally (56-57). In some cases, in fact, Breuer and Sorkin forgo invoking German works altogether and allow Mendelssohn’s Hebrew writings to stand on their own: although Jerusalem famously casts Jews as teachers of pure religious notions to humanity, Breuer and Sorkin do not cite this treatise when a strikingly similar claim appears in the Be’ur on Exodus 19:6.

The effect is to disrupt Germanocentric pictures of Mendelssohn, allowing the diverse concerns of his Hebrew writings to come to fore and compel a reassessment of his commitments. The Mendelssohn emerging from this volume can still be described as a founder of modern Jewish thought: a thinker committed to navigating changing intellectual and social currents and fashioning a form of Jewish life appropriate for his modern context. He turns out, however, to possess a surprisingly capacious understanding of just what that navigating and fashioning should involve. For this Mendelssohn, a flourishing Judaism requires that Jews turn their attention not only to modern philosophy but also to premodern exegesis, not only to the perils of idolatry but also to grammar and cantillation, not only to the universal significance of Jewish election but also to the use of the natural sciences in hermeneutics. This is a Mendelssohn who strives to theorize a strikingly far-reaching project of Jewish renewal incorporating philosophy, language, exegesis, science, and much more.

This is also a Mendelssohn who, I suspect, will be indispensable to the stories we tell about modern Judaism. In recent years, a growing number of scholars, such as Olga Litvak and Eliyahu Stern, have attempted to move beyond inherited narratives about Jewish modernity and recover neglected trajectories of Jewish thought, especially in eastern Europe. Mendelssohn’s Hebrew writings played an important role in shaping many of those trajectories: as Breuer and Sorkin note, these texts were read not only by German Jews but also in eastern European settings including state-sponsored schools, circles around Jewish intellectuals, and at least one traditionalist yeshivah. By rendering this material accessible, then, Moses Mendelssohn’s Hebrew Writings unlocks works that contributed to the development of Jewish life in widely varying contexts across Europe. Breuer and Sorkin open up the possibility of rethinking not only the philosophy and career of a canonical figure, but also the emergence and diversity of modern Judaism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Elias Sacks is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and Associate Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Date of Review: 
October 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Edward Breuer teaches in the Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. David Sorkin is the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History at Yale University. His most recent book is The Religious Enlightenment: Protestants, Jews, and Catholics from London to Vienna.



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