Moses Mendelssohn's Living Script

Philosophy, Practice, History, Judaism

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Elias Sacks
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , December
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In 1782, a pair of open letters addressed to Moses Mendelssohn accused him of failing to reconcile his commitment to the strictures of Jewish law with his commitment to liberal Enlightenment deism’s assertion of the universality of rational means to salvation. Mendelssohn responded to these letters with his best-known work, Jerusalem, which argues that—as a non-dogmatic, revealed ceremonial law that only concerns itself with religious practice—Judaism makes no demands on one’s beliefs and therefore cannot come into conflict with the rationalism of Enlightenment ideals. Whether Mendelssohn’s response to this challenge succeeds has been a point of contention for over two centuries and, arguably, the variety of forms of modern Judaism reflect differing assessments of Mendelssohn’s position. In recent decades, several academic authors are also asking whether Mendelssohn presents a coherent account of Judaism that is compatible with the philosophical positions that he advances, or whether his arguments in support of traditional Jewish practice within a tolerant, modern society have only the superficial veneer of rhetorical success, but cannot withstand closer scrutiny. In his book, Moses Mendelssohn’s Living Script, Elias Sacks not only enters this debate on the side of those who hold that Mendelssohn’s account of Judaism is coherent, but also suggests that Mendelssohn presents Judaism in a way that engages directly with several critical issues present in the study of religion today.

Sacks correctly identifies that the most crucial claim about Judaism that Mendelssohn makes in Jerusalem is that “the ceremonial law itself is a kind of living script, rousing the mind and heart, full of meaning, never ceasing to inspire contemplation and to provide the occasion and opportunity for oral instruction” (29 passim, quoting Alan Arkush, trans., Jerusalem, Brandeis University Press, 1983, 102-103). When Mendelssohn characterizes Jewish practice as a “living script,” he clearly is setting out an essential difference between Judaism and the creedal basis of Christianity, the rationalism of deism, and what he considers the abuses of idolatry. Mendelssohn is less clear in Jerusalem about the precise nature of that difference and how it serves as a continuing justification for adherence to Judaism in the modern world. Drawing upon related discussions in Mendelssohn’s Hebrew writings, as well as other eighteenth-century philosophical and theological works that Mendelssohn read, Sacks offers three answers to this last question: Judaism is not subject to the “conceptual disfiguring” that occurs when loyalty to religious dogma prevents practitioners from accepting advances made by modern science and philosophy; Judaism promotes the “felicity of the nation” by leading its practitioners to continuously reengage in cultural criticism and intensive self-evaluation, even in the rapidly changing modern world; and rabbinic, masoretic, and biblical claims to divine sanction are sufficiently sound to effect continued adherence to them, notwithstanding the rise of modern criticism of the historicity of the Bible, the authenticity of the received text, and the authority of those who have transmitted it.

According to Sacks, these three answers are ultimately united through Mendelssohn’s recognition of both the continuity within Judaism that transcends historical contexts, and of the vicissitudes of the historical context of Jewish existence, despite the claim of most students of Jewish historiography that such historical consciousness is a characteristic of modern Judaism that only springs up in the generation following the death of Mendelssohn. Unfortunately, Sacks may have accomplished the opposite of his goals. Mendelssohn’s understanding of history, as presented by Sacks, is profoundly unhistorical, even if Mendelssohn is responding to the immediate needs of his day. Mendelssohn flattens history into an undulating sequence of sometimes-better and sometimes-worse, but given that he believes that the bad will eventually get better and the good will eventually go bad, he is not genuinely concerned with the specificity and particularity of any specific moment, or the precise reasons why it was different than what came before or after. Mendelssohn’s rejection of Gotthold Lessing’s progressive history of humanity makes it clear that Mendelssohn’s outlook on history has more in common with a shrug of the shoulders than it does with the rise of “historical consciousness” in modern Judaism.

Mendelssohn writes in Jerusalem that “the descendants [of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob] were chosen by Providence to be a priestly nation; that is, a nation which, through its establishment and constitution, through its laws, actions, vicissitudes, and changes was continually to call attention to sound and unadulterated ideas of God and his attributes. It was incessantly to teach, to proclaim, and to endeavor to preserve these ideas among the nations, by means of its mere existence” (Jerusalem, Brandeis University Press, 1983). If anything, Mendelssohn is suggesting here that Israel’s mission is to continually and incessantly preserve and exist, placing both its practice and its conception of God beyond the historical changes that face the other nations. In other words, Mendelssohn’s outlook is closer to Franz Rosenzweig’s view that Judaism places the Jewish people outside of history, than it is to Sacks’s view.

Nonetheless, Sacks has written an accessible book that will help students who read Jerusalem to better understand Mendelssohn’s intellectual methods and objectives as well as his contributions to the development of modern religious forms of Judaism. Mendelssohn’s Living Script is also an important book that makes a valuable contribution to debates that will continue to engage the next generation of scholars of Mendelssohn.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mark A. Kaplowitz is an instructor for Bornblum Judaic Studies at the Univeristy of Memphis.

Date of Review: 
August 22, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elias Sacks is assistant professor of Religious Studies and Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.


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