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Moses Mendelssohn

Philosopher

In mid-18th century Berlin, a process began which was to fundamentally change Jewish life throughout Germany: Jews moved out of the isolation in which they had been living, calling age-old traditions and ways of thinking into question and adopting the language, culture, and conventions of their surrounding environment. Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786), the great philosopher of European Enlightenment, played a crucial role in furthering this development.

In 1743, Mendelssohn came to Berlin as a young Talmud scholar. In Dessau, where he grew up, he had studied the Bible, the Talmud, and the writings of the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides. Now, he was learning modern languages and secular sciences—thereby daring to step out of the confines of traditional Jewish life.

At first he earned his living as a private tutor, then as a bookkeeper and partner of the silk manufacturer Isaac Bernhard. Mendelssohn suffered under his office work, as it kept him from his studies: “This business! This annoying business! It’s driving me into the ground and consuming the energy of my best years.” Inspired by his friend, the poet Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Mendelssohn himself began to publish. He became known as the “German Socrates” after the publication of his book Phaedon or On the Immortality of the Soul (1767). He dedicated himself to tolerance among the religions.

Painted portrait of a young man with books in his arms, in an oval frame

Probably Elimelech Polta Ben Simson Rofe, Portrait of Moses Mendelssohn, after 1767, gouache on horn or ivory; Jewish Museum Berlin, accession 2001/357/0, photo: Jens Ziehe

“What a happy world we would be living in if all people would embrace and practice the Truth that the best Christians and the best Jews have in common.”

In Jerusalem or On Religious Power and Judaism (1783), he tried to harmonize Judaism with the philosophy of the Enlightenment.

As no other Jew before him, Mendelssohn left his mark on the culture of his time—all the while living strictly according to the precepts of the Jewish religion. Later generations saw in him the first modern German Jew.

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