Moses Mendelssohn: Sage of Modernity

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Overview

The “German Socrates,” Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786) was the most influential Jewish thinker of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A Berlin celebrity and a major figure in the Enlightenment, revered by Immanuel Kant, Mendelssohn suffered the indignities common to Jews of his time while formulating the philosophical foundations of a modern Judaism suited for a new age. His most influential books included the groundbreaking Jerusalem and a translation of the Bible into German that paved the way for generations of Jews to master the language of the larger culture.

Feiner’s book is the first that offers a full, human portrait of this fascinating man—uncommonly modest, acutely aware of his task as an intellectual pioneer, shrewd, traditionally Jewish, yet thoroughly conversant with the world around him—providing a vivid sense of Mendelssohn’s daily life as well as of his philosophical endeavors. Feiner, a leading scholar of Jewish intellectual history, examines Mendelssohn as father and husband, as a friend (Mendelssohn’s long-standing friendship with the German dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was seen as a model for Jews and non-Jews worldwide), as a tireless advocate for his people, and as an equally indefatigable spokesman for the paramount importance of intellectual independence.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Feiner, a professor of Modern Jewish History at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, presents an all-encompassing biography of Mendelssohn, a prominent 18th-century Jewish intellectual. From his early life as a child prodigy to an adulthood of serious study, notoriety, and wealth, Feiner paints a complete portrait. As a child, Mendelssohn had a remarkable capacity for learning, accompanying his rabbi and mentor to Berlin for advanced Torah studies. Although the Prussian economy was tightly controlled by Christians, Mendelssohn was allowed to stay for his scholarship and in virtue of the prominent family with whom he was boarding. Mendelssohn's intellectual interests soon expanded beyond Torah study, and he familiarized himself with the sciences and philosophy of his day. In his early twenties, he began publishing his own ideas, famously challenging other respected thinkers, which brought him respect, a reputation, and fortune. Feiner describes Mendelssohn's intellectual and social ascent in a tight, concise narrative, supported through preserved documents like Mendelssohn's correspondences between his friends and family. (Dec.)
Jewish Book Council

"In extensive quotations from Mendelssohn’s many works, Feiner provides an introduction to Mendelssohn’s open, humanist thought and hopes, as well as his abiding fear that Jews would never attain full civil standing without sacrificing their religious tradition. Mendelssohn’s letters often reveal his disappointments and the burden he carried as spokesman for the Jewish community to both the governmental authorities and intellectual elite, defending Judaism even as he attempted to purge it of rabbinic authority and insularity. Feiner is particularly sensitive to Mendelssohn’s desire for a life of study, enriched by family and his salon of likeminded friends and thinkers, even as he was thrust time and again into the public arena."—Maron L. Waxman, Jewish Book Council

— Maron L. Waxman

Jewish Review of Books

"Feiner''s Moses Mendelssohn serves as a useful introduction to this complex figure, and fills a longstanding need for a short, accessible biography . . . . Feiner is especially good at positioning the development of Mendelssohn''s thought within the contours and challenges of his times."—Jerome Copulsky, Jewish Review of Books

— Jerome Copulsky

Choice

"Highly recommended."—Choice
Jewish Book Council - Maron L. Waxman

"In extensive quotations from Mendelssohn’s many works, Feiner provides an introduction to Mendelssohn’s open, humanist thought and hopes, as well as his abiding fear that Jews would never attain full civil standing without sacrificing their religious tradition. Mendelssohn’s letters often reveal his disappointments and the burden he carried as spokesman for the Jewish community to both the governmental authorities and intellectual elite, defending Judaism even as he attempted to purge it of rabbinic authority and insularity. Feiner is particularly sensitive to Mendelssohn’s desire for a life of study, enriched by family and his salon of likeminded friends and thinkers, even as he was thrust time and again into the public arena."—Maron L. Waxman, Jewish Book Council
Jewish Review of Books - Jerome Copulsky

"Feiner's Moses Mendelssohn serves as a useful introduction to this complex figure, and fills a longstanding need for a short, accessible biography . . . . Feiner is especially good at positioning the development of Mendelssohn's thought within the contours and challenges of his times."—Jerome Copulsky, Jewish Review of Books
Religious Studies Review - Mara Benjamin

"[R]eadable and lively . . . The volume offers an excellent introduction to Mendelssohn for students and interested lay readers as well as a welcome scholarly contribution."—Mara Benjamin, Religious Studies Review
Library Journal
Feiner (modern Jewish history, Bar Ilan Univ., Israel) presents a fascinating portrait of an important Enlightenment figure. Mendelssohn (1729–86) departed from his assumed destiny as a Torah scholar to become a man of "arts and sciences," a German Jewish philosopher and scholar, especially well known for his work Jerusalem as well as his translation of the Pentateuch and other biblical texts into German. More important, however, was his advocacy of Enlightenment rationalism, intellectual autonomy, and religious tolerance. Feiner also covers the tension between Mendelssohn as a public figure and Mendelssohn's desire to lead a private life in the parlor, his study, synagogue, and silk factory. (He was an important leader of the textile industry.) VERDICT Feiner's biographical bildungsroman is a respectful and balanced treatment of the "Socrates of Germany" and the "Father of Reform Judaism," appropriate for both academic and public library collections. With a helpful chronology of Mendelssohn's life and a concise, selected bibliography. Expect more high-caliber titles from this new partnership between Yale University Press and the Leon D. Black Foundation.—Brian Smith McCallum, Arlington Heights Memorial Lib., IL
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300161755
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 11/23/2010
  • Series: Jewish Lives
  • Pages: 248
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author


Shmuel Feiner is professor of Modern Jewish History at Bar Ilan University and holds the Samuel Braun Chair for the History of the Jews in Prussia. His books include Haskalah and History: The Emergence of a Modern Jewish Historical Consciousness and The Jewish Enlightenment (winner of the Koret Jewish Book Award).
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