Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786)

Jewish Philosopher and Advocate for Religious Emancipation

Moses Mendelssohn was an 18th-Century German-Jewish philosopher.

He was such a giant in the intellectual growth of European Jewish culture that some call him the third Moses (after Moses from the Bible and Moses Maimonides). Mendelssohn began his work in the fields of metaphysical philosophy and mathematics, engaging all the top scholars of his day with his elegant and lucid style of writing. He was hailed as a German Socrates.

A Deeper Look Into Judaism & Translation of the Torah into German

Mendelssohn, Lavater and Lessing (behind), engraving by the artist Moritz Daniel Oppenheim

Mendelssohn, Lavater and Lessing (behind), engraving by the artist Moritz Daniel Oppenheim.
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Earlier in his academic career, Mendelssohn had been focused primarily on philosophy. A turning point in his intellectual passion came when Johann Lavater, a Christian admirer, challenged him to a debate, hoping to convert the Jewish philosopher. This exchange prompted Mendelssohn to delve deeper into his own Judaism. He translated the Torah into German and wrote a commentary on Exodus. He also expanded beyond solely academic pursuits into ways that he could help emancipate Jews in Europe intellectually and legally.

Religious Emancipation

His later writings dealt with the issues of religious emancipation and the relationship of church and state. In his book, Jerusalem, he held that the state has no right to interfere with the religion of its citizens, a call to reform that the philosopher Immanuel Kant found irrefutable.

Plurality of Truth

In diverse societies he suggested the pragmatic principle of the possible plurality of truths. He argued that there may need to be different religions to deal with the diversity of humanity, and each one should be respected. For Mendelssohn, the true test of religion should be how it positively affects our human conduct.

Religious Tolerance

A picture of Moses Mendelssohn based on a portrait by Anton Graff

A picture of Moses Mendelssohn displayed in the Jewish Museum, Berlin, based on an oil portrait (1771) by Anton Graff in the collection of the University of Leipzig.
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Mendelssohn’s own conduct was so noble and persuasive that the Christian philosopher and writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing used him as the model for the title character in the 1779 play Nathan the Wise, which was an appeal for religious tolerance.

Mendelssohn also spoke out against the use of excommunication as a religious threat to people speaking their conscience. He personally worked on improving the relations between Jews and Christians, urging tolerance and a shared commitment to our common humanity.

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