Lubavitch International, November 2016
To the Editor:
In your last editorial, you write that Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) advocated that Jews be “men on the street and Jews at home.” Many people ascribe this comment to Mendelssohn, but apparently he never said it. It was Yehuda Leib Gordon—a Russian maskil—who made this statement.
In general, Mendelssohn suffers a terrible reputation among traditional Jews that is not entirely deserved. It’s true that four of his six kids converted to Christianity, but a tremendous number of Berlin Jews converted during this period, making Mendelssohn’s kids, unfortunately, not at all unique.
I’m not suggesting Mendelssohn was a tzaddik, but if a person reads Mendelssohn’s only book on Judaism—Jerusalem—he will be hard-pressed to find anything objectionable in it.
Mendelssohn, in fact, writes explicitly in this work that one must keep the mitzvahs (a sentiment some of his students didn’t accept, but Mendelssohn is very clear on the subject). It is also a fact that Mendelssohn was personally observant.
Finally, although religious Eastern European Jews detested him, religious German Jews generally saw him as one of their own. Historian Mordechai Breuer writes that “veneration of Mendelssohn [was] one of the few inter-Jewish issues on which all branches of German Jewry agreed,” and several prominent German Orthodox rabbis actually wrote articles in praise of Mendelssohn on his 100th yahrzeit.
Mendelssohn may have made some mistakes (among other things, some believe his Judaism was too cerebral), but he doesn’t deserve the opprobrium contemporary frum Jews level at him.
New York City
Editor responds: Thank you for pointing out that it was Gordon, not Mendelssohn, who made that statement. Your defense of Mendelssohn notwithstanding, Jewish rabbis attribute to him the beginning of the haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment movement that led many Jews to abandon Jewish tradition and ultimately, to assimilate.