At Bruce Rosenstock’s suggestion, I read Moses Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem: Or on Religious Power and Judaism (1783) this week. The goal of the work is twofold. First, Mendelssohn wants to demonstrate from natural law that there can be no such thing as “ecclesiastical law” (i.e., religious coersion). Second, he develops a compelling reading of Judaism as essentially the religion of reason.
In the second half, which is where the real emotional charge lies for Mendelssohn and where he was taking the greatest risks, he proceeds by means of a series of reversals. Where people have claimed that Judaism is the very pinnacle of religious coersion, he wants to show that the observances point toward universal religious truths. Similarly, where people have claimed that Judaism is a pure particularity and an example of “special revelation,” he wants to show that the doctrines of Judaism are at bottom identical with the general truths of religion that are equally available to all — the Jews would hence be a kind of living reminder of the truths of monotheism during the inevitable periods of decline and idolatry.
The reversal I’d like to talk about, though, is his claim that, far from being the ultimate “religion of the letter,” Judaism (at least in its earliest and most authentic form) is designed from the ground up to be a religion of living spirit. My Derridean radar was set off by a lengthy discussion of the origin of language, which at first seemed to be a self-indulgent aside but then revealed itself to be a crucial part of his argument. Though falling broadly within the tradition of privileging speech over writing, Mendelssohn adds his own twist: the problem with writing is that it leads to idolatry. While writing is useful and necessary, in the inevitable progress of human folly, the symbol is worshipped and its authentic meaning is lost. Hence the role of the Oral Law in Judaism: while the basic points are preserved in writing, it must be continually supplemented with the living human voice, with living deliberation, in order to be applied. This oral element keeps the law from ever being a dead letter — instead, the religion is structured in such a way as to prompt reflection and debate that will continually push for ever deeper meaning. (Mendelssohn views the codification of the Oral Law as something of a fall from grace.)
This brings us back to one of the major points of the literature on religion from Mendelssohn’s era: for them, religion is — perhaps paradoxically to our minds — considered strictly the realm of persuasion. Judaism in its original form (or what Mendelssohn claims as its original form) was explicitly structured around persuasion, as the living deliberation around the meaning of the law essentially requires that everyone living under the law be continually persuaded to follow it — and in fact, the observance itself means that this persuasion goes beyond simple mental affirmation to involve the body as well.
Judaism, then, is for Mendelssohn simply what religion should be, a living reminder of what religion should be — and for practical purposes in his setting, the Jewish law and supposed “special revelation” are, paradoxically to his readers’ eyes, precisely the best reminder that religion cannot and should not be subject to coersion. Indeed, extrapolating somewhat from his argument, any religion that loses that persuasive element, that fails to engage the spirit in an authentic way, can only be idolatry. So in the end, Mendelssohn is not just asking for religious tolerance: he’s asking the European nations to renounce their idolatry.