Jerusalem (Mendelssohn) - Historical Background

Historical Background

In 1763 some students of theology visited Moses Mendelssohn in Berlin because of his reputation as a man of letters, and they insisted that they wanted to know Mendelssohn’s opinion about Christianity. Three years later one of them, the Swiss Johann Caspar Lavater, sent him his own German translation of Charles Bonnet's Palingénésie philosophique, with a public dedication to Mendelssohn. In this dedication he charged Mendelssohn with the decision to follow Bonnet's reasons by converting to Christianity or to refute Bonnet's arguments. The very ambitious priest Lavater published his dedication to Mendelssohn and Mendelssohn's response together with other letters which were dated to the year 1774—including a prayer of Dr. Kölbele "baptizing two Israelites as a consequence of the Mendelssohn dispute". He abused the reputation of Mendelssohn and of his letters about religious tolerance to fashion himself as a kind of Christian Messiah of contemporary Judaism, disregarding the Haskalah as a conversion to Christianity.

This intrigue was transferred to the times of the medieval crusades in the allegorical drama Nathan der Weise of Mendelssohn's friend Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: Lessing replaced the young priest Lavater with the historical figure Saladin who appeared as the tolerant hero of the crusades in the perspective of contemporary enlightened historiography. The motive of Nathan who replied with the ring parable, was taken from Boccaccio's «Decamerone» and Lessing intended to create his drama as a monument of tolerance and enlightenment dedicated to Moses Mendelssohn. Lessing was an open-minded and modern type of freemason and he himself had a public theological dispute (Fragmentenstreit) about the historical truth of the New Testament with the orthodox Lutheran Hauptpastor Johann Melchior Goeze in Hamburg during the 70s. Finally he was banned 1778 by the Herzog of Brunswick. Lessing's new way to ask about the fundament of a certain religion and to regard its efforts on religious tolerance was intended as a reflection of the current political practice.

In 1782, after the declaration of the so-called „Toleranzpatent“ in the Habsburg Monarchy under Joseph II and the realization of the «lettres patentes» in the French Monarchy under Louis XVI, religion and especially the Jewish emancipation became a favorite subject of private debates in Alsace-Lorraine and these debates were often followed by publications of Christian clerics and Abbés. Mendelssohn's Jerusalem or on Religious Power and Judaism may be regarded as his contribution to the debate.

During the 1770s Mendelssohn was frequently asked to act as a mediator by Jews in Switzerland and Alsace – and once Lavater supported Mendelssohn's intervention. About 1780 there was another antisemitic intrigue in Alsace, when François Hell accused the Jewish population to exhaust the peasants. The contemporary Alsatian Jews had no permission to buy land, but they often existed as innkeepers and moneylenders in rural areas. Moses Mendelssohn was asked by Herz Cerfberr, the communal leader of the Alsatian Jews, to react with a Mémoire about the legal discrimination of the Jewish population as it was common practice of the Prussian administration. Moses Mendelssohn arranged a Mémoire by the Prussian officer and freemason Christian Wilhelm von Dohm in which both authors tried to relate the confirmation of the unenlightened condition with a demand for a general improvement of the civil condition.

In this respect Moses Mendelssohn proved in his book Jerusalem which was published in the same year, that the “amelioration” of the civil status of the Jews could not be separated from an urgent need to modernize the Prussian Monarchy as a whole. The reason, why Moses Mendelssohn as one of the most recognized philosophers of Haskalah was from Prussia, has to be understood by the fact that the state of Jewish emancipation there as on the lowest level in comparison with the neighbour countries. So the Jewish population was more forced to assimilate than in other countries during the 19th century: The Hohenzollern Monarchy followed with their edicts into the footsteps of the Habsburg Monarchy—with 10 years delay. In 1784, one year after the publication of Mendelssohn’s book Jerusalem, the administration of the Habsburg Monarchy prohibited rabbinic jurisdiction and submitted the Jewish population to its own jurisdiction, but with an inferior legal status. This first step of the monarchy was expected to be done in a direction towards intolerance. In 1791 the National Assembly of the French Revolution declared the full civil rights for the Jewish population of the French Republic (Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen).

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