(Bitter Sweet) Moses Mendelssohn Bio (Shmuel Feiner)


I finally got around to reading Shmuel Feiner’s biography, Moses Mendelssohn: Sage of Modernity , a less than the brilliant title that I imagine was chosen by the series editors at Yale University Press for the Jewish Lives Series. A graceful little study, I’m recommending it, for scholars, alongside Alexander Altmann’s massive, magisterial and unsurpassable biography of Mendelssohn, and for non-scholars, instead of it. Altmann’s book in comparison to Feiner’s is an archive of a thing. Feiner’s book in comparison to Altmann’s is a book, a finite and bounded object or thing with a clear beginning, middle, and end that moves along with a brisk narrative clip to make important points about its subjects –Moses Mendelssohn, Enlightenment, and Judaism.

What Feiner does especially well is to square the circle about Enlightenment humanism and traditional Judaism at work in Mendelssohn’s thought. It should be easy to understand why Altmann, like other émigrés from Nazi Germany, should have considered this attempt at synthesis by Mendelssohn to have been a failure. With more critical distance from Germany, Feiner, like many contemporary readers of Mendelssohn, find his project to be not so incoherent. Feiner has caught the mellifluous fusion of Enlightenment and Judaism, as well as the many bitter notes and contradictions.

Reading Feiner’s work I appreciate the degree to which Mendelssohn, that most gracious of thinkers, was immersed his entire adult life in philosophical-cultural controversies that were forced upon him. These controversies included the early attempt to receive the title morenu (rabbi) or chaver (peer) from Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschütz, the first attempt to clear the name of Judaism by defending Spinoza from the charge of vulgar pantheism, the argument with Johann Bernhard Basedow about educational reform, the dispute with Lavater about Christianity and Judaism, the Schwerin burial controversy with Rabbi Jacob Emden, the critique of Christian Wilhelm Dohm’s contention that the Jews were a non-productive people whose social standing deserved but needed to be “improved,” the dispute in which Mendelssohn defended the new program of Jewish education proposed by Wessely, the dispute with Cranz about Enlightenment and Judaism, the argument with Lessing’s positioning of Judaism in The Education of the Human Race, the dispute with Jacobi about Lessing, Spinoza, and Enlightenment reason.

While Feiner understands the way the balance between Judaism and modernity,  meaning Judaism and Enlightenment, was not seen by Mendelssohn as a contradiction, he does note the tension in an interesting way. Meant to reduce the sense of Jewish difference, it was actually the case that the very “lens of humanism only magnified the ‘otherness’ of Jewish affiliation” (pp.15-16). While Feiner does not delve deep into the tension, my sense is that he’s arguing that that the tension had less to do with “Judaism” per se, as Mendelssohn’s many critics have contended, and more to do with restricted status of the Jews in 18th century Germany and Europe (p.81).

As much as it is argued, again against Mendelssohn, that he restricted or wanted to restrict Judaism to the private sphere, the truth of the matter is that Mendelssohn and the Enlightenment and the Judaism represented by him were tested in the public sphere. I don’t see how we can or would want to do without the values of “love of man,” “religious tolerance,” multicultural society,” “reason,” and “morality.” Writing before the return of Judaism and Jewishness to history and power politics in the late 20th century, Mendelssohn was rather sure he had these things secure in Judaism. For him, writing in the 18th century, there would have been little to disconfirm those more innocent and sweet notions regarding Judaism and Jewishness. Writing on the other side prior to Emancipation, about the fact that these values did not quite take root in Europe, were not going to take root in Europe, about this Feiner is right to note that Mendelssohn was indeed quite bitter and not “naive” (p.215).


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New York Garden Spring Sentimental (2014)

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New buds and a New York City side-garden in the middle of the Passover holiday. As always, I’m drawn to the combination of concrete and organic materials, the new bright green and the dark branch. The iron wrought garden furniture has been in my family for nearly 50 years. A circular thing and finally over, each year the holiday digs in just a little bit deeper. Outside it’s night. A friend on FB wonders why it’s easier to conceptualize disruption and disorientation than it is to get a bead on happiness, but I’m not sure I’m of one mind with him. A contingent thing, the passage of time can be gentle under the right conditions, when marked by sympathy, family, and friendship. As for the sudden surge of sentimentality, I think I’ll blame it on the influence of Moses Mendelssohn. Despite knowing well enough the degree to which this is an untrue statement, sometimes it appears or feels like everything is put together just right, if only for a moment. What is one to do with a sentimental thought?

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Gazelle-Like God (Rabbis Read Song of Songs)


About the love between God and Israel, Song of Song Rabbah looks like a miscellany of rabbinic commentary with little to nothing to do with the biblical poem. But I think the rabbis get the leap and bound of the gazelle in their reading of Song of Songs 2:8-9.

Here’s the biblical text: Hark! My beloved/There he comes/Leaping over mountains/ Bounding over hills/My beloved is like a gazelle/Or like a young stag/There he stands behind our wall, Gazing through the window/Peering through the lattice.”

For the rabbis, the Song of Songs portends end times, which they conflate with the exodus from Egypt. God “leaps over calculations and periods and teminuses and in this month you are to be delivered” (Song of Songs Rabbah II.8.1). Over and over Israel asks, can we be redeemed? With no good deeds to our credit, since they are steeped in idolatry, etc. Like a gazelle, God leaps from Egypt to the Red Sea to Sinai to the future redemption (II.9.1). He leaps from one synagogue to another synagogue, from one house of study to another house of study to bless Israel for the merit of Abraham (II.9.2)

Like a young deer, God peers through the lattice work, behind the walls of the synagogues and houses of study, between the shoulders of the priests, and from between their fingers (II.9.2). A God who like a gazelle appears and disappears, he hides behind the Western Wall in Jerusalem, peering through the lattice of the merits of the patriarchs and matriarchs (II.9.3-4).

I think this is as good an image of God as anything, and not a bad reading of the biblical Song of Songs. Its sense of place is extraordinary, the sense of a mountain framing a human and humanized architecture of walls and lattice work that act like a screen for the appearance and disappearance of this gazelle-like animal figure of God.

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An Idol in the Holy of Holies (Song of Songs)

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R. Akiva called the Song of Songs the Holy of Holies. And there the Beloved is, in this image-rich picture of a human-not-so-human presence in the midst of the garden sanctum –head, arms, torso, legs, made up of bright precious metals and stones.

This is what he looks like:

His head is finest gold,

His locks curled

And black as a raven.


His eyes are like doves

By watercourses,

Bathed in milk,

Set by a brimming pool.


His cheeks are like beds of spices,

Banks of perfume


His lips are like lilies;

They drip flowing myrrh.


His hand are rods of gold,

Studded with beryl;


His belly a tablet of ivory,

Adorned with sapphires.


His legs are like marble pillars

Set in sockets of fine gold.


He is majestic as Lebanon,

Stately as the cedars.


His mouth delicious

And all of him delightful.


(Song of Songs 5:11-16)


A beautiful thing to read in the synagogue on Shabbat for Passover, is this not an image of divinity on par with the more famous ones presented by Ezekiel and Isaiah? Combining liquid, metalic,  vegetal, crystal, and animal elements, it looks like an idol placed in the Holy of Holies.

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Song of Songs Elegant Decadence (George Barbier)


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In black-gold-white, did the Song of Songs ever look so elegant, strange, and sexy? Greek or Japanese? Designed by George Barbier in art nouveau style, the version of the biblical book reeks of perfume and musk. There’s a definite air of Japonisme in the use of blank gold backgrounds and highlighted flowering branches. As if from another planet, the decadent figures are pagan and alien. The life they enjoy is their own,  lush, and metallic. I saw it on display at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair last April (2014) over at Marilyn Braiterman Rare Books. Infinitely kind, my mother always lets me photograph the books that interest me.

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Shadows & Silhouettes (Martin Buber)


They announced to me nothing other than their presence. And they did this with the precision of a shadow…Look at the ground, at the shadows of the trees as they stretch themselves over our path. Have you ever seen in the upper world of the trees a branch so outlined, so clear, so abstract as here? Is that not the branchness of the branch. Shadows –and firs f all I saw what I saw today in the theater like a shadow play: like an overly clear and still somehow unclear play. The intellectual prologue passed me by; I knew and did not know what happened…Yes what I saw was the spectacle of duality” (Martin Buber, Daniel, p.103-104)


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(Bloody Mess) Expressionist Chad Gadya (Menachem Birnbaum)


My father buys one kid. Cat kills kid. Dog kills cat. Stick kills dog. Fire burns stick. Water consumes fire. Ox drinks up water. The butcher slaughters ox. Angel of death slays butcher. And God, the Holy One, kills the angel of death. That’s what we teach our children. It doesn’t get any better? Probably not. In Menachem Birnbaum’s 1919 expressionist Chad Gadya, the traditional child’s ditty is shown to be a bloody mess.  My favorite images here are the ox and the butcher. I like the dark and red muscular fleshiness and the way it fills up the page; and also the closure of the eyes as each figure goes about a function or task; and also the circular litheness of the dog energy. Anticipating Barnett Newman, the representation of God by an abstract white zip of a line is pretty good. I saw this at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair at Marilyn Braiterman Rare Books.


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