Language and Idolatry

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.

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15 Responses to “Language and Idolatry”

  1. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    Wow! After a week’s encounter with a very complex book, you have managed to hit on the major interpretive issues as they are being discussed in the literature today. The spirit/letter reversal that Mendelssohn is engaged in (where Christianity with its insistence on doctrinal orthodoxy is the letter and Judaism with its insistence on continuous persuasion is spirit) is something you rightly picked up on. It’s the core of the really nice treatment of Mendelssohn in Jeffrey Librett’s book The Rhetoric of Cultural Dialogue. You can imagine the response to Mendelssohn’s attempt to pull a reverse Pauline flip against his Christian contemporaries. Kant actually was one of the few Christian readers who were impressed with the book’s argument against religious coercion of any kind, but had some trouble with Mendelssohn’s rejection of the idea that there is steady progress in human history. The brilliant J. G. Hamann wrote a scathing attack (Golgotha and Sheblimini) that more or less defined the anti-Jewish tone of German Romanticism for the future. And the equally brilliant F. H. Jacobi would not rest until he had reversed the flip again and demonstrated that any attempt to render religion rational was just a way to hyper-spiritualize Christianity right into Judaism (now not the religion of the flesh, but of Kabbalistic pantheism).

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m definitely looking forward to rereading Kant’s Religion within the Limits in light of what Mendelssohn’s doing here.

  3. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    And I forgot to mention that Mendelssohn is the main opponent in Hegel’s major early theological writings from the 1790s. Hegel’s vicious anti-Judaism espeicially in the Spirit of Chrtstianity and its Fate needs to be seen as very much a response to a point he took from Jacobi, namely, that the whole Enlightenment project of the religion of reason (including Kant’s efforts) is a Judaization of Christianity. (Of course, you need a baseline disdain of Judaism to get the juices flowing in the first place.)

  4. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    I think Kant’s Religion book takes Mendelssohn’s idea of Judaism as completely non-coercive and appropriates it for his own conception of the purely ethical ecclesiastical society he describes that rises beyond any orhtodoxy.

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    In a way, your comments about the responses to Mendelssohn are deeply depressing — they remind one that Christians always find a new reason to hate Jews.

  6. dbarber Says:

    If I remember correctly, according to the RO genealogy Hamann and Jacobi were essentially the only ones to fight the “good” fight during the rise of Enlightenment.

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    For such a relatively new school of thought, the RO literature really is full of an overabundance of treasures.

  8. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    Hamann and Jacobi were both brilliant writers, but they were uninterested in system building so they sort of got left behind by Fichte, Hegel et al.

    Kierkegaard has a nice discussion of Jacobi’s salto mortale in Concl. Unsc. Post.

    Jacobi and Hamann are very much worth studying today, and not necessarily for what RO makes out of them. As to their anti-Judaism: this seems particularly endemic in German intellectual history, and it gets worse in the 19th cent. It is not only intellectual, of course, but also goes to a social prejudice against Jews. It is racialized early on, by the time of the March Revolution in 1848. One critical factor is the political and theological crisis of identity in Germany after the collapse of what was called the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation in 1806 or so, after the Napoleonic wars. It’s like Germany, despite (or maybe because of it) the Reformation, held on to the Eusebian vision of the Christian empire with a vengeance. In that vision, the Antichrist is always cast as Jewish, not (as originally) Roman. Again, the sin here is political-theological, although even as brilliant a historian and theologian as Erik Peterson, even as he saw through to the heart of this sin in Nazi Germany, could not help himself from making the Jews the real culprit (in his book, Monotheism as a Political Problem).

  9. Hill Says:

    Anti-Semites are constitutively unable to do good philosophy. Wait…

  10. Brad Johnson Says:

    Jacobi, in particular, is a very interesting / divisive character in the development of German Idealism. He definitely helped spur Schelling along in his see-sawing between Spinoza and Fichte.

  11. Adam Morton Says:


    I have Golgotha and Sheblimini in a book around here somewhere. What’s the Jacobi work(s) you refer to?

  12. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    The “greatest hit” collection is in George di Giovanni’s translation, Major Philosophical Writings.

  13. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    The ruling passed yesterday by a 5-4 majority in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez is a beautiful example of the issues raised in Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem. Christian Legal Society (CLS) had a requirement that all members “affirm Christian orthodox beliefs.” The school (Hastings Law School at UC Berkeley) refused to grant official status to the group under its “all comers” policy. The question before the court was whether the school had infringed first amendment rights to freedom of speech. Ginsburg’s majority opinion, of course, could not adopt Mendelssohn’s doctrine that freedom of speech is itself injured when any oath of fidelity to some “orthodoxy” is demanded of a person as a condition of entry into any group. Mendelssohn is simply too radical on this score. But Ginsburg did approach this view when she writes that at a public institution devoted to open and free pursuit of knowledge, such limiting criteria for forming associations are intrinsically contrary to the principles of the public institution. More telling is the view of the minority advanced by Alito who advances the anti-Mendelssohnian position that “there are religious groups that cannot in good conscience agree in their bylaws that they will admit persons who do not share their faith.” Mendelssohn would counter that the only expression of a “good conscience” is one that is absolutely free from coercion, and therefore does not bind itself with oaths never to change its mind or to fix the fluidity of language itself with definitions of terms that are contested and contestable. If you want a sense of what intellectuals in Germany thought about Mendelssohn’s views, all you need to do is read what the (now minority) thinks about the majority’s decision: “a serious setback to freedom of expression in this country.” It is not without significance, of course, that the majority decision should be written by a Jew, and I am absolutely sure that the decision to let Ginsburg write the opinion against a Christian group was much discussed in the chambers of the five concurring justices. And I am sure that it will be (subtly and perhaps not so subtly) adverted to as part of the onslaught of the “liberal” and “secular” ideology now holding sway in America.

  14. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    I should add that Mendelssohn is not alone in holding his radical views about the meaning of freedom of conscience as incompatible with oaths taken to believe in an “orthodox” creedal statement. One can find precedent for these views among Quaker thinkers, or those influenced by them: Roger Williams (Bloody Tenet of Persecution), William Penn, John Milton, and John Locke. Given the historical source of Mendelssohn’s views (Quakers, non-conformists, a Jew), it is a great irony that Alito should say that “the consequence of an all-comers policy is marginalization” of the religious group refusing admittance without an oath of orthodoxy!

  15. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It’s the same old pattern — any reduction in the power of Christians is tantamount to persecution.

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