Volume 31, Issue 2, 2021
Do We Need a New Enlightenment for the 21st Century?
Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem (1783) and The Jewish Vision of Tolerance
Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786) wrote Jerusalem with his back to the wall. His Jewish identity and liberal outlook were challenged in the public sphere of the German Enlightenment, and this was his last opportunity to write a book that would perpetuate the essence of his faith and his values as the first modern Jewish humanist. The work, which moves between apologetics for his faith and political and religious philosophy was primarily a daring essay that categorically denied the rule of religion and advocated tolerance and freedom of thought. Neither the state nor the church had the right to govern a person’s conscience; and, no less far-reaching and pioneering: these values are consistent with Judaism. In the summer of 1783, seven years after the resounding voice of protest against tyranny and in favor of liberty and equality was heard in the American Declaration of Independence, less than six years before the French Revolution, but only two years and two months before his death, the man who was called the “German Socrates,” a highly prominent figure in the Enlightenment, published one of the fundamental documents in Jewish modernity.