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Dialogue and Universalism

Volume 32, Issue 1, 2022

Do We Need a New Enlightenment for the Twenty-First Century? Part III

Lawrence J. Kaplan
Pages 65-79

Between Action and Reflection
Moses Mendelssohn as an Enlightenment Philosopher and Traditional Jew

Among the many criticisms advanced against the enlightenment is that its emphasis on rational reflection and commitment to universal moral truths serve as solvents of tradition and community. Here, I wish to show how the German Jewish enlightenment figure, Moses Mendelssohn in his classic work, Jerusalem succeeded in bringing together universal rational religious reflection and Halakhah, Jewish ceremonial law. Essentially, the ceremonial law for Mendelssohn, forms a traditional mimetic society, whose members absorb the Halakhah naturally and intuitively both from the community at large and from its teachers through a process of total immersion. If we see religious practice as a language, then members of this halakhic mimetic community, for whom the Halakhah is a first language practiced fluently and intuitively, are able to use this language to intelligently discuss the great truths of religion. In this way, tradition and community and rational reflection turn out to be mutually supportive.