Jew of the Week: Moses Mendelssohn

Father of Jewish Enlightenment 

Moshe ben Mendel (1729-1786) was born in the Germanic municipality of Dessau to an impoverished, religious Jewish family. His father was a sofer (a Torah scribe), and trained young Moshe in the scribal arts, as well. Moshe also learned Torah and Talmud with Rabbi David Frankel. When Frankel took up a rabbinic post in Berlin, Moshe moved with him to the capital. To keep him safer and open more opportunities, his father had asked him to make his name more German-sounding, resulting in the name Moses Mendelssohn (“son of Mendel”). Mendelssohn continued in his rabbinic studies with the intention of becoming a rabbi, but also took up the study of mathematics, Latin, and philosophy. He soon began learning French and English as well, with an influential Jewish physician and tutor. That tutor introduced Mendelssohn to renowned German philosopher and writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. The two became good friends, and Mendelssohn inspired Lessing’s popular play Nathan the Wise. Mendelssohn’s genius soon spread throughout the secular world, and he even won the top Berlin Academy prize for mathematical proofs of metaphysics (second place went to Immanuel Kant!) In 1763, the King of Prussia granted Mendelssohn the special status of schutzjude, “Protected Jew”. At a time when secularism and atheism were sweeping Europe, Mendelssohn remained a believer and resolved to convince the masses On the Immortality of Souls, published in 1767. The treatise became so popular that people began calling him the “German Plato” and the “German Socrates”. In 1775, an order of expulsion was being drawn up against Swiss and German Jews, so Mendelssohn intervened to get the expulsion rescinded. Mendelssohn was constantly mired in theological debates with his German acquaintances, and often pressured to convert to Christianity. He resisted and defended his faith. Nonetheless, the stress was so great on him that he eventually fell deeply ill and was bedridden. At this point he resolved “to dedicate the remains of my strength for the benefit of my children or a goodly portion of my nation”. To make it more accessible to a wider audience, he started a new German translation and commentary of the Torah. The resulting Biur was hugely popular, and received approbations from many rabbis. Meanwhile, he worked to get various restrictions on Jews repealed, and played an instrumental role in getting Jews in Europe basic human and civil rights. In his Jerusalem, he argued passionately for freedom of religion, and for the Christian authorities to leave the Jews alone. Mendelssohn corresponded with one of the leading sages of the day, Rabbi Yakov Emden, and wrote how he “thirsted” for the rabbi’s teachings. Intriguingly, while Rabbi Emden had criticized the Zohar (the famous “textbook” of Jewish mysticism), Mendelssohn actually defended its authenticity. He also defended the authenticity of nikkud, the traditional Hebrew vowel system. Although he was widely admired and respected in his own day, Mendelssohn’s work opened up the door to more Jews learning secular subjects and entering mainstream society, which led to wider assimilation. Four of his own six children ended up converting to Christianity, and just one grandson remained Jewish. (Another grandson was renowned composer Felix Mendelssohn.) Mendelssohn was later credited with being the “father of Haskalah”, the so-called “Jewish Enlightenment”. Because of this, in the decades after his death he became something of a villain in the Orthodox world, and any positive mention of his name was expunged. Today, he is still viewed negatively in religious Jewish circles, although he had truly done a great deal on behalf of the Jewish people.

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Words of the Week

If you believe you can damage, believe you can repair.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov

Jew of the Week: Ebrahim Shirazi

The Persian Kingmaker

Ebrahim “Hajji” Shirazi (1745-1801) was born in the Persian metropolis of Shiraz to a family of crypto-Jews. His grandfather was a wealthy Jewish merchant who was forced to convert to Islam. The family continued to practice Judaism in secret. His father, Mohammad, became the warden of the richest area of Shiraz, as well as the kadkhoda-bashi, the government’s official representative to, and chief administrator of, the large Jewish population. Ebrahim inherited the title and role from his father. He grew even wealthier and more influential, eventually becoming kalantar, the city’s mayor. When the Persian king Karim Khan died, a civil war and power struggle ensued. Ebrahim was able to use his diplomatic skills to place Jafar Khan on the throne, and helped the new king consolidate his rule. He raised an army to defeat Jafar’s enemies, and brokered important deals with the British to support the new regime. Nonetheless, Jafar’s rule didn’t last long, and he was soon replaced by Lotf Ali Kahn, who was in turn replaced by Agha Mohammad Khan. Ebrahim became the latter’s most trusted advisor, and was soon appointed his sole grand vizier. Ebrahim effectively ran the whole Persian Empire henceforth. He continued in this role even after a takeover by a new emperor, Fath Ali Shah. In those days, Persian royalty and government officials were all expected to have multiple wives. Ebrahim, however, had only one Jewish wife. This was one of many reasons he was suspected of not being a true Muslim. Additionally, under his watch multiple new synagogues were opened in Shiraz and Tehran. At one point, Ebrahim went on a hajj to Mecca to try to cover up his Jewishness, and made sure people called him by the nickname Hajji. Nonetheless, the suspicions caught up with him and, together with his immense power and influence, brought the ire of the other Persian officials. They eventually convinced Fath Ali Shah that Ebrahim was his enemy, and the Shah had Ebrahim executed. Tragically, he also executed much of Ebrahim’s extended family. Historians have described Ebrahim Shirazi as a great Persian “kingmaker”, genius diplomat, and even as “one of the best statesmen Persia has ever had”. Meanwhile, the new Qajar dynasty went on to severely increase persecutions and forced conversions of Jews, causing many Jews to flee east to the Khanate of Bukhara, thus providing a large boost to the growing Bukharian Jewish community.

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Words of the Week

God knows what could be done here if you were left alone… The fate of the world depends on the fate of the people of Israel. Make yourself a shining light on a hill.
Jordan Peterson, in a speech during his recent trip to Israel

Jew of the Week: King Solomon

History’s Wisest Man and Greatest King

Shlomo ben David (c. 983-931 BCE) was born in Jerusalem to King David and his wife Batsheva. He inherited the throne when he was just 12 years old. God famously appeared to him in a dream and asked what Shlomo wanted most, to which the young king replied that he wished for wisdom to rule his kingdom justly. God replied that since Shlomo did not ask for a long reign, riches, or power, He would grant Shlomo the wisdom he asked for, as well as longevity, riches, and power (I Kings 3:11). Shlomo went on to rule for a long four decades, equal to his father David, and merited to preside over an era of total peace (alluded to by his name “Shlomo”, from the root shalom). He forged many peace treaties (often through marriage, resulting in hundreds of wives), established strong trade relations with his neighbours, greatly expanded the Israelite military, and most importantly, built Jerusalem’s first Holy Temple, the Beit haMikdash. He was a wise judge, and prolific thinker and scholar, composing 3 of the 24 books of the Tanakh, including the Book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes (Kohelet), and Song of Songs. He was also an astronomer, master of the dark arts, and a polyglot fluent in numerous languages—even able to communicate with wild life! Despite his immense wisdom, when he wrote in Proverbs 30:18 that there were four things he still did not quite understand, the Midrash states these are the mysteries of the four species waved on the holiday of Sukkot (lulav, hadassim, aravot, and etrog). In Jewish tradition, it is customary to read his book Kohelet during Sukkot. It is also believed that it was Shlomo who instituted the practice of netilat yadayim, the ritual washing of the hands before a meal. Interestingly, one of Shlomo’s direct ancestors was named Salmah (see Ruth 4:18-19), spelled the exact same way in Hebrew as Shlomo (שלמה), though vowelized differently. Salmah was also called Sal’mon (שלמון), which was likely confused in the non-Jewish world and may be the reason why Shlomo’s name was transliterated as “Salman” in Greek, “Suleiman” in Arabic, and “Solomon” in English! The Midrash (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer) lists Shlomo as one of history’s ten most powerful kings.

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Words of the Week

Our way… is the way of peace. It is narrow, difficult and unpaved. There is no false heroism on it and no false pathos, but it rests, so I believe, on the historic tradition of the Jewish people.
Chaim Weizmann, first president of Israel