Mendelssohn’s jerusalem (1783) and the jewish vision of tolerance

Shmuel Feiner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


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. Jerusalem did not propose a compromise, a middle-ground solution to the tension between religion and the state and to the world suspended between the old and the new, where the Jews were caught in the modern age. His positions were decisive, and, in the context of his time, even radical. Regarding war and religious fanaticism, the power of the church, excommunication, and religious coercion. Mendelssohn was uncompromising and showed himself as a daring Jewish revolutionary. In his view, the collision between religion and the state was catastrophic for all of humanity. His vehement critique of all forms of oppression makes Jerusalem—beyond being a defense of the Jewish religion—a model of Enlightened European culture. This was a great call for reform of the world by abolishing the coercive power of religion and, at the same time, for “true Judaism,” enabling modern Jews to preserve their cultural and religious identity as the vanguard of tolerance and enlightenment. In the twenty-first century, when the values of the Enlightenment are under attack, Mendelssohn remains more than ever a relevant philosopher.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)89-106
Number of pages18
JournalDialogue and Universalism
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, Polish Academy of Sciences - Institute of Philosophy and Sociology. All rights reserved.


  • Enlightenment
  • Haskalah
  • Judaism
  • Religious coercion
  • Tolerance


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