Alexander Altmann's acclaimed, wide-ranging biography of Moses
Mendelssohn (1729-96) was first published in 1973, but its stature
as the definitive biography remains unquestioned. In fact, there
has been no subsequent attempt at an intellectual biography of this
towering and unusual figure: no other Jew so deeply rooted in the
Jewish tradition was at the same time so much a part of the
intellectual life of the German Enlightenment in the second half of
the eighteenth century. As such, Moses Mendelssohn came to be
recognized as the inaugurator of a new phase in Jewish history; all
modern Jews today are in his debt. Altmann presents Moses
Mendelssohn in strictly biographical terms. He does not attempt to
assess his significance with the hindsight of historical
perspective nor to trace his image in subsequent generations, but
rather to observe his life from the period within which it was set.
Altmann has written an absorbing and compelling narrative that
makes a whole epoch come alive with great drama, for Mendelssohn's
life was a kaleidoscope of the European intellectual scene, Jewish
and non-Jewish. As both a prominent philosopher and a believing
Jew, Mendelssohn became a spokesman for the Jews and Judaism; he
was one of the rare figures who become the symbol of an era.
Through Altmann's skilful use of hitherto unpublished archival
material, the reader is introduced to the vast array of people-men
of letters, artists, politicians, scientists, philosophers, and
theologians-with whom Mendelssohn was in contact, and sometimes in
conflict. What was Mendelssohn's Judaism like? To what extent did
the disparate worlds of Judaism and modern Enlightenment jostle
each other in his mind and to what degree could he harmonize them?
These questions are not easily answered, and it is only in the
aggregate of a multitude of accounts of experiences, reaction, and
statements on his part that the answer is to be found. Alexander
Altmann's analysis of this wealth of material is extraordinary in
its discernment, subtlety, and clarity of expression. This masterly
work will be of interest not only to those who are concerned with
Jewish intellectual history but also to those interested in
eighteenth-century cultural and social history, philosophy and
theology, literary criticism, aesthetics, and the other areas of
intellectual activity in ferment at that time. The general reader
will also find much of contemporary relevance in Mendelssohn's
life, not only because of his exemplary devotion to reason and
tolerance, but also because of his lifelong struggle with the basic
dilemma of the Jew in the modern world: the attraction of
assimilation versus the singularity of Jewish life, and the
preservation of Jewish identity versus integration in the wider
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