Jewish Thought and History

Moses Mendelssohn and the Mimetic Society: Then and Now

Mendelssohn
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Lawrence Kaplan

Does Moses Mendelssohn’s epoch-making work, Jerusalem, have anything to say to us today? In an illuminating recent essay in Lehrhaus, Rabbi Tzvi Sinensky focuses on a particular feature of a key passage from the work and shows how it sheds unexpected light on current day pressing social concerns. Extending Sinensky’s observations, I would like to look at the passage as a whole from a broad socio-cultural perspective, and, through doing so, show how it can significantly contribute, in unexpected ways, to contemporary, indeed ongoing, discussions, both descriptive and normative, regarding the nature of traditional Jewish communities, including our own.

Mendelssohn’s “Living Script”

In this passage, Mendelssohn engages in the area of Jewish thought dealing with ta‘amei ha-mitzvot, the reasons for the commandments, or to use Mendelssohn’s own language, offers a “surmise about the purpose of the ceremonial law in Judaism,” about the “goal” of the “constitution” that God revealed to and imposed upon the Jewish people.[1]

First some background. Mendelssohn writes that God chose the Jewish people “to be … a nation which, through its establishment and constitution, through its laws, actions, [and] vicissitudes, … was continually to call attention to sound … ideas of God and His attributes. It was incessantly to teach, to proclaim, and to endeavor to preserve these ideas among the nations by its mere existence, as it were” (Jerusalem, 118). The question arises, however: What are the best means of “call[ing] attention to sound … ideas of God and His attributes,” of, to cite another formulation of his, “preserv[ing]… pure concepts of religion far removed from idolatry?”

Mendelssohn, referring to his previous lengthy discussion regarding two types of visible, permanent signs, images and hieroglyphics on the one hand, alphabetical script on the other, rejects their use as means of “preserving the abstract ideas of religion” (104-117). “Images and hieroglyphics lead to superstition and idolatry and our alphabetical script makes man too speculative” (118). In an earlier passage, Mendelssohn had written that “according to the original constitution [before the Oral Law was written down] …the ceremonial law itself is a kind of living script rousing the mind and heart, full of meaning, never ceasing to inspire contemplation and to provide the occasion and opportunity for oral instruction” (102-103).

In a word, the revealed ceremonial law, as a type of “living script” that commands the performance of transitory actions and that therefore is not exposed to the dangers inherent in both images and alphabetical script in their character as visible permanent signs, serves to preserve and call to mind, undergird, and reinforce fundamental religious truths. For Mendelssohn himself these fundamental religious truths, these “pure concepts of religion,” are rational in nature, the three most basic ones being for him the existence of God, divine providence, and the immortality of the soul. But, presumably, even were we to disagree with Mendelssohn as to what are those fundamental religious truths that Jewish practice calls to mind and whether they are based on reason or revelation, his view regarding the relationship between divine practice and religious truth could still hold.

Open-Ended Divine Truth

But exactly how does the divinely commanded ceremonial law call these religious truths, whatever their precise nature, to mind? Here we arrive at the key passage referred to at the essay’s beginning, in which, Mendelssohn, following immediately upon his rejection of the use of images or alphabetical script to preserve the abstract ideas of religion, seeks to answer this question:

In order to remedy these defects [inherent in the use of images or alphabetical script to preserve the abstract ideas of religion] the lawgiver of this nation gave the ceremonial law…. The great maxim of this constitution seems to have been: Man must be impelled to perform actions and only induced to engage in reflection. Therefore, each of these prescribed actions, each practice, … had its meaning, ; each was closely related to the speculative knowledge of religion and the teachings of morality, and was an occasion for a man in search of truth to reflect on these matters or to seek instruction from wise men.

Mendelssohn proceeds to elaborate upon the reasons why the Law prefers “actions and practices” over “signs” as the means for inducing reflection about “the speculative knowledge of religion and the teachings of morality.”

The truths useful for the felicity of the nation as well as each of its individual members were to be utterly removed from all imagery…. They were to be connected to actions and practices, and these were to serve in place of signs…. Man’s actions are transitory; there is nothing lasting … about them that like hieroglyphic script could lead to idolatry… But they also have the advantage over alphabetical signs of not isolating man, of not making him to be a solitary creature, poring over writings and books. They impel him rather to social intercourse, to imitation, and to oral living instruction. For this reason, there were but a few written laws, and it was forbidden to write more about them. But the unwritten laws, the oral tradition, the living instructions from man to man, from mouth to heart, were to explain, enlarge, limit, and define more precisely what… remained undetermined in the written law. In everything a youth saw being done, in all public as well as private dealings, on all gates and on all door posts, in whatever he turned his eyes or ears to, he found an occasion for inquiring and reflecting, occasion to follow an older and wiser man at his every step, to observe his minutest actions and doings with childlike attentiveness and to imitate them with childlike docility, [and] to inquire after the spirit and purpose of these doings (118-120).

This is a very eloquent and suggestive passage, but, as Sinensky notes, “the precise correspondence between the commandments and divine truth is left open by Mendelssohn, leading to a wide range of interpretations,” which Sinensky very expertly canvasses. But, and this is Sinensky’s main contribution to our understanding this passage and appreciating its implications, if one looks beyond the question of the precise nature of the relationship set forth in this passage between the commandments and the religious truths they call to mind and turns instead to examining the teacher-disciple model described therein, one will see that this model indirectly but fruitfully addresses “one of the vexing challenges of modern life,” namely, loneliness, a problem nowadays reaching the proportions, according to many contemporary observers, of a “plague of disconnection.”

In this passage, Sinensky correctly maintains:

Mendelssohn emphasizes that the teacher-disciple model provides a salve for the modern ailment of alienation. … Observing the risk of human disconnection in the individualist Enlightenment milieu of eighteenth century Berlin, Mendelssohn fears that the proliferation of books will have the effect of “isolating man” and “making him a solitary creature.” The teacher-student relationship lying at the heart of the transmission of the Oral Law is intended to guard against precisely this peculiarly modern form of loneliness.… Mitzvah as living script is the central mechanism through which Judaism ensures Jewish continuity and human relationships. …Via the transmission of the Oral Law the law is not just properly conveyed but also … an existential relationship is kindled.

Mimetic Mendelssohn

This is very well put. But I would carry Sinensky’s approach one step further. For while the teacher-disciple model described in this passage is of great importance—and I shall come back to it—of even greater importance is the broader issue of the type of society Mendelssohn describes therein. To return to this essay’s beginning, what Mendelssohn portrays here in very rich sociological and phenomenological terms is nothing other than the traditional mimetic society so insightfully, colorfully, and forcefully depicted by Professor Haym Soloveitchik in his classic essay “Rupture and Reconstruction” and more recently by Professor Moshe Koppel in his ongoing fascinating series of lively, incisive blog posts, “Judaism Without Apologies.”

Both Soloveitchik and Koppel, as does Mendelssohn, contrast a traditional mimetic society with a text-based one. And both, as again does Mendelssohn, prefer the traditional mimetic society to the text-based one, Soloveitchik more by implication, Koppel more openly.

Soloveitchik argues that contemporary Orthodoxy has undergone a fundamental transformation, inasmuch as an Orthodox text based society, by a “process … [that] began roughly in the mid-nineteen-fifties, gathered force noticeably in the next decade, and by the mid-seventies was well on its way to being… the dominant mode of Orthodoxy,” displaced the hitherto dominant Orthodox mimetic society. Koppel, by contrast, sees these two societies standing side by side, though he admits that the Orthodox mimetic society is located more among older Orthodox Jews, the Orthodox text-based society more among younger ones.

But let us focus on their depictions of the mimetic society. Soloveitchik describes it thus:

The Halakhah [as] a sweepingly comprehensive regula of daily life cover[s] not only prayer and divine service, but equally food, drink, dress, sexual relations between husband and wife, the rhythms of work and patterns of rest. It constitutes a way of life. And a way of life is not learned but rather absorbed. Its transmission is mimetic, imbibed from parents and friends, and patterned on conduct regularly observed in home and street, synagogue and school.

Similarly, Koppel in his blog post 18, “Leading from Behind,” though he does not explicitly use the phrase “mimetic society,” writes that for the person growing up in such a society, the Halakhah “[is] learned mimetically… practiced intuitively, and [is] a communal phenomen[on].” Such a person, in contrast to a person growing up in a text-based society, “speaks Halakhah like a first language…fluently, intuitively, and without much conscious knowledge of the rules.”

Halakhah as a First Language

If we now turn back to Mendelssohn, it becomes clear that what we have in the extended passage cited above, is a description of a mimetic society that, if anything, is even richer than the portraits of Soloveitchik and Koppel. As Mendelssohn argues, the transitory actions commanded by the law “impel [man] to social intercourse, to imitation, and to oral living instruction.” As a result, “in everything a youth saw being done, in all public as well as private dealings, on all gates and on all door posts, in whatever he turned his eyes or ears to, he found an occasion for inquiring and reflecting, occasion to follow an older and wiser man at his every step, to observe his minutest actions and doings with childlike attentiveness and to imitate them with childlike docility, [and] to inquire after the spirit and purpose of these doings.” Note here the repeated resort to such mimetically inflected phrases as “social intercourse,” “imitation,” “in everything a youth saw being done,” “whatever he turned his eyes to,” and, finally, “to observe [the wise man’s] minutest actions and doings with childlike attentiveness and to imitate them with childlike docility.”

Examining now Rabbi Sinensky’s main point from the perspective of this ideal mimetic society limned by Mendelssohn, a key element of this society, missing in Soloveitchik’s portrait, though found in Koppel’s, is the role played by the personal teacher-student relationship. But while for Koppel—to oversimplify a characteristically sophisticated and elegant argument he makes in his Blog Post 20, “Between Elitism and Egalitarianism”— this relationship serves a form of subtle social signaling allowing the tradition to recalibrate itself when necessary, for Mendelssohn, as he clearly indicates, it serves a more critical and ongoing function.

That function is not just, as Sinensky maintains, to guard against loneliness and “the plague of disconnection,” though that should not be underestimated, but to serve as one of the two prime agents of mimetic transmission. That is, to borrow a leaf from Koppel, the young man being initiated into the mimetic community learns to speak Halakhah like a first language not just from parents, family, friends, and more broadly society at large and its institutions, but especially from “an older and wiser man,” whose “minutest actions and doings” he observes “with childlike attentiveness” and imitates “with childlike docility.”

We may have here, though Mendelssohn does not say so, a chronological mimetic progression. In one’s childhood, one absorbs, by osmosis, as it were, the practices prescribed by the ceremonial law from family, friends, and more broadly society at large and its institutions. It is at a later stage of mimesis that the youth “follow[s] an older and wiser man at his every step.” Yet, though the youth at this stage is no longer a child, he must observe the wiser man’s “minutest actions and doings with childlike attentiveness and … imitate them with childlike docility,” for, again drawing on Koppel’s comparison between learning Halakhah mimetically and learning a first language, is not one’s first language precisely the language one learned as a child, when one was open and impressionable, when one absorbed the language with a unique, inimitable blend of attentiveness and docility?

Mendelssohn and the Law

At this point, let us return to the question as to how precisely, in Mendelssohn’s view, the divinely commanded ceremonial law succeeds in calling the fundamental truths of religion to mind. Mendelssohn states: “The great maxim of [the Mosaic] constitution seems to have been: Man must be impelled to perform actions and only induced to engage in reflection.” But, and this is Mendelssohn’s key claim, the mimetic society established by the Mosaic constitution, whose members, as he indicates, absorb the Halakhah naturally and intuitively both from the community at large and its institutions and from its “older and wiser [men],” through a process of total immersion, as it were, is, at the same time, the community best suited to stimulate its members “to engage in such reflection.”

Why is this so? Mendelssohn answers that “each of [the Law’s] prescribed actions, each practice,” serves as a stimulus to “inquire after the spirit and purpose of these doings,” as “an occasion for a man in search of truth to reflect on these matters or to seek instruction from wise men.” I believe that in light of Professor Koppel’s illuminating analogy between Halakhah and language, where members of a halakhic mimetic community “speak Halakhah like a first language… fluently, intuitively, and without much conscious knowledge of the rules,” while members of a halakhic text-based community “speak [Halakhah] like a second language … haltingly and stiltedly, [since] a part of the mind is occupied with retrieving the relevant rule,” we may arrive at a deeper understanding of Mendelssohn’s point.

When people speak in their first language, that language in which they are at home, that language which they speak so fluently and intuitively, then, precisely because they are so at home and so comfortable in it, it is easy and natural for them to use that language for higher purposes, to exploit its possibilities, capabilities, and resources to explore the most abstract, the most imaginative, most demanding, the richest intellectual, cultural, political, literary, scientific, philosophical, and religious issues.

On the other hand, when people speak in their second language, that language which they “speak haltingly and stiltedly, [since] a part of the mind is occupied with retrieving the relevant rule,” then, precisely because they are so ill at ease and so uncomfortable in it, so afraid of making mistakes, they will tend to use that language more functionally and practically, will play it safe and seek to avoid any discussion which might make untoward demands on their still limited and fragile linguistic capabilities.

Consider, then, that for Mendelssohn the relationship between the actions commanded by the ceremonial law and their “spirit and purpose,” the “pure concepts of religion” they are intended to call to mind, is like the relationship between a language and the ideas and concepts it is used to express. It would follow that members of a halakhic text-based community, for whom the Halakhah is a second language, for whom, to use Koppel’s pungent phrase, it is “an obstacle course of seemingly arbitrary rules” requiring careful navigation, would be so busy and concerned with avoiding mistakes and getting their halakhic practice right, with “retrieving the relevant rule,” that they would hesitate to use those halakhic practices as a way of discussing the fundamental principles they are intended to preserve and call to mind.

On the other hand, members of a halakhic mimetic community, for whom the Halakhah is a first language practiced fluently and intuitively, who when observing the Halakhah “ride easy in the harness,” are consequently able to use the language of halakhic practice in which they are so skilled and comfortable to intelligently and thoughtfully discuss and explore the great principles and truths of religion.

Moreover, as Elias Sacks argues in an important essay, precisely because in the original Mosaic constitution “Man [is] impelled to perform actions and only induced to engage in reflection,” because that constitution avoids the use of fixed creedal formulas, “Jewish law permit[s] its adherents to revise [their] understanding of [Judaism’s] core principles in light of shifting conceptual models,” of changing philosophical systems.[2]

Again, I would argue that this flexibility derives, at least in part, from the mimetic nature of the halakhic society established by that constitution. For since the members of this community speak the language of halakhic practice as a first language, when they use this first language to discuss and explore the great principles and truths of religion, they are able, precisely because they are so skilled and competent in the use of that language, to, if necessary, shift conceptual and philosophical registers in the course of their discussion, while continuing to adhere to the same fundamental religious truths and principles. In sum, it is precisely the mimetic nature of Jewish society as established by the original Mosaic constitution which contributes to that constitution’s achieving its goal of linking the “prescribed actions” of the ceremonial law “to the speculative knowledge of religion and the teachings of morality.”

The Mimetic Society

The mimetic society Mendelssohn describes ended, in his view, with the writing down of the Oral Law. Both Soloveitchik and Koppel, however, who describe contemporary mimetic halakhic communities or those of recent times, explain how it is possible for such a society to exist alongside such canonized written texts as the Talmud and its commentaries, not to mention the responsa and codes, which provide more specific and direct guides for religious practice.

Koppel, in his blog post “Leading from Behind” notes:

Codes actually reflect popular practices more than they determine them, and are incapable of preventing disinclination to abide by their rulings. In a considerable number of cases, rulings cited in codes lose general support and subsequent codes reflect the later practice…. When new issues arise, popular consensus often precedes rabbinic consensus.

After offering a number of interesting examples illustrating his point, Koppel concludes, alluding to his post’s title, that many a time poskim may seem to be setting standards for the community to follow, but, in truth, they are “leading from behind.”

Of particular relevance to Mendelssohn’s discussion are Soloveitchik’s remarks. Soloveitchik points to the “classic … position” of the Ashkenazic society for centuries

which saw the practice of the people as an expression of halakhic truth. It is no exaggeration to say that the Ashkenazic community saw the law as manifesting itself in two forms: in the canonized written corpus (the Talmud and codes), and in the regnant practices of the people. Custom was a correlative datum of the halakhic system…. Received practice is… inherently valid. And on frequent occasions the written word was reread in light of traditional behavior.

 

In light of Soloveitchik’s observation, we may say that while, according to Mendelssohn, the ideal Jewish mimetic society ended with the writing down of the Oral Law, in truth Ashkenazic society until Mendelssohn’s own time was a traditional mimetic one; and if this society was significantly weakened in his day, it was as a result of Jewish acculturation, of Jews in Berlin, Hamburg, and Konigsberg becoming part of these cities’ “individualist Enlightenment milieu.”

One can very well imagine that the young Mendelssohn growing up in Jewish Dessau, even though signs of incipient enlightenment were present even there, could witness Jewish law being practiced there “in all public as well as private dealings,” could see it inscribed there “on all gates and on all door posts.”

Certainly, the same could not be said for the Berlin of Mendelssohn’s adulthood. We even have an example in the Dessau of Mendelssohn’s time of a devoted youth attentively following the doings of “an older and wiser man,” namely, the young Mendelssohn himself, who benefitted from his own close relationship with his great teacher, Rabbi David Frankel, author of the famous commentary, Korban ha-Edah on the Yerushalmi, with whom he studied from the ages of about ten to fourteen while Frankel served as Chief Rabbi there, and whom in 1743 he followed to Berlin when Frankel left Dessau to take up a post there. There was, not surprisingly, no such similar role model in Berlin for Mendelssohn’s children, for the social conditions necessary for such a teacher-student relationship to arise were lacking.

Ironically, Franz Rosenzweig, writing almost one hundred and fifty years after Mendelssohn, and coming at the end of the rich, fruitful, but problematic and ultimately tragic era of German-Jewish interaction that Mendelssohn had so brilliantly initiated, eloquently appealed to German Jewry in his famous essay “The Builders” to fashion a neo-traditionalist mimetic Jewish society where time honored custom would play the central role and the law only a secondary one, and even then only in an attenuated form. In a recent essay I expressed scepticism as to whether in our rapidly changing world, where even many Orthodox Jews are culturally integrated into surrounding society, custom alone can bear the heavy weight that Rosenzweig seeks to put on it.[3]

But perhaps one might be able to conceive of the existence of a contemporary mimetic halakhic community along Mendelssohnian lines. In such a community the law would be seen “as manifesting itself in two forms: in the canonized written corpus and in the regnant practices of the people;” its members would learn those practices like a first language, absorbing them from Jewish society at large, from “ all gates and … all door posts,” from “parents and friends, … and conduct regularly observed in home and street, synagogue and school,” and especially, through the cultivation of personal teacher-student relationships with “older and wiser men”—and women—; and, perhaps above all, its members precisely because they have learned the Halakhah as a first language and are at ease and at home in it, will consequently be able to use the language of halakhic practice to intelligently and thoughtfully discuss and explore the great religious principles and truths of Judaism, if necessary shifting conceptual and philosophical registers in the course of their discussion, while continuing to adhere to those same fundamental religious truths and principles.

Or have I just succumbed to Mendelssohn’s penchant for devising fictitious “dream[s] of almost allegorical significance” to wile away the morning hours?[4]


[1] Moses Mendelssohn, Jerusalem, trans. Allan Arkush (Hanover: Brandeis University Press, 1983), 117-18.

[2] Elias Sacks, “Anarchy and Law: Mendelssohn on Philosophy and Judaism” in Moses Mendelssohn: Enlightenment, Religion, Politics, Nationalism, eds. M. Gottlieb and C. Manekin (Bethesda: University Press of Maryland, 2015), 237-73.

[3] Lawrence Kaplan, “Kashrut and Kugel: Franz Rosenzweig’s ‘The Builders,’” Jewish Review of Books 4 (Winter 2014): 41-43.

[4] Moses Mendelssohn, Morning Hours: Lectures on God’s Existence, trans. Daniel Dahlstrom and Corey Dick (Dordrecht: Springer, 2011), 57.

Lawrence Kaplan
Lawrence J. Kaplan is Professor of Rabbinics and Jewish Philosophy in the Department of Jewish Studies of McGill University, Montreal Quebec. He received his B.A. from Yeshiva College, his M.A. and PhD. from Harvard University, and Rabbinic Ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elkhanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University. He was a Tikvah Fellow at the Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization of New York University Law School, a Polonsky Fellow at the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Judaic Studies, and a Research Fellow at the Maimonides Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Hamburg.