A Wise Man Fighting For a Better Society

Stephen Tree: Moses Mendelssohn. ISBN 978-3-499-50671-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Moses Mendelssohn, one of the most influental thinkers of the Enlightenment, is exercising a growing fascination upon me. Stephen Tree’s book is a short and concise account of Mendelssohn’s life and his difficult position in Germany. As a philosopher he had many admirers and patrons, but as a Jew he had few rights as a citizen. Intellectually he certainly was superior to most of his contemporaries, but as a Jew he was an easy target for base Anti-semitic attacks.

However, two centuries after Mendelssohn’s birth not even the Nazis succeeded in erasing the memory of one of the greatest German Jews. Mendelssohn’s defence of the immortality of the soul, his ideas about the relation between religion and politics, expressed in his work “Jerusalem”, his effort to modernize Judaism and to reconcile it with rationalism and his lifelong fight for a peaceful co-existence of Jews and Christians rank among his most important contributions to the intellectual life in Europe during the 18th century. When I come to think of it, we could do with a few Mendelssohns to clear out the fog in some politicians’ minds and prevent them from compromising our social and economic future. And it will not be the last time you will hear of Moses here on this blog.

When he was a young man, Moses Mendelssohn took harpsichord lessons and frustrated his teacher with his inability to keep time. Here is a piece performed with utmost precision, written by a contemporary of Mendelssohn: Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in E Major:

Time to Compose, Time to Rejoice

Following the Mendelssohn Family

Diane Meur: La carte des Mendelssohn ISBN 978-2-253-06894-5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Being an author is no trivial thing. When I was young, very young, I had the fantasy of becoming such an author. I believed I had a message and I wanted to write a book about it. I quickly realized my message was trivial – something about youth and rebellion – and once I had understood how much patience is required to research source material, to organize the work and to actually write a book, I was dissuaded to write anything exceeding in length my MA thesis to finish my studies.

Unlike me, Diane Meur didn’t back away from the challenge. She researched the ups and downs of the lives of the Mendelssohn family, starting with the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and following a millions streams flowing from that genealogical source. She got confused by all the material as one could have predicted, she dropped the project, took it up again, drifted away from the subject and came back – and in the end she wrote a lovely book less about the Mendelssohn family and much more about her discovery of the Mendelssohn family, allowing every now and then for a detour, narrating her emotions, her daydreams, her philosophical musings.

Experts on the Mendelssohn family will not discover much new information, but any reader interested in a non-scientific exploration of the life of Mendelssohn the Philosopher, Mendelssohn the Composer, Mendelssohn the Jew turned Protestant turned Catholic, Mendelssohn the Composer’s Sister, Mendelssohn the Banker etc. will find Meur’s book both informative and entertaining. A good read, a good gift too. Thank you, dad!

And as you may expect, there will be no book review without a music suggestion. And since we had Fanny Mendelssohn now twice in a short time on that other blog of mine, I will honour today Felix with his Symphony No. 5 in A minor (Op. 56) “Scottish”:

Soul-searching far, far away from home

Mendel Singer Facing Life and God’s Trial

Joseph Roth: Hiob. (English title: Job) ISBN 978-3-423-13020-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Mendel Singer is an ordinary Jew in an ordinary Russian hamlet. Singer fears God and can recite for every situation in life an appropriate passage of the Torah. He has a wife, Deborah, whom he loves despite her occasional furors, two sons, Jonas and Schemarjah, and a daughter, Mirjam. A fourth child is underway, and shortly after its birth, it becomes clear that Menuchim is unlike the others. He doesn’t grow properly, he doesn’t talk properly. He seem condemned to remain an idiot with occasional epileptic fits.

It is the first of Mendel’s trials by God and more are to follow. A specific destiny seems to be reserved to each member of the family and in the end Mendel loses his faith both in God and mankind. “God is cruel and the more one obeys him, the more severe he becomes” – that’s Mendel’s conclusion. He wants to burn his book of prayers, his prayer shawl, the tallit, and his tefillin, the leather box with passages from the Torah coiled inside. But Mendel’s hands refuse to obey Mendel’s anger against God’s apparent lack of justice.

For God’s ways are inscrutable and a miracle concludes this very moving novel, published in 1930. Roth was an exceptionally gifted narrator and the way he explores the mystery of faith, the tension between religion, tradition and the modern, secular society is in the tradition of the best German writers. Until recently I didn’t know nothing about this author and I am truly glad to have discovered his writing.

The possibility of faith is a recurrent subject in classical music and the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has written a “Te Deum” in which I hear the magnitude of the question:

Light and darkness, faith and doubt

A Revolutionary Thinker Guiding Us towards Enlightenment

Frédéric Lenoir: Le miracle Spinoza. Une philosophie pour éclairer notre vie. ISBN 978-2-213-70070-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Baruch de Spinoza – the name alone was enough to spark my curiosity at school. A Jewish philosopher of Portugueuse origin, living and teaching in Amsterdam in the 17th century. At the age of 23, the young intellectual genius had already been banned by the Jewish community because of his revolutionary ideas. If I were to sum his credo up I would say: Reason can explain the universe. Going one step further I would have to admit with Spinoza: God is a man-made fiction. What I specifically appreciate is Spinoza’s lifelong endeavour to reconcile theory and practice and to put rational behaviour at the center of socio-economic and political question. Don’t make fun of anybody, don’t lament, don’t detest, think!

The French writer and philosophy teacher Frédéric Lenoir has written an excellent introduction into Spinoza’s world. I wish I had had it when I still was at school. Our teacher did his best to explain to his students Spinoza’s basic ideas, but the 17th century was way too far from my everyday life and I did not understand much, if anything at all. Lenoir puts the philosopher’s ideas not only into a historic context, he also tries to explain their relevance for our contemporary world. Applied philosophy – I love that!

Spinoza gave a lot of thought to the highly controversial subject of religion, and Lenoir’s way to present this subject alone gave me a lot of satisfaction. Spinoza does not deny the existence of God as many of his critics have said, instead he says that religions – any of the three monotheistic religions – have become an instrument of monarchs, bishops, muftis and rabbis to keep people ignorant and to rule them by fear – fear of punishment by God if they do not obey laws made by men. He opposes this view to a view that sees religion – any of the three monotheistic religions – as the quest for justice and peace, the ultimate Good being intellectual enlightment, control of human passions and science-based judgment in all affairs, a goal that admittedly, only few can reach.

For Spinoza religion, dealing with faith, and philosophy, dealing with the pursuit of truth via rational thought, do not exclude eachother but need to co-exist, covering two distinct aspects of human life, following to different types of logic. He fights for the right to free expression and condemns the interference of religion into politics, which according to Spinoza, need to be guided by scientific analysis and good judgment. Naturally – and quite ahead if his time – he favours democracy over monarchies and aristocracies. The logic corollary to the right to free expression is the right to freely choose a political representative.

With his heavy criticism of some of the foundations of Judaism and Christian faith and central aspects of the political reality of his time, Spinoza made himself a lot of enemies, which led him to publish several of his books under a pen name and some only after his death. Apparently someone even attempted to murder him.

He was conscious about the scandal his claims in the field of teligion would trigger, and I will just mention two provocations Lenoir explains: a) The Torah (or the Pentateuch, five books included in what Christians call the Old Testament) was not written by Moses b) With the fall of the first Jewish state more than 2500 years ago, the Jews cannot claim any longer to be the chosen people, the bond has been severed. To prove his point he produces a systematical critical analysis of the Torah, an interpretation in the light of historical facts. Can you do this in the 17th century? Not if you like a peaceful life.

Christians did not fare much better. Spinoza rejects the idea of the Holy Trinity and Jesus being a human incarnation of God – two ideas that split the Christian church. Spinoza hit a vulnerable spot and he did not stop here. According to him, God cannot be external to this world since human understanding alone can come up with anything called God. God is a concept, made by men. He also objects to a literal interpretation of the Old and New Testament and claims that religions purpose are to give people a set of ethical rules to live more or less in peace together – a manmade system to guarantee a certain social order, convenient for rulers and open to misuse. And yes, Spinoza had read Machiavelli’s treatise “The Prince”. In his time, the ethical framework was set by religion, however, as Lenoir does not fail to mention, there could be alternatives, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The United Provinces, part of which would become today’s Netherlands, may have been a liberal state, however time was not yet ripe for such attacks on central pillars of the established order and the power that seemed to guarantee social and political stability. Along with the French René Descartes, Spinoza certainly was one of the most important prophets of what would later be called the age of Enlightenment. It’s a shame it took me so long to find that out. I find him a fascinating man with fascinating ideas. What’s more, Lenoir’s introduction to Spinoza’s world is a useful reminder about the origin of the scientific, economic and political framework that rules our everyday life today. I couldn’t think of a better book to read on a Dutch beach.

Just for the fun of it, let’s pitch Spinoza against Johann Sebastian Bach, who reached out to God in his music, for instance in his “Brandenburg Concertos”:

Bach appeals to our sense of beauty

Towards a Better Understanding of Judaism

Leo Trepp: Die Juden. Volk, Geschichte und Religion. ISBN 978-3-86539-104-9 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Religion is a subject that has fascinated me since I was a child. Wondrous stories, ethical principles, a bizarre, old-fashioned language – I read the Bible when I was 12 or 13, a second time when I was 22 and, a few years later, the Koran with much enthusiasm and interest. Came the time when I started to explore Judaism, the history of the state of Israel and the links to the Middle East conflict – a decade after I had read the Koran. I picked up the thread recently, and you will perhaps remember my review of Paul Spiegel’s “Was ist koscher?” I bought Leo Trepp’s easy-to-read and fairly exhaustive compendium on Jewish history, culture and religion “Die Juden” upon a recommendation of a Jewish fellow blogger Juna Grossmann.

Trepp gives an excellent overview over the origin of Judaism from its origin 2000 BC until today, the Middle Ages, the 19th  century and the Holocaust being important landmarks. He devotes several chapters to current antisemitism, often disguised as an opposition against Israel’s policies. Trepp’s description of Israel’s responsibility in the Middle East conflict is extremely brief and makes me feel somewhat awkward as it follows the stereotype of “Israel is right, the Arabs are wrong”.

I would have expected a more critical approach. My edition of the book is from 2006, and the hard line the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanjahu took in the terms since 2009 could not be taken into account. Reading Trepp’s characterization of the issues separating Arabs and Jews in that light felt like a provocation. It would have been wiser to leave the subject away altogether. Especially as one of the key tenets of Judaism seems to be the role God has given the Jews: to lead by example in terms of morality.

Trepp devotes many, in my opinion too many, chapters to the presentation of Judaism’s central texts with extensive quotes. Having read the Old Testament, it was somewhat tedious to read as it has only marginally added to the understanding of the central elements of the Jewish faith. Less would have been more, here too. A positive aspect of the book is that it devotes several chapters to the position of women in the Jewish society – it’s not an easy one and gender equality is not for tomorrow.

The chapters that interested me most were those on the practical forms of living the Jewish faith today, on the many parallels between the Christian and Jewish faith and on the re-orientation of the Catholic church, who adopted a more conciliatory approach under Pope John Paul II, the Protestant churches following suit. Both the Vatican and Martin Luther did see the Jews as stubborn unbelievers that had to be converted by all means. I am very glad this is history, it makes me sad however that it took so long and that the churches do not take a more decisive stand against anti-semitic violence today.

This leads me the conclusion of Trepp which, at the same time, is his personal credo that he has reiterated since World War II as a university scholar: The generations after World War II are not to be blamed for the crimes committed against the Jews in the context of the Holocaust. However they bear a special responsibility for the Jewish people today. Are they up to that challenge? Trepp had his doubts.

The composer Arnold Schönberg was born into a Jewish family but converted to the Protestant faith in 1898. While fleeing the Nazis in 1933 he returned to the Jewish faith. He was an exceptional composer and one of my favourite pieces is his String Quartet No. 2 (Op. 10), written in 1907/08:

Transcending tonality and harmony