Exhibition: A Continuing Conversation – Moses Mendelssohn and the Legacy of the Enlightenment

A letter written by Moses Mendelssohn, 18th century

Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) is generally considered the founder of modern Jewish philosophy. As both a leading Enlightenment philosopher and a learned, observant Jew, Mendelssohn has come to symbolize many of the tensions within both modern Judaism and the Enlightenment itself. He has been hailed for blazing a path for modern Jews by showing the way to an intellectually open, tolerant vision of Judaism and has been criticized for leading Jews to national and religious apathy. It therefore seems fitting that the Center for Jewish History, a major repository of modern Jewish history, has chosen to reconsider the life and legacy of Mendelssohn.

On September 12, 2011, Leo Baeck Institute, in partnership with the Center for Jewish History, will open Moses Mendelssohn: Conversation and the Legacy of the Enlightenment, drawing upon the enormous archive of Mendelssohn materials housed at LBI, with contributions from the YIVO Institute and the American Sephardi Federation.

View items from the exhibition with links to Mendelssohn’s digitized works.

The theme of “conversation” is an entry point into exploring Mendelssohn’s life and legacy. Mendelssohn’s conversation partners included traditionalist Rabbis, Christian friends and opponents, family members, and students. He used conversation as a literary technique, writing important works in the form of dialogues and conversation. This can be seen particularly in his monumental work on the Bible known as the Bi’ur in which he inserted the Hebrew Bible into German discourse through translation while conversing with the Jewish tradition of Bible commentary through his Hebrew commentary. Conversation is also a central theme in Mendelssohn’s philosophy of Judaism, which he saw as grounded in a cross-generational dialogue between teachers and students. And his daughters adapted his legacy of conversation by hosting famous literary salons; his granddaughter Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, sister of Felix, later hosted one of the most important musical salons in Berlin.

The exhibition includes personal items such as Mendelssohn’s letters and his personal eyeglasses; representations of Mendelssohn in prints, paintings, busts, and coins; an enormous number of first editions of his work through which the story of his literary career is told; later editions and translations of his works into several languages through which his controversial legacy is explored; letters, writings, and representations of his children, descendants, and students such as his daughter Brendel who became a Romantic writer and convert to Catholicism; his son Joseph who founded one of the major banks in Germany and was an important figure in the Jewish community throughout his life; his grandson Felix Mendelssohn-Batholdy who became the leading composer of his time; and his student Isaac Euchel who founded the Haskalah. The exhibition also tells the story of Mendelssohn’s friendship with the Christian writer Lessing, and how their friendship came to symbolize the German tradition of cosmopolitanism, tolerance and interreligious friendship, which was both looked to as a model and attacked in Germany. Finally, the exhibition shows how Mendelssohn was used as a pedagogic model for both Christian and Jewish children in books published in Germany, England and America and it features a rare 1958 filmstrip entitled “Moses Mendelssohn: Pioneer in Modern Judaism” which the Reform Union of American Hebrew Congregations produced for Hebrew school education.

This joint project of Leo Baeck Institute and the Center for Jewish History is made possible by the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation, with additional support by the Cahnman Foundation.


Katherine and Clifford H. Goldsmith Gallery
Center for Jewish History
15 W. 16th St.
New York, NY 10011
Tel: 212.294.8301



Gallery Hours
Sunday, 11:00am – 5:00pm
Monday and Wednesday, 9:30am – 8:00pm
Tuesday and Thursday, 9:30am – 5:00pm
Friday, 9:30am – 3:00pm

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