Moses Mendelssohn

  1. Date/Time

  2. Location

    Center for Jewish History

    15 W. 16th St.
    New York, NY 10011


  3. Video

    Watch streaming video of this event

A day of discussion and debate devoted to exploring the writings and legacy of Moses Mendelssohn, the 18th-century founder of modern Jewish thought. A group of international scholars will highlight recent scholarship related to contemporary issues in religion, secularism, politics, culture, language and identity.

Presented by the Center for Jewish History and co-sponsored by the Leo Baeck Institute and New York University’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies. This initiative was made possible by the the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation, with additional support by the Cahnman Foundation.


12:30pm Welcome Remarks
12:40pm Opening Speaker: Shmuel Feiner, Professor of Modern Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University; “No Fanatic Is Easily Capable of Making My Cool Blood Boil!”: The Secularizing Enlightenment of Moses Mendelssohn
Prof. Feiner is a senior Mendelssohn scholar who also has a broad knowledge of modern Jewish civilization and thought will introduce Mendelssohn and his legacy and highlight some of the major themes of the symposium.
1:15pm Enlightenment and SecularismThe first panel explores Mendelssohn and his legacy in light of recent debates over the relationship between the Enlightenment and secularism. For a long time, in both the popular imagination as well as in the opinion of some scholars, the Enlightenment has been conceived as a profoundly secular movement antagonistic to all religion. If not every Enlightenment philosopher rejected religion this was thought to reflect half-baked thinking or a cowardly attempt to appease religious authorities. This view is reflected in the “New Atheism” of writers like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins who see themselves as the true, legitimate heirs of the Enlightenment. Of late, scholars have questioned this perspective and have attempted to take seriously the religious commitments of Enlightenment thinkers with an eye to how they can serve as a model for uniting faith and reason, religious commitment and religious tolerance. Mendelssohn is an important test case for this.Moderator:

Elliot Wolfson, Abraham Lieberman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, New York University


Edward Breuer, Department of Jewish History, Hebrew University; Mendelssohn’s Jewish Political Philosophy
Michah Gottlieb, Assistant Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, New York University; Moses Mendelssohn on Faith and Freedom
Lois Dubin, Professor of Religion, Smith College; Enlightenment, Haskalah, and Italian Jews

Coffee Break

2:50pm Language, Culture, and NationalismThe second panel explores Mendelssohn and his legacy in light of contemporary debates over the compatibility of universal ethics and nationalism and the dynamics of upholding multiple identities. These issues go to the heart of recent discussions about how Israel can be both a Jewish state and a state for all its citizens as well as the recent debates over whether Islam impedes Muslims from being fully loyal American citizens. Insofar as Mendelssohn upholds the validity of universal ethics, and professes loyalty both to Jewish and German peoplehood, his success or failure in reconciling these competing values is an important model for today.Moderator:

David Engel, Greenberg Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, New York University


Liliane Weisberg, Professor of German and Comparative Literature, University of Pennsylvania; A German Socrates: Moses Mendelssohn Translates Plato
Elias Sacks, Department of Religion, Princeton University; Politics in a Hebrew Key: Mendelssohn on Judaism, Citizenship, and the Common Good
Allan Arkush, Professor of History and Judaic Studies, Binghamton University; Moses Mendelssohn and Jewish Nationalism: The View from the Nineteenth Century

4:15pm Mendelssohn’s Significance for Jewish Thought and Life, Present and FutureThe final panel brings together leading Jewish thinkers with significant expertise in Mendelssohn’s thought to assess Mendelssohn’s significance for contemporary and future directions in Jewish thought and life by reflecting on the day’s presentations as well as their own work on Mendelssohn.Moderator:

Jonathan Karp, Associate Professor of History, Binghamton University and Director of the American Jewish Historical Society, Center for Jewish History


Leora Batnitzky, Professor of Religion, Princeton University
Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary

5:15pm Closing remarks: David Sorkin, a renowned expert on Mendelssohn and Distinguished Professor of Modern Jewish History at the CUNY Graduate Center, will deliver the closing remarks that summarize and take stock of the day’s proceedings.

Convened by Michah Gottlieb, NYU