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How tolerant and diverse should a society be? Are there limits to the views that a society should accept? Can individuals from diverse backgrounds join together to contribute to the common good, and what happens when tensions arise between different groups? To what extent should individuals be asked to adapt to a putatively shared national culture, and should they be encouraged to preserve their own distinctive cultural inheritances?
Given the events of 2016-2017, such questions stand at the forefront of American civic life. Yet similar questions also animated a figure whose birthday we celebrate this month: the German-Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786). Born in rural Prussia, Mendelssohn moved to Berlin at the age of fourteen and soon acquired languages such as French and Latin. By the 1750s he was writing in German and Hebrew on philosophy and Judaism, and by the 1760s he had become not only his era’s leading Jewish thinker, but also a central figure in the late Enlightenment. He is remembered today as the founder of modern Jewish thought, and his contemporaries eulogized him as someone who sacrificed his life for reason: he fell ill and died, it was said, because he was in such a rush to deliver a book defending reason to his publisher that, on a cold December evening, he left home without a coat and proceeded to his destination on foot.
Questions relating to diversity and tolerance loomed large in Mendelssohn’s life. German intellectuals in the 1780s wrestled with the question of whether Jews should receive the civic rights available to non-Jews, and Mendelssohn played a central role in these debates, addressing widespread suspicions that Jews were simply too different to be integrated into Prussian society. He was also the target of recurring challenges to convert to Christianity. To many of his contemporaries, Judaism was an oppressive religion that curtailed liberty by demanding irrational practices such as onerous dietary restrictions and strict Sabbath observance: how, these individuals wondered, could a philosopher accept such a tradition?
Mendelssohn’s best-known response was his German treatise Jerusalem, or on Religious Power and Judaism. Far from being irrational and oppressive, he argued, Judaism actually encourages free, rational thought. According to Mendelssohn, rather than requiring a fixed creed, Judaism demands only a set…