It is somewhat fitting that the man whose ideas amounted to one of the biggest changes in Jewish thought in history, should be named Moses, for the man who first brought Jewish thought to the masses.
Moses Mendelssohn was born in 1729 in the German town of Dessau. He had a traditional upbringing and studied under Rabbi David Frankel. When he was a young man, he made the decision to follow Frankel to Berlin, in order to continue learning, in particular to broaden his field of study. This presented a number of problems, since only certain important Jews were allowed to travel to Berlin. Mendelssohn overcame this by walking, a journey of some distance. The journey was particularly difficult since Mendelssohn was forced to enter through the Rosenthaler Gate. The Rosenthaler Gate was specifically reserved for the ingress and egress of two types of traveller: cattle and Jews. He took up residence in Mitte, the Jewish area of Berlin, with a Jewish merchant. During the day, he studied at Yeshiva, but at night he devoured books on secular thought in a thirst for knowledge. He had to sneak these books into his room, because the study of them was forbidden by the Rabbis. During the latter half of the 18th Century, he became a figurehead for the Haskallah, the Jewish enlightenment.
The Haskallah was not, as many people believe, the birth of the Jewish Reform movement. It was simply an opening up of Jewish thought to the whole Jewish community. Thinkers like Mendelssohn argued that people could not accept the divinity of the Jewish tradition if it was not understandable to them. For this reason, he spearheaded many innovations such as the translation of the Torah into German. It was his belief that an interaction with the ideas of Judaism, and the ability to question them, brought about a much stronger belief in G-d, in essence he was saying that blind faith simply would not work any longer.
Mendelssohn also took this idea further. Since his theories said that the Jewish teachings on ethics and morals were understandable by any Jew, he felt therefore that they could also be deduced by any non-Jew as well. It therefore followed that Judaism did not have a higher Truth, and that all of its principles could be derived elsewhere. However, even if non-Jews were able to deduce these, they had no obligation to carry them out, whereas Jews did have an obligation, due to the acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai. If truth could be derived elsewhere, then it followed that it was possible to separate Jewish morality and Jewish ritual.
Through all of this, Mendelssohn became an acceptable face of Judaism to non-Jews, who were increasingly coming into contact with Jewish thought, and thought of it as an exotic curiosity. He also became a symbol of the secular Enlightenment, which was ironic given that the Enlightenment was a war on organised religion whilst Mendelssohn championed observant Judaism. Despite all of this, he was always treated with contempt by the Berlin establishment, because he was Jewish. In 1763, Kaiser Frederick the Great himself vetoed Mendelssohn’s entry into the Prussian Academy of Sciences. In 1769, the Swiss theologian Johannes Lavater attempted to publicly humiliate Mendelssohn by challenging him to convert to Christianity. Since Jewish thought could be derived elsewhere and Judaism contained no higher truth, what was stopping him?
Mendelssohn fathered six children, four of whom followed Lavater’s advice and converted to Christianity. His daughter gave birth to the famous composer, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.
Moses Mendelssohn is, to this day, a symbol of many things. He is thought of, incorrectly, as the father of the Jewish Reform Movement. He is thought of as a shining example of the potential for good relations between Jews and non-Jews in the 18th century. And, most famously, he is thought of as a figure-head for the Haskallah, and for the secular enlightenment.