His education was traditional and he studied with the local rabbi, David Frankel. When Frankel returned to his native Berlin, Mendelssohn, then aged fourteen, followed him. On his arrival, the boy had to pay the toll exacted from every Jew entering the city. Mendelssohn not only continued his religious studies with Rabbi Frankel but also pursued a general education, studying several languages, sciences, and, in particular, philosophy.
At the same time he had to earn his living and, at first, suffered many hardships. Jews without means had no right of domicile. A number of enlightened scholars were taken with his abilities and not only taught him but introduced him to learned circles.
In 1750 Mendelssohn was appointed to tutor the children of an owner of a silk factory. Four years later, he became the firm’s bookkeeper, and later a partner. For the rest of his life, while engaged in manifold scholarly and communal pursuits, he continued to earn his living as a merchant. However, only twenty years after his arrival in Berlin did he receive a formal residence permit.
In 1754 he was introduced — originally as a chess partner — to the liberal writer and dramatist, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, an outstanding repre¬sentative of German Enlightenment. The two became fast friends and in the same year, Lessing wrote that he foresaw in Mendelssohn “a second Spinoza.” Lessing helped Mendelssohn with his German style, first publicly used in Mendelssohn’s defense of Lessing’s drama, Die Judea. This was followed by a philosophical treatise and a joint work by the two men on the English poet, Alex-ander Pope. Soon Mendelssohn’s German was so exceptional that the king. Frederick II, inquired as to the identity of this brilliant young writer. Before long, scholars and courtiers were seeking out this “young Hebrew who wrote in German” (Mendelssohn was the first Jew' to publish in German). In 1763 he married Fromet Guggenheim of Hamburg, and thanks in great measure to her abilities, their home became a salon for Jews and non-Jews. By this time, he was participating in the leading literary journals and even dared to write critically of the poetry of the King of Prussia, Frederick the Great.
Until he was forty, his primary interest was the dissemination of German culture to Germans, to the rest of the world, and especially to Jews. At all times, he was a traditional and conscious Jew, ready to use his influence in the Christian world to help fellow Jews and Jewish communities in distress. In 1769, a Swiss clergyman, Johann Kaspar Lavater, a deeply emotional Christian, thought he could persuade the famous Jew to become a Christian and challenged him to prove the superiority of Judaism over Christianity. Reluctantly, Mendelssohn published a pamphlet in reply and a literary polemic ensued, which Mendelssohn —and indeed Lavater — found distasteful.
One effect was that henceforward Mendelssohn devoted himself primarily to Jewish problems, especially those emerging from the challenge of Enlightenment and Emanci¬pation, He sought to prepare the Jews in German life to enter German society. To do this he had to make them familiar with the German language (they spoke only Yiddish). With this object, he translated the Pentateuch into German, publishing it in Hebrew letters. Together with a number of like-minded scholarly colleagues, he added a Hebrew commentary, reflecting the mood of the Enlightenment. This work, completed in 1783, proved a milestone in Jewish education. On his initiative, a Jewish free school was opened in Berlin.
Mendelssohn was the advocate for Jewish communities in trouble. He used his influence to avoid threatened anti-Jewish measures in Switzerland and Germany. To help the Jews of Alsace, he persuaded his friend Christian Wilhelm von Dohm to write a memorandum for submission to the French government, “On the Civil Improvement of the Jews,” a pioneer plea for Jewish emancipation.
FROM THE WRITINGS OF MOSES MENDELSSOHN
Let every man who does not disturb the public welfare, who obeys the law, acts righteously toward you and his fellow men, be allowed to speak as he thinks, to pray to God after his own fashion or after that of his fathers, and to seek eternal salvation where he thinks he may find it.
We have no doctrines that are contrary to reason. We added nothing to natural religion save commandments and statutes. But the fundamental tenets of our religion rest on the foundation of reason. They are in consonance with the results of free inquiry, without any conflict or contradiction.
On Jewish-Christian Relations
It is unbecoming for one of us to openly defy the other and thereby furnish diversion to the idle, scandal to the simple and malicious exultation to the revilers of truth and virtue. Were we to analyze our aggregate stock of knowledge, we certainly shall concur in so many important truths that I venture to say few individuals of one and the same religious persuasion would more harmonize in thinking. A point here and there on which we might perhaps still divide might be adjourned for some ages longer, without detriment to the welfare of the human race. What a world of bliss we would live in did all men adopt the true principles which the best among the Christians and the best among the Jews have in common.
On his death, he was honored by Jews and non-Jews alike. He did not live to see the realization of Jewish Emancipation, but he was regarded as the spiritual leader in the struggle for its attainment.
The trends he ushered in were not without dangers for Judaism. As Jews entered German society and culture, they were dazzled by the new opportunities and many, including Mendelssohn’s own descendants (one of them, his grandson, the famous composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy), became Christian. Mendelssohn himself always remained an observant Jew. The nobility of his character is reflected in Lessing’s play Nathan the Wise, in which the potrait of the hero was inspired by Mendelssohn.