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Philosopher and founder of the German Jewish Enlightenment movement. Born in Dessau, the son of Mendel, a Torah scribe, young Mendelssohn received a traditional Jewish education in the Bible and Talmud. One of his early teachers introduced Moses to the study of Maimonides. This study influenced him deeply and formed his taste for philosophy. Coming to Berlin at age 14, he studied mathematics, Latin, Greek, and philosophy, and became a master of German prose. At a time when German Jews were still locked in their ghettos and required special permits to live in Berlin, Moses Mendelssohn became widely known as a German writer on philosophical subjects and on the theory of art. His home became the meeting place for many of the cultural leaders of his day, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

Mendlessohn tried to break down the walls of the ghetto from both the inside and outside. He wanted Jews to learn the German language as a gateway to the knowledge of the outside world. He wanted Jewish children to learn manual trades. With the help of wealthy friends, he opened a free school in Berlin where Jewish boys were trained in manual occupations and taught some German, in addition to the Bible and Talmud. Mendelssohn set for himself the task of translating the Pentateuch and the Psalms into German. Eventually, he published this German translation in Hebrew letters by the side of the original Hebrew text. The influence of this Bible translation was enormous. From it many Talmud students learned the German language and went on to the study of general European culture. The Haskalah, or Enlightenment, movement in Germany and Eastern Europe is often dated back to this translation.

To breach the walls of the ghetto from the outside, Mendelssohn wrote his Jerusalem. When published, some parts of this book were attacked by Christians and Jews alike. In Jerusalem, he outlined his ideals of religious and political toleration, separation of church and state, and equality of all citizens. At the same time he pleaded with Jews to hold on to their “particularism” and the absolute authority of Jewish laws. Mendelssohn used his literary friendships to prevent new restrictions from being placed upon Swiss Jews, and he tried to save the Jews of Dresden from expulsion. He induced Christian Wilhelm Dohm, a Prussian aristocrat, to write an essay urging that Jews be granted civil rights. Mendelssohn’s devoted friendship with the famous author Gotthold Ephraim Lessing also contributed to the eventual emancipation of Jews in Germany. Lessing wrote a highly successful play Nathan Der Weise (Nathan the Wise), a portrait of his friend Moses Mendelssohn and a powerful plea for religious tolerance.

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