The Monday Club – A Quest for True Dialogue

How an unlikely friendship explored new territory for Jewish and Christian worldviews

By Avshalom Kapach | | Topics: Judaism, Philosophy
Moses Mendelssohn visiting Gotthold Lessing, together with the pastor and philosopher Johann Kaspar Lavater. Photo: Public Domain

Members of the Monday Club gathered weekly for an intellectual meeting of the minds at a home on Morenstrasse Street in Berlin.

It was the middle of the 18th century – the Enlightenment period in Western Europe. The group included philosophers and celebrities such as Karl Philipp Bach, Johann Sulzer, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and others.

They discussed universal issues while sipping coffee.

They exchanged ideas, expressed opinions and held heated discussions on many issues, including and especially on the question of religion and its place in society. However, the inter-faith “living room” was not complete until it included a worthy Jew who would be accepted into the circle of members and help challenge and integrate the positions and opinions of the participants.

The Jew they found suffered from the physical disability of being a hunchback. The articles he wrote were amazing, especially for one self-taught. He had mastered many languages ​​and was pleasant in his demeanor. All of these led to the addition of Moses Mendelssohn to the Monday Club and to the long-term friendship between himself and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.

Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781), son of a Lutheran priest, became famous as an important playwright during the Enlightenment and had a central role in shaping the bourgeois conception of society in 18th century Germany. In his writings, Lessing defended the freedom of thought of the believing Christian, and he supported rational Christianity. Among other things, Lessing believed in the idea of ​​emancipation while calling for tolerance among members of different religions. In his opinion, only in this way would the Jews abandon their “obscene” habits and their “corrupt language” (Yiddish) and adopt Christian principles of philosophy and morality.

Statue of Moses Mendelssohn in his hometown of Dessau. Photo: Pixabay

Moses Mendelssohn, the Jew from Dessau, Germany was indeed the ideal candidate for the vision of this group. They admired his charm and elegance – so “unlike the Jews,” his sincerity, and his subtle self-deprecation. Mendelssohn’s breadth of knowledge ​​and his ability to reconcile religious belief with philosophical sophistication led to his coronation as a wise and good Jew.

The articles he wrote and his notoriety made Moses Mendelssohn a coveted target for proselytizers. These expectantly tried to get him to convert to Christianity, as the logical step in their opinion for an enlightened and learned man.

However, Moses Mendelssohn refrained from entering into religious debates. He did not want to fall into a trap, as if he were a medieval rabbi in an inquisition tasked with defending the Jewish religion.

Mendelssohn pointed out the difference between the missionary fervor of Christians and the Jewish reluctance to preach conversion:

“God for his special reasons imposed certain particular duties on the Jewish people exclusively … I have had the privilege of making excellent friends who are not members of my religion. We love one another with all our hearts, though we speculate that in matters of religion we hold completely different opinions. I enjoy the pleasure of their company and derive benefit and joy. My heart has never whispered in secret ‘How unfortunate that such a wonderful soul is doomed to doom.’”

As the possibility of full integration of Jews into civil society approached, the attacks on the Jews intensified, especially among intellectuals – through sharpened pens and scientific-philosophical arguments. They argued that the Torah of Moses was an impassable obstacle preventing Jews from fully integrating into society.

Illustration – Shutterstock

Nathan the Wise – Are tensions among religions like “sibling rivalry”?

Gotthold Lessing wrote a well-known play called “Nathan the Wise” (1779). It was a drama in the spirit of the Enlightenment, opposing religious narrow-mindedness and promoting the principles of tolerance and brotherhood between religions. In the play Lessing used a famous parable from the Middle Ages, the period of religious controversies – the parable of the three rings.

In this parable, the Muslim ruler Saladin asks the Jewish sage which of the three monotheistic religions is true and correct: Judaism, Christianity or Islam. The Jewish sage tells Saladin about a king in a distant land who wore a unique and wondrous ring on his finger. This ring, for generations, established the identity of the regent, with the death of the king and the coronation of the son, the new king. At one time a king ruled who was blessed with three successful and successful sons worthy of royalty. The king at the end of his life asked the royal jeweler to create two additional rings exactly identical to the original ring on his finger. When his day came, the king called his three beloved sons and divided his kingdom among them, giving a royal ring to each of them. After the death of the father, the sons began to quarrel – with each claiming to have the original ring on his hand and that the others were wearing fake rings. After years of bitter disagreements, wars and bitter conflicts – came the Nathan the Wise. He listened patiently to the arguments of the parties. Nathan acted to mediate and reconcile among the parties by mentioning the will of the King who recognized the equal greatness of the brothers. He therefore ruled that each of the brothers should continue to live his life as if the original ring was in his finger without interfering with the others.

In writing this play, Gotthold Lessing honored his long-standing friendship with Moses Mendelssohn. Lessing patterned Nathan the Wise in the play after the character traits of Moses Mendelssohn – his partner in the Enlightenment.

The take-home lesson: Fellowship among people with different opinions is possible, and love of the human race is a moral imperative.

Moses Mendelssohn was a Jew who strived to live according to the principles of the Jewish religion and to observe its commandments alongside familiarity with the general culture and tolerance for members of the various religions.

The friendship between the two engendered criticism and attacks on both by many German proponents of “enlightenment” and by circles and individuals in the Jewish community. Alongside abusive criticism and chants towards Gotthold Lessing, there were also hateful articles directed at Mendelssohn, and even physical violence toward him and his family, as happened in 1780. One day when Moses Mendelssohn was traveling with his family, a group of youths attacked the family members, throwing stones and shouting “Juden, Juden.”

Towards the end of Moses Mendelssohn’s life in one of his gloomy moments, he wrote a letter to his friend the Swiss physician, Johann Georg Zimmerman:

“We dreamt of nothing but the Enlightenment. We believed that the light of reason would illuminate the world with such brilliance that zealotry would no longer be present, but as we see now, at the other end of the horizon, night is already rising with all its ghosts. Most frightening of all is that evil is so active and effective. Fanaticism acts, while reason is content with speech.”

Two of Moses Mendelssohn’s sons finally agreed to do what “enlightenment” circles wanted all along. They crossed the bridge, gave up their Judaism and integrated into the surrounding Christian society. One of Moses Mendelssohn’s grandchildren was Felix Mendelssohn. He insisted on keeping his Jewish last name to the displeasure of his own father. Felix was a famous composer and performer. Among his most famous works: the Wedding March and the Italian Symphony.

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