Gideon Freudenthal, No Religion Without Idolatry: Mendelssohn’s Jewish Enlightenment

A new book came out on Mendelssohn stressing not his general Enlightenment rationalism, and downplaying his Jewish thought and metaphysics. I took it out as soon as it came into the library. It is quite good. Here is a review of the book from NDPR. As both the book and the review conclude- since religion is about symbols that are not immediately reducible to reason, then there can never be a religion without idolatry. We need the symbols but many will always take them literally.

Gideon Freudenthal, No Religion Without Idolatry: Mendelssohn’s Jewish Enlightenment, University of Notre Dame Press, 2012,
Reviewed by Benjamin Pollock, Michigan State University

In sum, Mendelssohn is not the admittedly important Enlightenment public figure but soft Enlightenment thinker we’ve come to know, who was somehow granted honorary “philosopher” status over the centuries, perhaps as acknowledgement for the fact that he was such a nice Enlightenment guy.

In Freudenthal’s reconstruction, Mendelssohn the philosopher has three basic commitments. He is committed to common sense, or “sound reason,” as the human being’s primary access to necessary truths; he is committed to a notably limited and cautious employment of speculative metaphysics; and he is committed to semiotics as a means of uncovering the ways — and the limitations and dangers inherent to the ways — we articulate and communicate our beliefs and judgments.

The reader who buys into Freudenthal’s new depiction of Mendelssohn reaps considerable philosophical payoff by book’s end. On its basis Freudenthal is able to explain numerous aspects of Mendelssohn’s thought — many of which have remained at best curiosities until now — as part and parcel of a coherent philosophical outlook.

According to Freudenthal, Mendelssohn’s first philosophical loyalty is to sound reason or common sense, through which human beings have access to basic truths necessary for human life. Mendelssohn’s trust in sound reason is the basis for what Freudenthal deems an “optimistic view of human knowledge and reason” (25), according to which rational, empirical, and commonsensical avenues to truth stand in a “wonderful harmony” with one another, and even with the moral and aesthetic goods of human life.

Freudenthal’s second chapter offers a brief sketch of the philosophy of Salomon Maimon, and from this point forward, Maimon serves as Mendelssohn’s foil in the book… By juxtaposing Mendelssohn’s moderate philosophical standpoint, grounded in common sense, to Maimon’s extreme rationalist and skeptical leanings, Freudenthal is able to make a strong case for Mendelssohn’s independence and uniqueness as an Enlightenment thinker.

Mendelssohn finds the essential pillars of natural religion — “the belief in God, providence and the afterlife” — to be accessible to learned and unlearned alike through sound reason or common sense. Moreover, Freudenthal shows, Mendelssohn argues that a religious insider’s assent to the historical truths of a revelatory tradition is based on a “trust” in the authority of the witnesses of that tradition which parallels, on the scale of the particular religious community, the trust in common sense shared by human beings universally. Since it is always reasonable for us to trust our own traditions more than those of others, Freudenthal has Mendelssohn explain, we can equally grant that members of other religious traditions act reasonably in preferring their own historical truths and beliefs. Mendelssohn’s own profession of allegiance to Judaism and yet of tolerance for religious others — for which he has often been maligned as inconsistent or opportunistic — is rooted, Freudenthal elegantly explains, in this “epistemic pluralism” that grasps how trust works in the communal context.

The heart of Freudenthal’s book, chapters four through six, addresses Mendelssohn’s preoccupation with symbolic representation
On Freudenthal’s reading, Mendelssohn understands religious communities as forming around different symbolic systems that represent, firstly, the truths of natural religion, and secondly, the respective defining characteristics of the communities themselves.

Freudenthal explains, a symbol allows us to look through it and to see the transcendent object the symbol stands for. But in the context of religious life, symbols cannot be transparent: the very concreteness of their objectification of divinity is what gives them the power to awaken religious feeling among community members. As Freudenthal adeptly shows, this central problem that Mendelssohn highlights within religious life parallels the problem of linguistic representation that he identified in metaphysics. Just as metaphysicians tend to reify the metaphors through which they direct their sights towards speculative truth, so religious practitioners tend to forget the way religious symbols are meant to point to the divinity that transcends them, and wind up worshiping the symbols themselves instead of the divine. The result? Idolatry.

Idolatry, on Mendelssohn’s view, is an ever-present fixture of religious life. More than any other religious community, however, Judaism, Mendelssohn believes, is equipped to combat idolatry

The first is Mendelssohn’s rather infamous claim that Judaism is not a revealed religion that commands particular beliefs other than in the rational truths of natural religion, but rather is a revealed legislation, whose “ceremonial law” is designed to organize communal practice in such a way as promotes the celebration of and inquiry into the truths of reason. Freudenthal here shows how Mendelssohn’s understanding of Judaism follows directly from his concern with religious symbols. Unlike concrete objects, ceremonial practices “are transient and leave no permanent objects behind that are conducive to idolatry” (138).

He even shows the sin of the golden calf to exemplify, on Mendelssohn’s interpretation, the human tendency to forget the transcendent objects to which linguistic symbols refer, and to treat the symbols themselves as objects of adoration.

The seventh chapter of Freudenthal’s book examines Mendelssohn’s attitude towards idolatrous trends in the Judaism of his own time (see: Kabbalah), and it also brings Mendelssohn’s semiotics to bear on his political philosophy

Mendelssohn is consistent throughout his career in suggesting that a Mosaic constitution in which God alone rules — and in which, therefore, church and state are one and the same — represents the ideal Jewish polity. It is just that since contemporary Judaism no longer lives according to the Mosaic ideal, it must conduct itself differently. The fall from this ideal occurred, Freudenthal shows Mendelssohn held, when the Jewish people called for the establishment of a worldly kingship, preferring a concrete manifestation of political power to divine rule (leading to the anointing of Saul as king). As Freudenthal shows, Mendelssohn thus views the separation of church and state within Judaism as the result of the very same propensity to idolatry that Judaism was intended to combat!

Perhaps most suggestive is the claim that the individual person’s potential for enlightenment in fact depends on the presence of idolatry within her community, without which she would lack the resistance required to spur her to that inquiry which alone would lead her to make knowledge of necessary truths her own. Hence the title of Freudenthal’s book, No Religion without Idolatry, designates, according to Freudenthal, “not only a curse but also a blessing: it is a necessary condition for the ever active quest for truth and enlightenment” (200-1).

Read the Rest Here

5 responses to “Gideon Freudenthal, No Religion Without Idolatry: Mendelssohn’s Jewish Enlightenment

  1. I’m looking forward to reading Feudenthal’s book and enjoyed Ben’s review. I can’t help but think that the reduction of aesthetics to “idolatry,” whatever that is supposed to mean, is a sad and tired philosophical cliche that we have yet to surpass. In my own writings on aesthetics, in both Mendelssohn and Buber-Rosenzweig, I’ve found it pretty easy and very profitable to ignore the concept of idolatry all together. I mean, I know it’s supposed to make the thought sound “Jewish,” but I’m just not sure.

    • Great point. There seems to be a connection between the rationalist common sense and the caution toward the aesthetic. You ignore the term, but Batnitzky made it a core term in her study of FR. Do you have a critical review of Batnitzky somewhere?

      • I reviewed Leora’s Idolatry and Representation: The Philosophy of Franz Rosenzweig Reconsidered in AJS Review, 27:1, 165-7, but I can’t recall at all what I said and am not sure if I said anything about aesthetics. About common sense, I think it’s the other way around. Common sense is deeply rooted in aesthetics, as is Mendelssohn’s model of reason (remember, that’s what makes him pre-critical, and pre-Kantian). About aesthetics, I don’t think Mendelssohn was at all cautious or reserved. I wrote about this in the Paul Mendes-Flohr festschrift, a copy of which you can find under the Publications tag at

  2. “since religion is about symbols that are not immediately reducible to reason, then there can never be a religion without idolatry”

    I think the assumption is here that people have a striving which relates to a physical symbol and hence this will always be given to misinterpretation of the immediate symbol.

    If the striving is for something which is only one step away from the ‘world’ of the person at hand then maybe this would be a problem. If the striving is for something which is completely outside of the person at hand, however, then I don’t see that this has to be a problem, because the object at hand is taken as a sweetener and clarifier.

    The question is, are we locked down to relating to something which is only one step away from what we know, or are we prepared to relate to something before we understand it at all.

    Maybe you could relate this to naaseh before nishma.

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