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No Religion without Idolatry

No Religion without Idolatry

Mendelssohn’s Jewish Enlightenment

Gideon Freudenthal

Moses Mendelssohn (1725–1786) is considered the foremost representative of Jewish Enlightenment. In No Religion without Idolatry, Gideon Freudenthal offers a novel interpretation of Mendelssohn’s general philosophy and discusses for the first time Mendelssohn’s semiotic interpretation of idolatry in his Jerusalem and in his Hebrew biblical commentary. Mendelssohn emerges from this study as an original philosopher, not a shallow popularizer of rationalist metaphysics, as he is sometimes portrayed. Of special and lasting value is his semiotic theory of idolatry.

From a semiotic perspective, both idolatry and enlightenment are necessary constituents of religion. Idolatry ascribes to religious symbols an intrinsic value: enlightenment maintains that symbols are conventional and merely signify religious content but do not share its properties and value. Without enlightenment, religion degenerates to fetishism; without idolatry it turns into philosophy and frustrates religious experience. Freudenthal demonstrates that in Mendelssohn’s view, Judaism is the optimal religious synthesis. It consists of transient ceremonies of a “living script.” Its ceremonies are symbols, but they are not permanent objects that could be venerated. Jewish ceremonies thus provide a religious experience but frustrate fetishism. Throughout the book, Freudenthal fruitfully contrasts Mendelssohn’s views on religion and philosophy with those of his contemporary critic and opponent, Salomon Maimon. No Religion without Idolatry breaks new ground in Mendelssohn studies. It will interest students and scholars in philosophy of religion, Judaism, and semiotics

In this lucid and provocative study, Gideon Freudenthal offers an original and compelling reading of Mendelssohn as well as a defense of the possibility of religious rationalism more generally. This book is not only an excellent contribution to a growing body of scholarship on Mendelssohn and early modern philosophy, but it also significantly sharpens and advances contemporary conversations about the relations between religion and reason." — Leora Batnitzky, Princeton University

“In this masterful study, Gideon Freudenthal demonstrates how Mendelssohn’s philosophy, including his philosophy of religion, is grounded in semiotics. The result is a landmark work that not only successfully challenges standard interpretations of Mendelssohn’s ‘enlightened Judaism’ and its alleged inconsistency but also effectively invites reconsideration of the very possibility of ‘religion without idolatry.’” — Daniel O. Dahlstrom, Boston University

“In focusing on Mendelssohn’s ‘semiotics of idolatry,’ Gideon Freudenthal writes as a philosopher fully at home in multiple traditions: contemporary philosophy, eighteenth-century philosophy, Jewish biblical exegesis, and comparative religion. The result is a systematic and penetrating study, based on the Hebrew as well as the German texts, that engages Mendelssohn on perhaps the most critical issue of his understanding of religion with unprecedented philosophical rigor and imagination.” — David Sorkin, City University of New York Graduate Center

ISBN: 978-0-268-02890-9
E-ISBN 978-0-268-07975-8
344 pages
Publication Year: 2012

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Gideon Freudenthal is professor at the Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas, Tel-Aviv University.

“This is an innovative study of the views of the ‘father’ of modern Jewish philosophy, Moses Mendelssohn. It emphasizes correctly that Mendelssohn’s philosophy of Judaism was thoroughly rational in the Enlightenment’s sense of the notion of rationality, and concentrated not on metaphysical arguments and disputations about matters of faith but, rather, on the role and significance of religious practices. . . . As a result, this is a valuable, provocative, unconventional interpretation of Mendelssohn that is sure to stir scholarly debate” — Choice

“Freudenthal’s book introduces us to a Mendelssohn who is a serious, consistent, and careful philosopher, an independent thinker whose true philosophical position has gone underappreciated for too long. . . . We are indebted to Freudenthal’s book for challenging us to rethink Mendelssohn’s philosophical project and thereby to rethink the relevance Enlightenment philosophers may still have today.” —_Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews_

“Freudenthal’s book is highly to be recommended. Its scholarship is impressive, the writing lucid and engaging. It represents an important and original contribution to our understanding of Mendelssohn, complementing the work of Altmann, Allan Arkush, and others.” — H-Judaic

“Freudenthal expands the notion of idolatry beyond its common restriction to false objects of devotion and renders it a heuristic principle to examine not only Judaism but all religions as semiotic systems.” — Theological Studies

“In all, Freudenthal’s book is highly to be recommended. Its scholarship is impressive, the writing lucid and engaging. It represents an important and original contribution to our understanding of Mendelssohn, complementing the work of Altmann, Allan Arkush, and others.” — H-Net

“This book offers a thorough and robust defense of Moses Mendelssohn’s (1729–86) philosophical and religious project. Freudenthal’s familiarity not only with Mendelssohn’s philosophical, but also with his theological works—including scriptural commentaries in Hebrew—allow him to offer a more complete and consistent view of Mendelssohn’s project.” — The Review of Metaphysics

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No Religion without Idolatry

Mendelssohn’s Jewish Enlightenment

Gideon Freudenthal

 No Religion without Idolatry: Mendelssohn’s Jewish Enlightenment
Paper Edition

Moses Mendelssohn (1725–1786) is considered the foremost representative of Jewish Enlightenment. In No Religion without Idolatry, Gideon Freudenthal offers a novel interpretation of Mendelssohn’s general philosophy and discusses for the first time Mendelssohn’s semiotic interpretation of idolatry in his Jerusalem and in his Hebrew biblical commentary. Mendelssohn emerges from this study as an original philosopher, not a shallow popularizer of rationalist metaphysics, as he is sometimes portrayed. Of special and lasting value is his semiotic theory of idolatry.

From a semiotic perspective, both idolatry and enlightenment are necessary constituents of religion. Idolatry ascribes to religious symbols an intrinsic value: enlightenment maintains that symbols are conventional and merely signify religious content but do not share its properties and value. Without enlightenment, religion degenerates to fetishism; without idolatry it turns into philosophy and frustrates religious experience. Freudenthal demonstrates that in Mendelssohn’s view, Judaism is the optimal religious synthesis. It consists of transient ceremonies of a “living script.” Its ceremonies are symbols, but they are not permanent objects that could be venerated. Jewish ceremonies thus provide a religious experience but frustrate fetishism. Throughout the book, Freudenthal fruitfully contrasts Mendelssohn’s views on religion and philosophy with those of his contemporary critic and opponent, Salomon Maimon. No Religion without Idolatry breaks new ground in Mendelssohn studies. It will interest students and scholars in philosophy of religion, Judaism, and semiotics

In this lucid and provocative study, Gideon Freudenthal offers an original and compelling reading of Mendelssohn as well as a defense of the possibility of religious rationalism more generally. This book is not only an excellent contribution to a growing body of scholarship on Mendelssohn and early modern philosophy, but it also significantly sharpens and advances contemporary conversations about the relations between religion and reason." — Leora Batnitzky, Princeton University

“In this masterful study, Gideon Freudenthal demonstrates how Mendelssohn’s philosophy, including his philosophy of religion, is grounded in semiotics. The result is a landmark work that not only successfully challenges standard interpretations of Mendelssohn’s ‘enlightened Judaism’ and its alleged inconsistency but also effectively invites reconsideration of the very possibility of ‘religion without idolatry.’” — Daniel O. Dahlstrom, Boston University

“In focusing on Mendelssohn’s ‘semiotics of idolatry,’ Gideon Freudenthal writes as a philosopher fully at home in multiple traditions: contemporary philosophy, eighteenth-century philosophy, Jewish biblical exegesis, and comparative religion. The result is a systematic and penetrating study, based on the Hebrew as well as the German texts, that engages Mendelssohn on perhaps the most critical issue of his understanding of religion with unprecedented philosophical rigor and imagination.” — David Sorkin, City University of New York Graduate Center

ISBN: 978-0-268-02890-9

344 pages

“This is an innovative study of the views of the ‘father’ of modern Jewish philosophy, Moses Mendelssohn. It emphasizes correctly that Mendelssohn’s philosophy of Judaism was thoroughly rational in the Enlightenment’s sense of the notion of rationality, and concentrated not on metaphysical arguments and disputations about matters of faith but, rather, on the role and significance of religious practices. . . . As a result, this is a valuable, provocative, unconventional interpretation of Mendelssohn that is sure to stir scholarly debate” — Choice

“Freudenthal’s book introduces us to a Mendelssohn who is a serious, consistent, and careful philosopher, an independent thinker whose true philosophical position has gone underappreciated for too long. . . . We are indebted to Freudenthal’s book for challenging us to rethink Mendelssohn’s philosophical project and thereby to rethink the relevance Enlightenment philosophers may still have today.” —_Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews_

“Freudenthal’s book is highly to be recommended. Its scholarship is impressive, the writing lucid and engaging. It represents an important and original contribution to our understanding of Mendelssohn, complementing the work of Altmann, Allan Arkush, and others.” — H-Judaic

“Freudenthal expands the notion of idolatry beyond its common restriction to false objects of devotion and renders it a heuristic principle to examine not only Judaism but all religions as semiotic systems.” — Theological Studies

“In all, Freudenthal’s book is highly to be recommended. Its scholarship is impressive, the writing lucid and engaging. It represents an important and original contribution to our understanding of Mendelssohn, complementing the work of Altmann, Allan Arkush, and others.” — H-Net

“This book offers a thorough and robust defense of Moses Mendelssohn’s (1729–86) philosophical and religious project. Freudenthal’s familiarity not only with Mendelssohn’s philosophical, but also with his theological works—including scriptural commentaries in Hebrew—allow him to offer a more complete and consistent view of Mendelssohn’s project.” — The Review of Metaphysics