My ignorance about my own religious background is often a source of discomfort and even embarrassment for me. I often tell people I am Jewish but not “religious.” What does that mean and why do I say that? When I ask myself these questions, the best answer I can come up with is that I do not want to be perceived as a person of blind faith……I value my intelligence and ability to think for myself. But are these personal qualities really incompatible with my religion?
Most German Jews probably grow up hearing about the great Moses Mendelssohn but how many American Jews are familiar with him? An 18th century philosopher, Mendelssohn attempted to marry the ideas of the Enlightenment with Judaism. He devoted much of his life and writings to an argument that one could be both an observant Jew and an enlightened member of society who understands the world through the application of reason. He is known as the father of Reform Judaism and was the first person to translate the bible from Hebrew to German (most Jews at the time did not speak German because they were not allowed to receive a secular education).
I’ve read about Mendelssohn’s remarkable life in Amos Elon’s “The Pity of it All: A Portrait of the German Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933.” Elon traces Mendelssohn’s life long battle for Jews to have both the freedom to worship according to their conscience and to advance themselves through the attainment of secular knowledge.
I feel comforted that more than 250 years ago a German Jewish contemporary of Immanuel Kant argued for my right to think and believe for myself. This is indeed part of the tradition of Reform Judaism and is something to take pride in. So I guess my Jewish identity goes beyond my love of bagels and lox and the latkes that we will soon eat for Hanukkah.