When the prophet of the Hebrews, some six-and-twenty hundred years ago,
thundered forth his stirring ‘Go through! go through the gates! prepare
a way, lift up a standard for the people!’ it may, without irreverence,
be doubted if he foresaw how literally his charge would be fulfilled by
one of his own race in the seventeenth century of the Christian era. The
story of how it was done may perhaps be worth retelling, since many
subjects of lesser moment have found more chroniclers.

It was in 1290 that gates, which in England had long been ominously
creaking on their hinges, were deliberately swung-to, and bolted and
barred by Church and State on the unhappy Jews, who on that bleak
November day stood shivering along the coast. ‘Thy waves and thy billows
have passed over me’ must have lost in tender allegory and gained some
added force of literalness that wintry afternoon. Scarce any of the
descendants of that exodus can have had share in the return. Of such of
the refugees as reached the opposite ports few found foothold, and fewer
still asylum. The most, and perhaps they were the most fortunate of the
fifteen thousand, were quick in gaining foreign graves. Those who made
for the nearest neighbouring shores of France, forgetful, or perhaps
ignorant, of the recent experiences of their French brethren under
Philip Augustus, lived on to earn a like knowledge for themselves, and
to undergo, a few years later, another expulsion under Philip the Fair.
Those who went farther fared worse, for over the German States the
Imperial eagle of Rome no longer brooded, now to protect and now to prey
on its victims; the struggle between the free cities and the
multitudinous petty princelings was working to its climax, and whether
at bitter strife, or whether pausing for a brief while to recruit their
powers, landgrave and burgher, on one subject, were always of one mind.
To plunder at need or to persecute at leisure, Jews were held to be
handy and fair game for either side.

Far northward or far southward that ragged English mob were hardly fit
to travel. Some remnant, perhaps, made effort to reach the
semi-barbarous settlements in Russia and Poland, but few can have been
sanguine enough to set out for distant Spain in hope of a welcome but
rarely accorded to such very poor relations. And even in the Peninsula
the security which Jews had hitherto experienced had by this date
received several severe shocks. Two centuries later and the tide of
civilisation had rolled definitely and drearily back on the soil which
Jews had largely helped to cultivate, and left it bare, and yet a little
longer, Portugal, become a province of Spain, had followed the cruel
fashions of its suzerain.

By the close of the sixteenth century a settlement of the dispossessed
Spanish and Portuguese Jews had been formed in Holland, and Amsterdam
was growing into a strange Dutch likeness of a new Jerusalem, for
Holland alone among the nations at this period gave a welcome to all
citizens in the spirit of Virgil’s famous line, ‘_Tros Rutulusve fuat,
nullo discrimine habebo_.’ And the refugees, who at this date claimed
the hospitality of the States, were of a sort to make the Dutch in love
with their own unfashionable virtue of religious tolerance. Under
Moorish sway, for centuries, commerce had been but one of the pursuits
open to the Jews and followed by the Jews of the Peninsula, and thus it
was a crowd, not of financiers and traders only or chiefly, but of
cultivated scholars, physicians, statesmen, and land-owners, whom
Catholic bigotry had exiled. The thin disguise of new Christians was
soon thrown off by these Jews, and they became to real Christians, to
such men as Vossius and Caspar Barlæus, who welcomed them and made
friends of them, a revelation of Judaism.

It was after the great _auto-da-fé_ of January 1605, that Joseph ben
Israel, with a host of other Jews, broken in health and broken in
fortune, left the land which bigotry and persecution had made hideous to
them, and joined the peaceful and prosperous settlement in Amsterdam.
The youngest of Ben Israel’s transplanted family was the year-old
Manasseh, who had been born in Lisbon a few months before their flight.
He seems to have been from the first a promising and intelligent lad,
and his tutor, one Isaac Uziel, who was a minister of the congregation,
and a somewhat famous mathematician and physician to boot, formed a high
opinion of the boy’s abilities. He did not, however, live to see them
verified; when Manasseh was but eighteen the Rabbi died, and his clever
pupil was thought worthy to be appointed to the vacated office. It was
an honoured and an honourable, but scarcely a lucrative, post to which
Manasseh thus succeeded, and the problem of living soon became further
complicated by an early marriage and a young family. Manasseh had to
cast about him for supplementary means of support, and he presently
found it in the establishment of a printing press. Whether the type gave
impetus to the pen, or whether the pen had inspired the idea of the
press, is hard to decide; but it is, at least, certain that before he
was twenty-five, Manasseh had found congenial work and plenty of it. He
taught and he preached, and both in the school-room and in the pulpit he
was useful and effective, but it was in his library that he felt really
happy and at home. Manasseh was a born scholar and an omnivorous reader,
bound to develop into a prolific, if not a profound, writer. The work
which first established his fame bears traces of this, and is, in point
of fact, less of a composition than a compilation. The first part of
this book, _The Conciliator_, was published in 1632, after five years’
labour had been expended on it, and it is computed to contain quotations
from, or references to, over 200 Hebrew, and 50 Latin and Greek authors.
Its object was to harmonise (_conciliador_) conflicting passages in the
Pentateuch, and it was written in Spanish, although it could have been
composed with equal facility in any one of half-a-dozen other languages,
for Manasseh was a most accomplished linguist.

Although not the first book which was issued from his press, for a
completely edited prayer-book and a Hebrew grammar had been published
in 1627, _The Conciliator_ was the first work that attracted the
attention of the learned world to the Amsterdam Rabbi. Manasseh had the
advantage of literary connections of his own, through his wife, who was
a great-granddaughter of Abarbanel–that same Isaac Abarbanel, the
scholar and patriot, who in 1490 headed the deputation to Ferdinand and
Isabella, which was so dramatically cut short by Torquemada.

Like _The Conciliator_, all Manasseh’s subsequent literary ventures met
with ready appreciation, but with more appreciation, it would seem, than
solid result, for his means appear to have been always insufficient for
his modest wants, and in 1640 we find him seriously contemplating
emigration to Brazil on a trading venture. Two members of his
congregation, which, as a body, does not seem to have acted liberally
towards him, came forward, however, at this crisis in his affairs, and
conferred a benefit all round by establishing a college and appointing
Manasseh the principal, with an adequate salary. This ready use of some
portion of their wealth has made the brothers Pereira more distinguished
than for its possession. Still, it must not be inferred that Manasseh
had been, up to this date, a friendless, if a somewhat impecunious,
student, only that, as is rather perhaps the wont of poor prophets in
their own country, his admirers had had to come from the outer before
they reached the inner circle. He had certainly achieved a European
celebrity in the Republic of letters before his friends at Amsterdam had
discovered much more than the fact that he printed very superior
prayer-books. He had won over, amongst others, the prejudiced author of
the _Law of Nations_, to own him, a Jew, for a familiar friend, before
some of the wealthier heads of his own congregation had claimed a like
privilege; and Grotius, then Swedish ambassador at Paris, was actually
writing to him, and proffering friendly services, at the very time that
the Amsterdam congregation were calmly receiving his enforced farewells.
There was something, perhaps, of irony in the situation, but Manasseh,
like Maimonides, had no littleness of disposition, no inflammable
self-love quick to take fire; he loved his people truly enough to
understand them and to make allowances, had even, perhaps, some humorous
perception of the national obtuseness to native talent when unarrayed in
purple and fine linen, or until duly recognised by the wearers of such.

Set free, by the liberality of Abraham and Isaac Pereira, from the
pressure of everyday cares, Manasseh again devoted himself to his books,
and turned out a succession of treatises. History, Philosophy,
Theology, he attacked them all in turn, and there is, perhaps, something
besides rapidity of execution which suggests an idea of manufacture in
most of these works. A treatise which he published about 1650, and which
attracted very wide notice, significantly illustrated his rather fatal
facility for ready writing. The treatise was entitled _The Hope of
Israel_, and sought to prove no less than that some aborigines in
America, whose very existence was doubtful, were lineal descendants of
the lost ten tribes. The Hope itself seems to have rested on no more
solid foundation than a traveller’s tale of savages met with in the
wilds, who included something that sounded like the עמש (Shemang[17]) in
their vernacular. The story was quickly translated into several
languages, but it was almost as quickly disproved, and Manasseh’s
deductions from it were subsequently rather roughly criticised. Truth to
say, the accumulated stores of his mind were ground down and sifted and
sown broadcast in somewhat careless and indigestible masses, and their
general character gives an uncomfortable impression of machine-work
rather than of hand-work. And the proportion of what he wrote was as
nothing compared to what he contemplated writing. Perhaps those
never-written books of his would have proved the most readable; he
might have shown us himself, his wise, tolerant, enthusiastic self, in
them. But instead, we possess, in his shelves on shelves of published
compilations of dead men’s minds, only duly labelled and catalogued
selections from learned mummies.

The dream of Manasseh was to compose a ‘Heroic History,’ a significant
title which shadows forth the worthy record he would have delighted in
compiling from Jewish annals. It is as well, perhaps, that the title is
all we have of the work, for he was too good an idealist to prove a good
historian. He cared too much, and he knew too much, to write a reliable
or a readable history of his people. To him, as to many of us, Robert
Browning’s words might be applied–

‘So you saw yourself as you wished you were–
As you might have been, as you cannot be–
Earth here rebuked by Olympus there,
And grew content in your poor degree.’[18]

He, at any rate, had good reason to grow content in his degree, for he
was destined to make an epoch in the ‘Heroic History,’ instead of being,
as he ‘wished he were,’ the reciter, and probably the prosy reciter, of
several. Certain it is that, great scholar, successful preacher, and
voluminous writer as was Manasseh ben Israel, it was not till he was
fifty years old that he found his real vocation. He had felt at it for
years, his books were more or less blind gropings after it, his
friendships with the eminent and highly placed personages of his time
were all unconscious means to a conscious end, and his very character
was a factor in his gradually formed purpose. His whole life had been an
upholding of the ‘standard’; publicists who sneered at the ostentatious
rich Jew, priests who railed at the degraded poor Jew, were each bound
to recognise in Manasseh ben Israel a Jew of another type: one poor yet
self-respecting, sought after yet unostentatious, conservative yet
cosmopolitan, learned yet undogmatic. They might question if this
Amsterdam Rabbi were _sui generis_, but they were at least willing to
find out if he were in essentials what he claimed to be, fairly
representative of the fairly treated members of his race. So the ‘way
was prepared’ by the ‘standard’ being raised. Which, of the many
long-closed ‘gates,’ was to open for the people to pass through?

Manasseh looked around on Europe. He sought a safe and secure
resting-place for the tribe of wandering foot and weary heart, where, no
longer weary and wandering, they might cease to be ‘tribal.’ He sought
a place where ‘protection’ should not be given as a sordid bribe, nor
conferred as a fickle favour, but claimed as an inalienable right, and
shared in common with all law-abiding citizens. His thoughts turned for
a while on Sweden, and there was some correspondence to that end with
the young Queen Christina, but this failing, or falling through, his
hopes were almost at once definitely directed towards England. It was a
wise selection and a happy one, and the course of events, and the time
and the temper of the people, seemed all upon his side. The faithless
Stuart king had but lately expiated his hateful, harmful weakness on the
scaffold, and sentiment was far as yet from setting the nimbus of saint
and martyr on that handsome, treacherous head. The echoes of John
Hampden’s brave voice seemed still vibrating in the air, and Englishmen,
but freshly reminded of their rights, were growing keen and eager in the
scenting out of wrongs; quick to discover, and fierce to redress evils
which had long lain rooted and rotting, and unheeded. The pompous
_insouciance_ of the first Stuart king, the frivolous _insouciance_ of
the second, were now being resented in inevitable reaction. The court no
longer led the fashion; the people had come to the front and were
growing grimly, even grotesquely, in earnest. The very fashion of
speaking seems to have changed with the new need for strong, terse
expression. Men greeted each other with old-fashioned Bible greetings;
they named their children after those ‘great ones gone,’ or with even
quainter effect in some simple selected Bible phrase; the very tones of
the Prophets seemed to resound in Whitehall, and Englishmen to have
become, in a wide, unsensational sense, not men only of the sword, or of
the plough, but men of the Book, and that Book the Bible. Liberty of
conscience, equality before the law for all religious denominations, had
been the unconditional demand of that wonderful army of Independents,
and although the Catholics were the immediate cause and object of this
appeal, yet Manasseh, watching events from the calm standpoint of a
keenly interested onlooker, thought he discerned in the listening
attitude of the English Parliament, a favourable omen of the attention
he desired to claim for his clients, since it was not alone for
political, but for religious, rights that he meant to plead.

He did not, however, actually come to England till 1655, when the way
for personal intercession had been already prepared by correspondence
and petition. His _Hope of Israel_ had been forwarded to Cromwell so
early as 1650; petitions praying for the readmission of Jews to England
with full rights of worship, of burial, and of commerce secured to them,
had been laid before the Long and the Rump Parliament, and Manasseh had
now in hand, and approaching completion, a less elaborate and more
impassioned composition than usual, entitled, _Vindiciæ Judæorum_. A
powerful and unexpected advocate of Jewish claims presently came forward
in the person of Edward Nicholas, the clerk to the Council. This
large-minded and enlightened gentleman had the courage to publish an
elaborate appeal for, and defence of, the Jews, ‘the most honourable
people in the world,’ as he styled them, ‘a people chosen by God and
protected by God.’ The pamphlet was headed, _Apology for the Honourable
Nation of the Jews and all the Sons of Israel_, and Nicholas’s arguments
aroused no small amount of attention and discussion. It was even
whispered that Cromwell had had a share in the authorship; but if this
had been so, undoubtedly he who ‘stood bare, not cased in euphemistic
coat of mail,’ but who ‘grappled like a giant, face to face, heart to
heart, with the naked truth of things,’[19] would have unhesitatingly
avowed it. His was not the sort of nature to shirk responsibilities nor
to lack the courage of his opinions. There can be no doubt that, from
first to last, Cromwell was strongly in favour of Jewish claims being
allowed, but just as little doubt is there that there was never any
tinge or taint of ‘secret favouring’ about his sayings or his doings on
the subject. The part, and all things considered the very unpopular
part, he took in the subsequent debates, had, of course, to be accounted
for by minds not quick to understand such simple motive power as
justice, generosity, or sympathy, and both now and later the wildest
accusations were levelled against the Protector. That he was,
unsuspected, himself of Jewish descent, and had designs on the long
vacant Messiahship of his interesting kinsfolk, was not the most
malignant, though it was perhaps among the most absurd, of these tales.
‘The man is without a soul,’ writes Carlyle, ‘that can look into the
great soul of a man, radiant with the splendours of very heaven, and see
nothing there but the shadow of his own mean darkness.’[20] There must
have been, if this view be correct, a good many particularly
materialistic bodies going about at that epoch in English history when
the Protector of England took upon himself the unpopular burden of being
also the Protector of the Jews.

There had been some opposition on the part of the family to overcome,
some tender timid forebodings, which events subsequently justified, to
dispel, before Manasseh was free to set out for England; but in the late
autumn of 1655[21] we find him with two or three companions safely
settled in lodgings in the Strand. An address to the Protector was
personally presented by Manasseh, whilst a more detailed declaration to
the Commonwealth was simultaneously published. Very remarkable are both
these documents. Neither in the personal petition to Cromwell, nor in
the more elaborate argument addressed to the Parliament, is there the
slightest approach to the _ad misericordiam_ style. The whole case for
the Jews is stated with dignity, and pleaded without passion, and
throughout justice rather than favour forms the staple of the demand.
The ‘clemency’ and ‘high-mindedness’ of Cromwell are certainly taken for
granted, but equally is assumed the worthiness of the clients who appeal
to these qualities. Manasseh makes also a strong point of the ‘Profit,’
which the Jews are likely to prove to their hosts, naïvely recognising
the fact that ‘Profit is a most powerful motive which all the world
prefers above all other things’; and ‘therefore dealing with that point
first.’ He dwells on the ‘ability,’ and ‘industry,’ and ‘natural
instinct’ of the Jews for ‘merchandising,’ and for ‘contributing new
inventions,’ which extra aptitude, in a somewhat optimistic spirit, he
moralises, may have been given to them for their ‘protection in their
wanderings,’ since ‘wheresoever they go to dwell, there presently the
traficq begins to flourish.’

Read in the light of some recent literature, one or two of Manasseh’s
arguments might almost be termed prophetic. Far-sighted, however, and
wide-seeing as was our Amsterdam Rabbi, he could certainly not have
foretold that more than two hundred years later his race would be
taunted in the same breath for being a ‘wandering’ and ‘homeless tribe,’
and for remaining a ‘settled’ and ‘parasitic’ people in their adopted
countries; yet are not such ingenious, and ungenerous, and inconsistent
taunts answered by anticipation in the following paragraph?–

‘The love that men ordinarily bear to their own country, and the
desire they have to end their lives where they had their beginning,
is the cause that most strangers, having gotten riches where they
are in a foreign land, are commonly taken in a desire to return to
their native soil, and there peaceably to enjoy their estate; so
that as they were a help to the places where they lived and
negotiated while they remained there, so when they depart from
thence, they carry all away and spoile them of their wealth;
transporting all into their own native country: but with the Jews,
the case is farre different, for where the Jews are once kindly
receaved, they make a firm resolution never to depart from thence,
seeing they have no proper place of their own; and so they are
always with their goods in the cities where they live, a perpetual
benefitt to all payments.’[22]

Manasseh goes on to quote Holy Writ, to show that to ‘seek for the
peace,’ and to ‘pray for the peace of the city whither ye are led
captive,’[23] was from remote times a loyal duty enjoined on Jews; and
so he makes perhaps another point against that thorough-going historian
of our day, who would have disposed of the People and the Book, the Jews
and the Old Testament together, in the course of a magazine article. To
prove that uncompromising loyalty has among the Jews the added force of
a religious obligation, Manasseh mentions the fact that the ruling
dynasty is always prayed for by upstanding congregations in every
Jewish place of worship, and he makes history give its evidence to show
that this is no mere lip loyalty, but that the obligation enjoined has
been over and over again faithfully fulfilled. He quotes numerous
instances in proof of this; beginning from the time, 900 years B.C.,
when the Jerusalem Jews, High Priest at their head, went forth to defy
Alexander, and to own staunch allegiance to discrowned Darius, till
those recent civil wars in Spain, when the Jews of Burgos manfully held
that city against the conqueror, Henry of Trastamare, in defence of
their conquered, but liege lord, Pedro.[24]

Of all the simply silly slanders from which his people had suffered,
such, for instance, as the kneading Passover biscuits with the blood of
Christian children, Manasseh disposes shortly, with brief and distinct
denial; pertinently reminding Englishmen, however, that like absurd
accusations crop up in the early history of the Church, when the ‘very
same ancient scandalls was cast of old upon the innocent Christians.’

With the more serious, because less absolutely untruthful, charge of
‘usury,’ Manasseh deals as boldly, urging even no extenuating plea, but
frankly admitting the practice to be ‘infamous.’ But characteristically,
he proceeds to express an opinion, that ‘inasmuch as no man is bound to
give his goods to another, so is he not bound to let it out but for his
own occasions and profit,’ ‘only,’ and this he adds emphatically–

‘It must be done with moderation, that the usury be not biting or
exorbitant…. The sacred Scripture, which allows usury with him
that is not of the same religion, forbids absolutely the robbing of
all men, whatsoever religion they be of. In our law it is a greater
sinne to rob or defraud a stranger, than if I did it to one of my
owne profession; a Jew is bound to show his charity to all men; he
hath a precept, not to abhorre an Idumean or an Egyptian; and yet
another, that he shall love and protect a stranger that comes to
live in his land. If, notwithstanding, there be some that do
contrary to this, they do it not as Jewes simply, but as wicked

The Appeal made, as it could scarcely fail to do, a profound
impression–an impression which was helped not a little by the presence
and character of the pleader. And presently the whole question of the
return of the Jews to England was submitted to the nation for its

The clergy were dead against the measure, and, it is said, ‘raged like
fanatics against the Jews as an accursed nation.’ And then it was that
Cromwell, true to his highest convictions, stood up to speak in their
defence. On the ground of policy, he temperately urged the desirability
of adding thrifty, law-respecting, and enterprising citizens to the
national stock; and on the higher ground of duty, he passionately
pleaded the unpopular cause of religious and social toleration. He
deprecated the principle that, the claims of morality being satisfied,
any men or any body of men, on the score of race, of origin, or of
religion (‘tribal mark’ had not at that date been suggested), should be
excluded from full fellowship with other men. ‘I have never heard a man
speak so splendidly in my life,’ is the recorded opinion of one of the
audience, and it is a matter of intense regret that this famous speech
of Cromwell’s has not been preserved. Its eloquence, however, failed of
effect, so far as its whole and immediate object was concerned. The
gates were no more than shaken on their rusting hinges–not quite yet
were the people free to ‘go through.’

The decision of the Council of State was deferred, and some authorities
even allege that it was presently pronounced against the readmission of
the Jews to England. The known and avowed favour of the Protector
sufficed, nevertheless, to induce the few Jews who had come with, or in
the train of, Manasseh to remain, and others gradually, and by degrees,
and without any especial notice being taken of them, ventured to follow.
The creaking old gates were certainly ajar, and wider and wider they
opened, and fainter and fainter, from friction of unrestrained
intercourse, grew each dull rust and stain of prejudice, till that good
day, within living memories, when the barriers were definitely and
altogether flung down. And on their ruins a new and healthy human growth
sprang quickly up, ‘taking root downwards, and fruit upwards,’ spreading
wide enough in its vigorous luxuriance to cover up all the old bad past.
And by this time it has happily grown impervious to any wanton
unfriendly touch which would thrust its kindly shade aside and once
again lay those ugly ruins bare.

Manasseh, however, like so many of us, had to be content to sow seed
which he was destined never to see ripen. His petitions to the
Commonwealth were presented in 1655, his _Vindiciæ Judæorum_ was
completed and handed in some time in 1656, and in the early winter of
1657, on his journey homewards, he died. His mission had not fulfilled
itself in the complete triumphant way he had hoped, but ‘life fulfils
itself in many ways,’ and one part at any rate, perhaps the most
important part, of the Hebrew prophet’s charge, had been both poetically
and prosaically carried out by this seventeenth century Dutch Jew. He
had ‘lifted up a standard for his people.’



‘What have we reaped from all the wisdom sown of ages?’ asks Lord Lytton
in one of his earlier poems. A large query, even for so questioning an
age as this, an age which, discarding catechisms, and rejecting the
omniscient Mangnall’s Questions as a classic for its children, yet seems
to be more interrogative than of old, even if a thought less ready in
its responses. Possibly, we are all in too great a hurry nowadays, too
eager in search to be patient to find, for certain it is that the
world’s already large stock of hows and whys seems to get bigger every
day. We catch the echoes in poetry and in prose, in all sorts of tones
and from all sorts of people, and Lord Lytton’s question sounds only
like another of the hopeless Pilate series. His is such a large
interrogation too–all the wisdom sown of all the ages suggests such an
enormous crop! And then as to what ‘we,’ who have neither planted nor
watered, have ‘reaped’ from it! An answer, if it were attempted, might
certainly be found to hinge on the ‘we’ as well as on the ‘wisdom,’ for
whereas untaught instinct may ‘reap’ honey from a rose, trained reason
in gathering the flower may only succeed in running a thorn into the
finger. What has been the general effect of inherited wisdom on the
general world may, however, very well be left for a possible solution to
prize competitors to puzzle over. But to a tiny corner of the tremendous
subject it is just possible that we may find some sort of suggestive
reply; and from seed sown ages since, and garnered as harvest by men
whose place knows them no more, we may likely light on some shadowy
aftermath worth, perhaps, our reaping.

The gospel of duty to one’s neighbour, which, long languishing as a
creed, seems now reviving as a fashion, has always been, amongst that
race which taught ‘love thy neighbour as thyself,’ not only of the very
essence of religion, but an ordinary social form of it. It is ‘law’ in
the ‘family chronicle’ of the race, as Heine calls the Bible; it is
‘law’ and legend both in those curious national archives known as
Talmud. Foremost in the ranks of _livres incompris_ stand those
portentous volumes, the one work of the world which has suffered about
equally at the hands of the commentator and the executioner. Many years
ago Emmanuel Deutsch gave to the uninitiated a glimpse into that
wondrous agglomeration of fantastically followed facts, where
long-winded legend, or close-argued ‘law,’ starts some phrase or word
from Holy Writ as quarry, and pursues it by paths the most devious, the
most digressive imaginable to man. The work of many generations and of
many ‘masters’ in each generation, such a book is singularly susceptible
to an open style of reading and a liberal aptitude of quotation, and it
is no marvel that searchers in its pages, even reasonably honest ones,
should be able to find detached individual utterances to fit into almost
any one of their own preconceived dogmas concerning Talmud. On many
subjects, qualifications, contradictions, differences abound, and
instances of illegal law, of pseudo-science, of doubtful physics, may
each, with a little trouble, be disinterred from the depths of these
twelve huge volumes. But the ethics of the Talmud are, as a whole, of a
high order, and on one point there is such remarkable and entire
agreement, that it is here permissible to speak of what ‘the Talmud
says,’ meaning thereby a general tone and consensus of opinion, and not
the views of this or of that individual master. The subject on which
this unusual harmony prevails is the, in these days, much discussed one
of charity; and to discover something concerning so very ancient a mode
of dealing with it may not prove uninteresting.

The word which in these venerable folios is made to express the thing
is, in itself, significant. In the Hebrew Scriptures, though the
injunctions to charitable acts are many, an exact equivalent to our word
‘charity’ can hardly be said to exist. In only eight instances, and not
even then in its modern sense, does the Septuagint translate צדקה‎
(_tzedakah_) into its Greek equivalent, ἑλεημοσὑνη, which would become
in English ‘alms,’ or ‘charity.’ The nearest synonyms for ‘charity’ in
the Hebrew Scriptures are צדקה‎ (_tzedakah_), well translated as
‘righteousness’ in the Authorised Version, and חסד (_chesed_), which is
adequately rendered as ‘mercy, kindness, love.’ The Talmud, in its
exhaustive fashion, seems to accentuate the essential difference between
these two words. _Tzedakah_ is, to some extent, a class distinction; the
rights of the poor make occasion for the righteousness of the rich, and
the duties of _tzedakah_ find liberal and elaborate expression in a
strict and minute system of tithes and almsgiving.[25] The injunctions
of the Pentateuch concerning the poor are worked out by the Talmud into
the fullest detail of direction. The Levitical law, ‘When ye reap the
harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy
field’ (Levit. xiv. 9), gives occasion of itself to a considerable
quantity of literature. At length, it is enacted how, if brothers divide
a field between them, each has to give a ‘corner,’ and how, if a man
sell his field in several lots, each purchaser of each separate lot has
to leave unreaped his own proportionate ‘corner’ of the harvesting. And
not only to leave unreaped, but how, in cases where the ‘corner’ was of
a sort hard for the poor to gather, hanging high, as dates, or needing
light handling, as grapes, it became the duty of the owner to undertake
the ‘reaping’ thereof, and, himself, to make the rightful division; thus
guarding against injury to quickly perishable fruits from too eager
hands, or danger of a more serious sort to life or limbs, where ladders
had to be used by hungry and impatient folks. The exactest rules, too,
are formulated as to what constitutes a ‘field’ and what a ‘corner,’ as
to what produce is liable to the tax and in what measure. Very curious
it is to read long and gravely reasoned arguments as to why mushrooms
should be held exempt from the law of the corner, whilst onions must be
subject to it, or the weighty _pros_ and _cons_ over what may be fairly
considered a ‘fallen grape,’ or a ‘sheaf left through forgetfulness.’
Yet the principle underlying the whole is too clear for prolixity to
raise a smile, and the evident anxiety that no smallest loophole shall
be left for evading the obligations of property compels respect.

Little room for doubt on any disputed point of partition do these
exhaustive, and, occasionally, it must be owned, exhausting, masters
leave us, yet, when all is said, they are careful to add, ‘Whatever is
doubtful concerning the gifts of the poor belongeth to the poor.’ The
actual money value of this system of alms, the actual weight of ancient
ephah or omer, in modern lbs. and ozs. would convey little meaning.
Values fluctuate and measures vary, but ‘a tithe of thy increase,’ ‘a
corner of thy field,’ gives a tolerably safe index to the scale on which
_tzedakah_ was to be practised. Three times a day the poor might glean,
and to the question which some lover of system, old style or new, might
propound, ‘Why three times? Why not once, and get it over?’ an answer is
vouchsafed. ‘_Because there may be poor who are suckling children, and
thus stand in need of food in the early morning; there may be young
children who cannot be got ready early in the morning, nor come to the
field till it be mid-day; there may be aged folk who cannot come till
the time of evening prayer._’ Still, though plenty of sentiment in this
code, there is no trace of sentimentality; rather a tendency for each
back to bear its own burden, whether it be in the matter of give or
take. Rights are respected all round, and significant in this sense is
the rule that if a vineyard be sold by Gentile to Jew it must give up
its ‘small bunches’ of grapes to the poor; while if the transaction be
the other way, the Gentile purchaser is altogether exempt, and if Jew
and Gentile be partners, that part of the crop belonging to the Jew
alone is taxed. And equally clear is it that the poor, though cared for
and protected, are not to be petted. At this very three-times-a-day
gleaning, if one should keep a corner of his ‘corner’ to himself, hiding
his harvesting and defrauding his neighbour, justice is prompt: ‘_Let
him be forced to depart_,’ it is written, ‘_and what he may have
received let it be taken out of his hands._’ Neither is any preference
permitted to poverty of the plausible or of the picturesque sort: ‘_He
who refuseth to one and giveth to another, that man is a defrauder of
the poor_,’ it is gravely said.

In general charity, there are, it is true, certain rules of precedence
to be observed; kindred, for example, have, in all cases, the first
claim, and a child supporting his parents, or even a parent supporting
adult children, to the end that these may be ‘versed in the law, and
have good manners,’ is set high among followers of _tzedakah_. Then,
‘_The poor who are neighbours are to be regarded before all others; the
poor of one’s own family before the poor of one’s own city, and the poor
of one’s own city before the poor of another’s city._’ And this version
of ‘charity begins at home’ is worked out in another place into quite a
detailed table, so to speak, of professional precedence in the ranks of
recognised recipients. And, curiously enough, first among all the
distinctions to be observed comes this: ‘_If a man and woman solicit
relief, the woman shall be first attended to and then the man._’ An
explanation, perhaps a justification, of this mild forestalment of
women’s rights, is given in the further dictum that ‘Man is accustomed
to wander, and that woman is not,’ and ‘Her feelings of modesty being
more acute,’ it is fit that she should be ‘always fed and clothed before
the man.’ And if, in this ancient system, there be a recognised scale of
rights for receiving, so, equally, is there a graduated order of merit
in giving. Eight in number are these so-called ‘Degrees in Alms Deeds,’
the curious list gravely setting forth as ‘highest,’ and this, it would
seem, rather on the lines of ‘considering the poor’ than of mere giving,
that _tzedakah_ which ‘helpeth … who is cast down,’ by means of gift
or loan, or timely procuring of employment, and ranging through ‘next’
and ‘next,’ till it announces, as eighth and least, the ‘any one who
giveth after much molestation.’ High in the list, too, are placed those
‘silent givers’ who ‘let not poor children of upright parents know from
whom they receive support,’ and even the man who ‘giveth less than his
means allow’ is lifted one degree above the lowest if he ‘give with a
kind countenance.’

The mode of relief grew, with circumstances, to change. The time came
when, to ‘the Hagars and Ishmaels of mankind,’ rules for gleaning and
for ‘fallen grapes’ would, perforce, be meaningless, and new means for
the carrying out of _tzedakah_ had to be devised. In Alms of the Chest,
קופה (_kupah_), and Alms of the Basket, תמחוי (_tamchui_), another
exhaustive system of relief was formulated. The _kupah_ would seem to
have been a poor-rate, levied on all ‘residents in towns of over thirty
days’ standing,’ and ‘Never,’ says Maimonides, ‘have we seen or heard of
any congregation of Israelites in which there has not been the Chest for
Alms, though, with regard to the Basket, it is the custom in some places
to have it, and not in others.’ These chests were placed in the Silent
Court of the Sanctuary, to the end that a class of givers who went by
the name of Fearers of Sin,[26] might deposit their alms in silence and
be relieved of responsibility. The contents of the Chest were collected
weekly and used for all ordinary objects of relief, the overplus being
devoted to special cases and special purposes. It is somewhat strange to
our modern notions to find that one among such purposes was that of
providing poor folks with the wherewith to marry. For not only is it
commanded concerning the ‘brother waxen poor,’ ‘_If he standeth in need
of garments, let him be clothed; or if of household things, let him be
supplied with them,’ but ‘if of a wife, let a wife be betrothed unto
him, and in case of a woman, let a husband be betrothed unto her._’ Does
this quaint provision recall Voltaire’s taunt that ‘Les juifs ont
toujours regardé comme leurs deux grands devoirs des enfants et de
l’argent’? Perhaps, and yet, Voltaire and even Malthus notwithstanding,
it is just possible that the last word has not been said on this
subject, and that in ‘improvident’ marriages and large families the new
creed of survival of the fittest may, after all, be best fulfilled.

Philosophers, we know, are not always consistent with themselves, and
if there be truth in another saying of Voltaire’s–‘Voyez les registres
affreux de vos greffes crimines, vous y trouvez cent garçons de pendus
ou de roués contre un père de famille’–then is there something
certainly to be said in favour of the Jewish system. But this by the
way, since statistics, it must be owned, are the most sensitive and
susceptible of the sciences. This ancient betrothing, moreover, was no
empty form, no bare affiancing of two paupers; but a serious and
substantial practice of raising a marriage portion for a couple unable
to marry without it. By Talmudic code, ‘marriages were not legitimately
complete till a settlement of some sort was made on the wife,’ who, it
may be here parenthetically remarked, was so far in advance of
comparatively modern legislation as to be entitled to have and to hold
in as complete and comprehensive a sense as her husband.

But whilst Alms of the Chest, though pretty various in its
application,[27] was intended only for the poor of the place in which
it was collected, Alms of the Basket was, to the extent of its
capabilities, for ‘the poor of the whole world.’ It consisted of a daily
house-to-house collection of food of all sorts, and occasionally of
money, which was again, day by day, distributed. This custom of
_tamchui_, suited to those primitive times, would seem to be very
similar to the practice of ‘common Boxes, and common gatherynges in
every City,’ which prevailed in England in the sixteenth century, and
which received legal sanction in Act of the 23rd of Henry VIII.–‘Item,
that 2 or 3 tymes in every weke 2 or 3 of every parysh shal appoynt
certaine of ye said pore people to collecte and gather broken meates and
fragments, and the refuse drynke of every householder, which shal be
distributed evenly amonge the pore people as they by theyre discrecyons
shal thynke good.’ Only the collectors and distributors of _kupah_ and
_tamchui_ were not ‘certaine of ye said pore people,’ but unpaid men of
high character, holding something of the position of magistrates in the
community. The duty of contributing in kind to _tamchui_ was
supplemented among the richer folks by a habit of entertaining the poor
as guests;[28] seats at their own tables, and beds in their houses being
frequently reserved for wayfarers, at least over Sabbath and

The curious union of sense and sentiment in the Talmudic code is shown
again in the regulations as to who may, and who may not, receive of
these gifts of the poor: ‘_He who has sufficient for two meals_,’ so
runs the law, ‘_may not take from tamchui; he who has sufficient for
fourteen may not take from kupah_.’ Yet might holders of property,
fallen on slack seasons, be saved from selling at a loss and helped to
hold on till better times, by being ‘meanwhile supported out of the
tithes of the poor.’ And if the house and goods of him in this temporary
need were grand, money help might be given to the applicant, and he
might keep all his smart personal belongings, yet superfluities, an odd
item or two of which are vouchsafed, must be sold, and replaced, if at
all, by a simpler sort. Still, with all this excessive care for those
who have come down in the world, and despite the dictum that ‘he who
withholdeth alms is “impious” and like unto an idolater,’ there is yet
no encouragement to dependence discernible in these precise and prolix
rules. ‘Let thy Sabbath be as an ordinary day, rather than become
dependent on thy fellow-men,’ it is clearly written, and told, too, in
detail, how ‘wise men,’ the most honoured, by the way, in the community,
to avoid ‘dependence on others,’ might become, without loss of caste or
respectability, ‘carriers of timber, workers in metal, and makers of
charcoal.’ Neither is there any contempt for wealth or any love of
poverty for its own sake to be seen in this people, who were taught to
‘rejoice before the Lord.’ In one place it is, in truth, gravely set
forth that ‘he who increaseth the number of his servants’ increaseth the
amount of sin in the world, but this somewhat ascetic-sounding statement
is clearly susceptible of a good deal of common-sense interpretation,
and when another Master tells us that ‘charity is the salt which keeps
wealth from corruption,’ a thought, perhaps, for the due preservation of
the wealth may be read between the lines.

On the whole, it looks as if these old-world Rabbis set to work at
laying down the law in much the spirit of Robert Browning’s Rabbi–

‘Let us not always say,
Spite of this flesh to-day,
I strove, made head, gained ground upon the whole.
As the bird wings and sings
Let us cry, ‘All good things
Are ours, nor soul helps flesh more now than flesh helps soul.’

After this manner, at any rate, are set forth, and in this sense are
interpreted in the Talmud, the Biblical injunctions to _tzedakah_, to
that charity of alms-deeds which, as society is constituted, must, as we
said, be considered somewhat of a class distinction.

But for the charity which should be obligatory all round, and as easy of
fulfilment by the poor as by the rich, the Talmud chooses the other
synonym חסד (_chesed_), and coining from it the word _Gemiluth-chesed_,
which may be rendered ‘the doing of kindness,’ it works out a
supplementary and social system of charity–a system founded not on
‘rights,’ but on sympathy–dealing not in doles, but in deeds of
friendship and of fellowship, and demanding a giving of oneself rather
than of one’s stores. And greater than _tzedakah_, write the Rabbis, is
_Gemiluth-chesed_, justifying their dictum, as is their wont, by a
reference to Holy Writ. ‘Sow to yourselves in righteousness
(_tzedakah_),’ says the prophet Hosea (Hos. x. 12); ‘reap in mercy
(_chesed_)’; and, inasmuch as reaping is better than sowing, mercy must
be better than righteousness. To ‘visit the sick,’ to promote peace in
families apt to fall out, to ‘relieve all persons, Jews or non-Jews, in
affliction’ (a comprehensive phrase), to ‘bury the dead,’ to ‘accompany
the bride,’ are among those ‘kindnesses’ which take rank as religious
duties, and one or two specimens may indicate the amount of careful
detail which make these injunctions practical, and the fine motive which
goes far towards spiritualising them.

Of the visiting of the sick, the Talmud speaks with a sort of awe. God’s
spirit, it says, dwells in the chamber of suffering and death, and
tendance therein is worship. Nursing was to be voluntary, and no charge
to be made for drugs; and so deeply did the habit of helping the
helpless in this true missionary spirit obtain among the Jews, that to
this day, and more especially in provincial places, the last offices for
the dead are rarely performed by hired hands. The ‘accompanying of the
bride’ is _Gemiluth-chesed_ in another form. To rejoice with one’s
neighbour’s joys is no less a duty in this un-Rochefoucauld-like code
than to grieve with his grief. A bride is to be greeted with songs and
flowers, and pleasant speeches, and, if poor, to be provided with pretty
ornaments and substantial gifts, but the pleasant speeches are in all
cases, and before all things, obligatory. In the discursive detail,
which is so strong a feature of these Talmudic rulings, it is asked:
‘But if the bride be old, or awkward, or positively plain, is she to be
greeted in the usual formula as “fair bride–graceful bride”?’ ‘Yes,’ is
the answer, for one is not bound to insist on uncomfortable facts, nor
to be obtrusively truthful; to be agreeable is one of the minor virtues.
Were there anything in the doctrine of metempsychosis, one would be
almost tempted to believe that this ancient unnamed Rabbi was speaking
over again in the person of one of our modern minor poets:

‘A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent.’[30]

The charity of courtesy is everywhere insisted upon, and so strongly,
that, on behalf of those sometimes ragged and unkempt Rabbis it might
perhaps be urged that politeness, the _politesse du cœur_, was their
Judaism _en papillote_. ‘Receive every one with pleasant looks,’ says
one sage,[31] whose practice was, perhaps, not always quite up to his
precepts; ‘where there is no reverence there is no wisdom,’ says
another; and as the distinguishing mark of a ‘clown,’ a third instances
that man–have we not all met him?–who rudely breaks in on another’s
speech, and is more glib than accurate or respectful in his own.

And as postscript to the ‘law’ obtaining on these cheery social forms of
‘charity’ a tombstone may perhaps be permitted to add its curious
crumbling bit of evidence. In the House of Life, as Jews name their
burial-grounds, at Prague, there stood–perhaps stands still–a stone,
erected to the memory, and recording the virtues, of a certain rich lady
who died in 1628. Her benefactions, many and minute, are set forth at
length, and amongst the rest, and before ‘she clothed the naked,’ comes
the item, ‘she ran like a bird to weddings.’ Through the mists of those
terrible stories, which make of Prague so miserable a memory to Jews,
the record of this long-ago dead woman gleams like a rainbow. One seems
to see the bright little figure, a trifle out of breath may be, the gay
plumage perhaps just a shade ruffled–somehow one does not fancy her a
very prim or tidy personage–running ‘like a bird to weddings.’ She
seems, the dear sympathetic soul, in an odd, suggestive sort of way, to
illustrate the charitable system of her race, and to show us that,
despite all differences of time and place and circumstances, the one
essential condition to any ‘charity’ that shall prove effectual remains
unchanged; that the solution of the hard problem, which may be worked
out in a hundred ways, is just sympathy, and is to be learnt, not in the
‘speaking from afar’ of rich to poor, but in the ‘laying of hands’ upon
them. The close fellowship of this ancient primitive system is perhaps
impossible in our more complex civilisation, but an approximation to it
is an ideal worth striving after. More intimate, more everyday communion
between West and East, more ‘Valentines’ at Hoxton are sorely needed.
Concert-giving, class-teaching, ‘visiting,’ are all helps of a sort, but
there are so many days in a poor man’s week, so many hours in his dull
day. Sweetness and light, like other and more prosaic products of
civilisation, need, it may be, to be ‘laid on’ in those miles of
monotonous streets, long breaks in continuity being fatal to results.


‘I wish, it is true, to shame the opprobrious sentiments commonly
entertained of a Jew, but it is by character and not by controversy that
I would do it.’[32] So wrote the subject of this memoir more than a
hundred years ago, and the sentence may well stand for the motto of his
life; for much as Moses Mendelssohn achieved by his ability, much more
did he by his conduct, and great as he was as a philosopher, far greater
was he as a man. Starting with every possible disadvantage–prejudice,
poverty, and deformity–he yet reached the goal of ‘honour, fame, and
troops of friends’ by simple force of character; and thus he remains for
all time an illustration of the happy optimistic theory that, even in
this world, success, in the best sense of the word, does come to those
who, also in the best sense of the word, deserve it.

The state of the Jews in Germany at the time of Mendelssohn’s birth was
deplorable. No longer actively hunted, they had arrived, at the early
part of the eighteenth century, at the comparatively desirable position
of being passively shunned or contemptuously ignored, and, under these
new conditions, they were narrowing fast to the narrow limits set them.
The love of religion and of race was as strong as ever, but the love had
grown sullen, and of that jealous, exclusive sort to which curse and
anathema are akin. What then loomed largest on their narrow horizon was
fear; and under that paralysing influence, progress or prominence of any
kind became a distinct evil, to be repressed at almost any personal
sacrifice. Safety for themselves and tolerance for their faith, lay, if
anywhere, in the neglect of the outside world. And so the poor pariahs
huddled in their close quarters, carrying on mean trades, or hawking
petty wares, and speaking, with bated breath, a dialect of their own,
half Jewish, half German, and as wholly degenerate from the grand old
Hebrew as were they themselves from those to whom it had been a living
tongue. Intellectual occupation was found in the study of the Law;
interest and entertainment in the endless discussion of its more
intricate passages; and excitement in the not infrequent excommunication
of the weaker or bolder brethren who ventured to differ from the
orthodox expounders. The culture of the Christian they hated, with a
hate born half of fear for its possible effects, half of repulsion at
its palpable evidences. The tree of knowledge seemed to them indeed, in
pathetic perversion of the early legend, a veritable tree of evil, which
should lose a second Eden to the wilful eaters thereof. Their Eden was
degenerate too; but the ‘voice heard in the evening’ still sounded in
their dulled and passionate ears, and, vibrating in the Ghetto instead
of the grove, it seemed to bid them shun the forbidden fruit of Gentile

In September 1729, under a very humble roof, in a very poor little
street in Dessau, was born the weakly boy who was destined to work such
wonderful changes in that weary state of things. Not much fit to hold
the magician’s wand seemed those frail baby hands, and less and less
likely altogether for the part, as the poor little body grew stunted and
deformed through the stress of over-much study and of something less
than enough of wholesome diet. There was no lack of affection in the
mean little Jewish home, but the parents could only give their children
of what they had, and of these scant possessions, mother-love and
Talmudical lore were the staple. And so we read of the small
five-year-old Moses being wrapped up by his mother in a large old shabby
cloak, on early, bleak winter mornings, and then so carried by the
father to the neighbouring ‘Talmud Torah’ school, where he was
nourished with dry Hebrew roots by way of breakfast. Often, indeed, was
the child fed on an even less satisfying diet, for long passages from
Scripture, long lists of precepts, to be learnt by heart, on all sorts
of subjects, was the approved method of instruction in these seminaries.
An extensive, if somewhat parrot-like, acquaintance at an astonishingly
early age with the Law and the Prophets, and the commentators on both,
was the ordinary result of this form of education; and, naturally
co-existent with it, was an equally astonishing and extensive ignorance
of all more everyday subjects. Contentedly enough, however, the learned,
illiterate peddling and hawking fathers left their little lads to this
puzzling, sharpening, deadening sort of schooling. Frau Mendel and her
husband may possibly have thought out the matter a little more fully,
for she seems to have been a wise and prudent as well as a loving
mother; and the father, we find, was quick to discern unusual talent in
the sickly little son whom he carried so carefully to the daily lesson.
He was himself a teacher, in a humble sort of way, and eked out his
small fees by transcribing on parchment from the Pentateuch. Thus, the
tone of the little household, if not refined, was at least not
altogether sordid; and when, presently, the little Moses was promoted
from the ordinary school to the higher class taught by the great
scholar, Rabbi Frankel, the question even presented itself whether it
might not be well, in this especial case, to abandon the patent,
practical advantages pertaining to the favoured pursuit of peddling, and
to let the boy give himself up to his beloved books, and, following in
his master’s footsteps, become perhaps, in his turn, a poorly paid, much
reverenced Rabbi.

It was a serious matter to decide. There was much to be said in favour
of the higher path; but the market for Rabbis, as for hawkers, was
somewhat overstocked, and the returns in the one instance were far
quicker and surer, and needed no long unearning apprenticeship. The
balance, on the whole, seemed scarcely to incline to the more dignified
profession; but the boy was so terribly in earnest in his desire to
learn, so desperately averse from the only other career, that his
wishes, by degrees, turned the scale; and it did not take very long to
convince the poor patient father that he must toil a little longer and a
little later, in order that his son might be free from the hated
necessity of hawking, and at liberty to pursue his unremunerative

From the very first, Moses made the most of his opportunities; and at
home and at school high hopes began soon to be formed of the diligent,
sweet-tempered, frail little lad. Frailer than ever, though, he seemed
to grow, and the body appeared literally to dwindle as the mind
expanded. Long years after, when the burden of increasing deformity had
come, by dint of use and wont and cheerful courage, to be to him a
burden lightly borne, he would set strangers at their ease by alluding
to it himself, and by playfully declaring his hump to be a legacy from
Maimonides. ‘Maimonides spoilt my figure,’ he would say, ‘and ruined my
digestion; but still,’ he would add more seriously, ‘I dote on him, for
although those long vigils with him weakened my body, they, at the same
time, strengthened my soul: they stunted my stature, but they developed
my mind.’ Early at morning and late at night would the boy be found
bending in happy abstraction over his shabby treasure, charmed into
unconsciousness of aches or hunger. The book, which had been lent to
him, was Maimonides’ _Guide to the Perplexed_; and this work, which
grown men find sufficiently deep study, was patiently puzzled out, and
enthusiastically read and re-read by the persevering little student who
was barely in his teens. It opened up whole vistas of new glories, which
his long steady climb up Talmudic stairs had prepared him to
appreciate. Here and there, in the course of those long, tedious
dissertations in the Talmud Torah class-room, the boy had caught
glimpses of something underlying, something beyond the quibbles of the
schools; but this, his first insight into the large and liberal mind of
Maimonides, was a revelation to him of the powers and of the
possibilities of Judaism. It revealed to him too, perchance, some latent
possibilities in himself, and suggested other problems of life which
asked solution. The pale cheeks glowed as he read, and the vague dreams
kindled into conscious aims: he too would live to become a Guide to the
Perplexed among his people!

Poor little lad! his brave resolves were soon to be put to a severe
test. In the early part of 1742, Rabbi Frankel accepted the Chief
Rabbinate of Berlin, and thus a summary stop was put to his pupil’s
further study. There is a pathetic story told of Moses Mendelssohn
standing, with streaming eyes, on a little hillock on the road by which
his beloved master passed out of Dessau, and of the kind-hearted Frankel
catching up the forlorn little figure, and soothing it with hopes of a
‘some day,’ when fortune should be kind, and he should follow ‘nach
Berlin.’ The ‘some day’ looked sadly problematical; that hard question
of bread and butter came to the fore whenever it was discussed. How was
the boy to live in Berlin? Even if the mind should be nourished for
naught, who was to feed the body? The hard-working father and mother had
found it no easy task hitherto to provide for that extra mouth; and now,
with Frankel gone, the occasion for their long self-denial seemed to
them to cease. In the sad straits of the family, the business of a
hawker began again to show in an attractive light to the poor parents,
and the pedlar’s pack was once more suggested with many a prudent,
loving, half-hearted argument on its behalf. But the boy was by this
time clear as to his vocation, so after a brief while of entreaty, the
tearful permission was gained, the parting blessing given, and with a
very slender wallet slung on his crooked shoulders, Moses Mendelssohn
set out for Berlin.

It was a long tramp of over thirty miles, and, towards the close of the
fifth day, it was a very footsore, tired little lad who presented
himself for admission at the Jews’ gate of the city. Rabbi Frankel was
touched, and puzzled too, when this penniless little student, whom he
had inspired with such difficult devotion, at last stood before him; but
quickly he made up his mind that, so far as in him lay, the uphill path
should be made smooth to those determined little feet. The pressing
question of bed and board was solved. Frankel gave him his Sabbath and
festival dinners, and another kind-hearted Jew, Bamberger by name, who
heard the boy’s story, supplied two everyday meals, and let him sleep in
an attic in his house. For the remaining four days? Well, he managed; a
groschen or two was often earned by little jobs of copying, and a loaf
so purchased, by dint of economy and imagination, was made into quite a
series of satisfying meals, and, in after-days, it was told how he
notched his loaves into accurate time measurements, lest appetite should
outrun purse. Fortunately poverty was no new experience for him; still,
poverty confronted alone, in a great city, must have seemed something
grimmer to the home-bred lad than that mother-interpreted poverty, which
he had hitherto known. But he met it full-face, bravely,
uncomplainingly, and, best of all, with unfailing good humour. And the
little alleviations which friends made in his hard lot were all received
in a spirit of the sincerest, charmingest gratitude. He never took a
kindness as ‘his due’; never thought, like so many embryo geniuses, that
his talents gave him right of toll on his richer brethren. ‘Because I
would drink at the well,’ he would say in his picturesque fashion, ‘am I
to expect every one to haste and fill my cup from their pitchers? No, I
must draw the water for myself, or I must go thirsty. I have no claim
save my desire to learn, and what is that to others?’ Thus he preserved
his self-respect and his independence.

He worked hard, and, first of all, he wisely sought to free himself from
all voluntary disabilities; there were enough and to spare of legally
imposed ones to keep him mindful of his Judaism. He felt strong enough
in faith to need no artificial shackles. He would be Jew, and yet
German–patriot, but no pariah. He would eschew vague dreams of
universalism, false ideas of tribalism. If Palestine had not been, he,
its product, could not be; but Palestine and its glories were of the
past and of the future; the present only was his, and he must shape his
life according to its conditions, which placed him, in the eighteenth
century, born of Jewish parents, in a German city. He was German by
birth, Jew by descent and by conviction; he would fulfil all the
obligations which country, race, and religion impose. But a German Jew,
who did not speak the language of his country? That, surely, was an
anomaly and must be set right. So he set himself strenuously to learn
German, and to make it his native language. Such secular study was by no
means an altogether safe proceeding. Ignorance, as we have seen, was
‘protected’ in those days by Jewish ecclesiastical authority. Free trade
in literature was sternly prohibited, and a German grammar, or a Latin
or a Greek one, had, in sober truth, to run a strict blockade. One
Jewish lad, it is recorded on very tolerable authority, was actually in
the year 1746 expelled the city of Berlin for no other offence than that
of being caught in the act of studying–one chronicle, indeed, says,
carrying–some such proscribed volume. Moses, however, was more
fortunate; he saved money enough to buy his books, or made friends
enough to borrow them; and, we may conclude, found nooks in which to
hide them, and hours in which to read them. He set himself, too, to gain
some knowledge of the Classics, and here he found a willing teacher in
one Kish, a medical student from Prague. Later on, another helper was
gained in a certain Israel Moses, a Polish schoolmaster, afterwards
known as Israel Samosc. This man was a fine mathematician, and a
first-rate Hebrew scholar; but as his attainments did not include the
German language, he made Euclid known to Moses through the medium of a
Hebrew translation. Moses, in return, imparted to Samosc his newly
acquired German, and learnt it, of course, more thoroughly through
teaching it. He must have possessed the art of making friends who were
able to take on themselves the office of teachers; for presently we find
him, in odd half-hours, studying French and English under a Dr. Aaron
Emrich.[33] He very early began to make translations of parts of the
Scripture into German, and these attempts indicate that, from the first,
his overpowering desire for self-culture sprang from no selfishness. He
wanted to open up the closed roads to place and honour, but not to tread
them alone, not to leave his burdened brethren on the bye-paths, whilst
he sped on rejoicing. He knew truly enough that ‘the light was sweet,’
and that ‘a pleasant thing it is to behold the sun.’ But he heeded, too,
the other part of the charge: he ‘remembered the days of darkness, which
were many.’ He remembered them always, heedfully, pitifully, patiently;
and to the weary eyes which would not look up or could not, he ever
strove to adjust the beautiful blessed light which he knew, and they,
poor souls, doubted, was good. He never thrust it, unshaded, into their
gloom: he never carried it off to illumine his own path.

Thus, the translations at which Moses Mendelssohn worked were no
transcripts from learned treatises which might have found a ready market
among the scholars of the day; but unpaid and unpaying work from the
liturgy and the Scriptures, done with the object that his people might
by degrees share his knowledge of the vernacular, and become gradually
and unconsciously familiar with the language of their country through
the only medium in which there was any likelihood of their studying it.
With that one set purpose always before him, of drawing his people with
him into the light, he presently formed the idea of issuing a serial in
Hebrew, which, under the title of _The Moral Preacher_, should introduce
short essays and transcripts on other than strictly Judaic or religious
subjects. One Bock was his coadjutor in this project, and two numbers of
the little work were published. The contents do not seem to have been
very alarming. To our modern notions of periodical literature, they
would probably be a trifle dull; but their mild philosophy and yet
milder science proved more than enough to arouse the orthodox fears of
the poor souls, who, ‘bound in affliction and iron,’ distrusted even the
gentle hand which was so eager to loose the fetters. There was a murmur
of doubt, of muttered dislike of ‘strange customs’; perhaps here and
there too, a threat concerning the pains and penalties which attached
to the introduction of such. At any rate, but two numbers of the poor
little reforming periodical appeared; and Moses, not angry at his
failure, not more than momentarily discouraged by it, accepted the
position and wasted no time nor temper in cavilling at it. He had learnt
to labour, he could learn to wait. And thus, in hard yet happy work,
passed away the seven years, from fourteen till twenty-one, which are
the seed-time of a man’s life. In 1750, when Moses was nearly of age, he
came into possession of what really proved an inheritance. A rich silk
manufacturer, named Bernhardt, who was a prominent member of the Berlin
synagogue, made a proposal to the learned young man, whose perseverance
had given reputation to his scholarship, to become resident tutor to his
children. The offer was gladly accepted, and it may be considered
Mendelssohn’s first step on the road to success. The first step to fame
had been taken when the boy had set out on his long tramp to Berlin.

Bernhardt was a kind and cultured man, and in his house Mendelssohn
found both congenial occupation and welcome leisure. He was teacher by
day, student by night, and author at odd half-hours. He turned to his
books with the greatest ardour; and we read of him studying Locke and
Plato in the original, for by this time English and Greek were both
added to his store of languages. His pupils, meanwhile, were never
neglected, nor in the pursuit of great ends were trifles ignored. In
more than one biography special emphasis is laid on his beautifully neat
handwriting, which, we are told, much excited his employer’s admiration.
This humble, but very useful, talent may possibly have been inherited,
with some other small-sounding virtues, from the poor father in Dessau,
to whom many a nice present was now frequently sent. At the end of three
or four years of tutorship, Bernhardt’s appreciation of the young man
took a very practical expression. He offered Moses Mendelssohn the
position of book-keeper in his factory, with some especial
responsibilities and emoluments attached to the office. It was a
splendid opening, although Moses Mendelssohn, the philosopher, eagerly
and gratefully accepting such a post somehow jars on one’s
susceptibilities, and seems almost an instance of the round man pushed
into the square hole. It was, however, an assured position; it gave him
leisure, it gave him independence, and in due time wealth, for as years
went on he grew to be a manager, and finally a partner in the house. His
tastes had already drawn him into the outer literary circle of Berlin,
which at this time had its headquarters in a sort of club, which met to
play chess and to discuss politics and philosophy, and which numbered
Dr. Gompertz, the promising young scholar Abbt, and Nicolai, the
bookseller,[34] among its members. With these and other kindred spirits,
Mendelssohn soon found pleasant welcome; his talents and geniality
quickly overcoming any social prejudices, which, indeed, seldom flourish
in the republic of letters. And, early disadvantages notwithstanding, we
may conclude without much positive evidence on the subject, that
Mendelssohn possessed that valuable, indefinable gift, which culture,
wealth, and birth united occasionally fail to bestow–the gift of good
manners. He was free alike from conceit and dogmatism, the Scylla and
Charybdis to most young men of exceptional talent. He had the loyal
nature and the noble mind, which we are told on high authority is the
necessary root of the rare flower; and he had, too, the sympathetic,
unselfish feeling which we are wont to summarise shortly as a good
heart, and which is the first essential to good manners.

When Lessing came to Berlin, about 1745, his play of _Die Juden_ was
already published, and his reputation sufficiently established to make
him an honoured guest at these little literary gatherings. Something of
affinity in the wide, unconventional, independent natures of the two
men; something, it may be, of likeness in unlikeness in their early
struggles with fate, speedily attracted Lessing and Mendelssohn to each
other. The casual acquaintance soon ripened into an intimate and
lifelong friendship, which gave to Mendelssohn, the Jew, wider knowledge
and illimitable hopes of the outer, inhospitable world–which gave to
Lessing, the Christian, new belief in long-denied virtues; and which,
best of all, gave to humanity those ‘divine lessons of Nathan der
Weise,’ as Goethe calls them–for which character Mendelssohn sat, all
unconsciously, as model, and scarcely idealised model, to his friend. It
was, most certainly, a rarely happy friendship for both, and for the
world. Lessing was the godfather of Mendelssohn’s first book. The
subject was suggested in the course of conversation between them, and a
few days after Mendelssohn brought his manuscript to Lessing. He saw no
more of it till his friend handed him the proofs and a small sum for the
copyright; and it was in this way that the _Philosophische Gespräche_
was anonymously published in 1754. Later, the friends brought out
together a little book, entitled _Pope as a Metaphysician_, and this was
followed up with some philosophical essays (‘Briefe über die
Empfindungen’) which quickly ran through three editions, and Mendelssohn
became known as an author. A year or two later, he gained the prize
which the Royal Academy of Berlin offered for the best essay on the
problem ‘Are metaphysics susceptible of mathematical demonstration?’ for
which prize Kant was one of the competitors.

Lessing’s migration to Leipzig, and his temporary absences from the
capital in the capacity of tutor, made breaks, but no diminution, in the
friendship with Mendelssohn; and the _Literatur-Briefe_, a journal cast
in the form of correspondence on art, science, and literature, to which
Nicolai, Abbt, and other writers were occasional contributors, continued
its successful publication till the year 1765. A review in this journal
of one of the literary efforts of Frederick the Second gave rise to a
characteristic ebullition of what an old writer quaintly calls ‘the
German endemical distemper of Judæophobia.’ In this essay, Mendelssohn
had presumed to question some of the conclusions of the royal author;
and although the contents of the _Literatur-Briefe_ were generally
unsigned, the anonymity was in most cases but a superficial disguise.
The paper drew down upon Mendelssohn the denunciation of a too loyal
subject of Frederick’s, and he was summoned to Sans Souci to answer for
it. Frederick appears to have been more sensible than his thin-skinned
defender, and the interview passed off amicably enough. Indeed, a short
while after, we hear of a petition being prepared to secure to
Mendelssohn certain rights and privileges of dwelling unmolested in
whichever quarter of the city he might choose–a right which at that
time was granted to but few Jews, and at a goodly expenditure of both
capital and interest. Mendelssohn, loyal to his brethren, long and
stoutly refused to have any concession granted on the score of his
talents which he might not claim on the score of his manhood in common
with the meanest and most ignorant of his co-religionists. And there is
some little doubt whether the partial exemptions which Mendelssohn
subsequently obtained, were due to the petition, which suffered many
delays and vicissitudes in the course of presentation, or to the subtle
and silent force of public opinion.

Meanwhile Mendelssohn married, and the story of his wooing, as first
told by Berthold Auerbach, makes a pretty variation on the old theme. It
was, in this case, no short idyll of ‘she was beautiful and he fell in
love.’ To begin with, it was all prosaic enough. A certain Abraham
Gugenheim, a trader at Hamburg, caused it to be hinted to Mendelssohn
that he had a virtuous and blue-eyed but portionless daughter, named
Fromet, who had heard of the philosopher’s fame, and had read portions
of his books; and who, mutual friends considered, would make him a
careful and loving helpmate. So Mendelssohn, who was now thirty-two
years old, and desirous to ‘settle,’ went to the merchant’s house and
saw the prim German maiden, and talked with her; and was pleased enough
with her talk, or perhaps with the silent eloquence of the blue eyes, to
go next day to the father and to say he thought Fromet would suit him
for a wife. But to his surprise Gugenheim hesitated, and stiffness and
embarrassment seemed to have taken the place of the yesterday’s cordial
greeting; still, it was no objection on his part, he managed at last to
stammer out. For a minute Mendelssohn was hopelessly puzzled, but only
for a minute; then it flashed upon him, ‘It is she who objects!’ he
exclaimed; ‘then it must be my hump’; and the poor father of course
could only uncomfortably respond with apologetic platitudes about the
unaccountability of girls’ fancies. The humour as well as the pathos of
the situation touched Mendelssohn, for he had no vanity to be piqued,
and he instantly resolved to do his best to win this Senta-like maiden,
who, less fortunate than the Dutch heroine, had had her pretty dreams of
a hero dispelled, instead of accentuated by actual vision. Might he see
her once again, he asked. ‘To say farewell? Certainly!’ answered the
father, glad that his awkward mission was ending so amicably. So
Mendelssohn went again, and found Fromet with the blue eyes bent
steadily over her work; perhaps to hide a tear as much as to prevent a
glance, for Fromet, as the sequel shows, was a tender-hearted maiden,
and although she did not like to look at her deformed suitor, she did
not want to wound him. Then Mendelssohn began to talk, beautiful glowing
talk, and the spell which his writings had exercised began again to work
on the girl. From philosophy to love, in its impersonal form, is an easy
transition. She grew interested and self-forgetful. ‘And do _you_ think
that marriages are made in heaven?’ she eagerly questioned, as some
early quaint superstition on this most attractive of themes was vividly
touched upon by her visitor. ‘Surely,’ he replied; ‘and some old beliefs
on this head assert that all such contracts are settled in childhood.
Strange to say, a special legend attaches itself to my fortune in this
matter; and as our talk has led to this subject perhaps I may venture
to tell it to you. The twin spirit which fate allotted to me, I am told,
was fair, blue-eyed, and richly endowed with all spiritual charms; but,
alas! ill-luck had added to her physical gifts a hump. A chorus of
lamentation arose from the angels who minister in these matters. The
“pity of it” was so evident. The burden of such a deformity might well
outweigh all the other gifts of her beautiful youth, might render her
morose, self-conscious, unhappy. If the load now had been but laid on a
man! And the angels pondered, wondering, waiting to see if any would
volunteer to take the maiden’s burden from her. And I sprang up, and
prayed that it might be laid upon my shoulders. And it was settled so.’
There was a minute’s pause, and then, so the story goes, the work was
passionately thrown down, and the tender blue eyes were streaming, and
the rest we may imagine. The simple, loving heart was won, and Fromet
became his wife.

They had a modest little house with a pretty garden on the outskirts of
Berlin, where a good deal of hospitality went on in a quiet, friendly
way. The ornaments of their dwelling were, perhaps, a little
disproportionate in size and quantity to the rest of the surroundings;
but this was no matter of choice on the part of the newly married
couple, since one of the minor vexations imposed on Jews at this date
was the obligation laid on every bridegroom to treat himself to a large
quantity of china for the good of the manufactory. The tastes or the
wants of the purchaser were not consulted; and in this especial instance
twenty life-sized china apes were allotted to the bridegroom. We may
imagine poor Mendelssohn and his wife eyeing these apes often, somewhat
as Cinderella looked at her pumpkin when longing for the fairy’s
transforming wand. Possibilities of those big baboons changed into big
books may have tantalised Mendelssohn; whilst Fromet’s more prosaic mind
may have confined itself to china and yet have found an unlimited range
for wishing. However, the unchanged and unchanging apes notwithstanding,
Mendelssohn and his wife enjoyed very many years of quiet and contented
happiness, and by and by came children, four of them, and then those old
ungainly grievances were, it is likely, transformed into playfellows.

Parenthood, perhaps, is never quite easy, but it was a very difficult
duty, and a terribly divided one, for a cultivated man who a century ago
desired to bring up his children as good Jews and good citizens. Many a
time, it stands on record, when this patient, self-respecting,
unoffending scholar took his children for a walk coarse epithets and
insulting cries followed them through the streets. No resentment was
politic, no redress was possible. ‘Father, is it _wicked_ to be a Jew?’
his children would ask, as time after time the crowd hooted at them.
‘Father, is it _good_ to be a Jew?’ they grew to ask later on, when in
more serious walks of life they found all gates but the Jews’ gate
closed against them. Mendelssohn must have found such questions
increasingly difficult to answer or to parry. Their very talents, which
enlarged the boundaries, must have made his clever children rebel
against the limitations which were so cruelly imposed. His eldest son
Joseph early developed a strong scientific bias; how could this be
utilised? The only profession which he, as a Jew, might enter, was that
of medicine, and for that he had a decided distaste: perforce he was
sent to commercial pursuits, and his especial talent had to run to
waste, or, at best, to dilettantism. When this Joseph had sons of his
own, can we wonder very much that he cut the knot and saved his children
from a like experience, by bringing them up as Christians?

Mendelssohn himself, all his life through, was unswervingly loyal to his
faith. He took every disability accruing from it, as he took his own
especial one, as being, so far as he was concerned, inevitable, and thus
to be borne as patiently as might be. To him, most certainly, it would
never have occurred to slip from under a burden which had been laid upon
him to bear. Concerning Fromet’s influence on her children records are
silent, and we are driven to conjecture that the pretty significance of
her name was somewhat meaningless.[35] The story of her wooing suggests
susceptibility, perhaps, rather than strength of heart; and it may be
that as years went on the ‘blue eyes’ got into a habit of weeping only
over sorrows and wrongs which needed a less eloquent and a more helpful
mode of treatment.

If Mendelssohn’s wife had been able to show her children the home side
of Jewish life, its suggestive ceremonialism, its domestic
compensations–possibly her sons, almost certainly her daughters, would
have learnt the brave, sweet patience that was common to Jewish mothers.
But this takes us to the region of ‘might have been.’ Gentle,
tender-hearted Fromet, it is to be feared, failed in true piety, and,
the mother anchor missing, the children drifted from their moorings.

The leisure of the years succeeding his marriage was fully occupied by
Mendelssohn in literary pursuits. The whole of the Pentateuch was, by
degrees, translated into pure German, and simultaneous editions were
published in German and in Hebrew characters. This great gift to his
people was followed by a metrical translation of the Psalms; a work
which took him ten years, during which time he always carried about with
him a Hebrew Psalter, interleaved with blank pages. In 1783 he published
his _Jerusalem_,[36] a sort of Church and State survey of the Jewish
religion. The first and larger part of it dwells on the distinction
between Judaism, as a State religion, and Judaism as the ‘inheritance’
of a dispersed nationality. He essays to prove the essential differences
between civil and religious government, and to demonstrate that penal
enactments, which in the one case were just and defensible, were, in the
changed circumstances of the other, harmful, and, in point of fact,
unjudicial. The work was, in effect, a masterly effort on Mendelssohn’s
part to exorcise the ‘cursing spirit’ which, engendered partly by
long-suffered persecution, and partly by long association with the
strict discipline of the Catholic Church, had taken a firm grip on
Jewish ecclesiastical authority, and was constantly expressing itself in
bitter anathema and morose excommunication. The second part of the book
is mainly concerned with a vindication of the Jewish character and a
plea for toleration. Scholarly and temperate as is the tone of this
work throughout, it yet evoked a good deal of rough criticism from the
so-called orthodox in both religious camps–from those well-meaning,
purblind persons of the sort who, Lessing declares, see only one road,
and strenuously deny the possible existence of any other.

In 1777, Frederic the Second desired to judge for himself whether Jewish
ecclesiastical authority clashed at any point with the State or
municipal law of the land. A digest of the Jewish Code on the general
questions, and more especially on the subject of property and
inheritance, was decreed to be prepared in German, and to Mendelssohn
was intrusted the task. He had the assistance of the Chief Rabbi of
Berlin, and the result of these labours was published in 1778, under the
title of _Ritual Laws of the Jews_. Another Jewish philosophical work
(published in 1785) was _Morning Hours_.[37] This was a volume of essays
on the evidences of the existence of the Deity and of conclusions
concerning His attributes deduced from the contemplation of His works.
Originally these essays had been given in the form of familiar lectures
on natural philosophy by Mendelssohn to his children and to one or two
of their friends (including the two Humboldts) in his own house, every
morning. In the same category of more distinctively Jewish books we may
place a translation of Manasseh Ben Israel’s famous _Vindiciæ Judæorum_,
which he published, with a very eloquent preface, so early as 1781, just
at the time when Dohm’s generous work on the condition of the Jews as
citizens of the State had made its auspicious appearance. Although this
is one of Mendelssohn’s minor efforts, the preface contains many a
beautiful passage. His gratitude to Dohm is so deep and yet so
dignified; his defence of his people is so wide, and his belief in
humanity so sincere; and the whole is withal so short, that it makes
most pleasant reading. One small quotation may perhaps be permitted, as
pertinent to some recent discussions on Jewish subjects. ‘It is,’ says
he, ‘objected by some that the Jews are both too indolent for
agriculture and too proud for mechanical trades; that if the
restrictions were removed they would uniformly select the arts and
sciences, as less laborious and more profitable, and soon engross all
light, genteel, and learned professions. But those who thus argue
conclude from the _present_ state of things how they will be in the
_future_, which is not a fair mode of reasoning. What should induce a
Jew to waste his time in learning to manage the plough, the trowel, the
plane, etc., while he knows he can make no practical use of them? But
put them in his hand and suffer him to follow the bent of his
inclinations as freely as other subjects of the State, and the result
will not long be doubtful. Men of genius and talent will, of course,
embrace the learned professions; those of inferior capacity will turn
their minds to mechanical pursuits; the rustic will cultivate the land;
each will contribute, according to his station in life, his quota to the
aggregate of productive labour.’

As he says in some other place of himself, nature never intended him,
either physically or morally, for a wrestler; and this little essay,
where there is no strain of argument or scope for deep erudition, is yet
no unworthy specimen of the great philosopher’s powers. Poetic attempts
too, and mostly on religious subjects, occasionally varied his
counting-house duties and his more serious labours; but although he
truly possessed, if ever man did, what Landor calls ‘the poetic heart,’
yet it is in his prose, rather than in his poetry, that we mostly see
its evidences. The book which is justly claimed as his greatest, and
which first gave him his title to be considered a wide and deep-thinking
philosopher, is his _Phædon_.[38] The idea of such a work had long been
germinating in him, and the death of his dear friend Abbt, with whom he
had had many a fruitful discussion on the subject, turned his thoughts
more fixedly on the hopes which make sorrows bearable, and the work was
published in the year following Abbt’s death.

The first part is a very pure and classical German rendering of the
original Greek form of Plato, and the remainder an eloquent summary of
all that religion, reason, and experience urge in support of a belief in
immortality. It is cast in the form of conversation between Socrates and
his friends–a choice in composition which caused a Jewish critic (M.
David Friedländer) to liken Moses Mendelssohn to Moses the lawgiver.
‘For Moses spake, and _Socrates_ was to him as a mouth’ (Ex. iv. 15). In
less than two years _Phædon_ ran through three German editions, and it
was speedily translated into English, French, Dutch, Italian, Danish,
and Hebrew. Then, at one stride, came fame; and great scholars, great
potentates, and even the heads of his own community, sought his society.
But fame was ever of incomparably less value to Mendelssohn than
friendship, and any sort of notoriety he honestly hated. Thus, when his
celebrity brought upon him a polemical discussion, the publicity which
ensued, notwithstanding that the personal honour in which he was held
was thereby enhanced, so thoroughly upset his nerves that the result was
a severe and protracted illness. It came about in this wise: Lavater,
the French pastor, in 1769, had translated Bonnet’s _Evidences of
Christianity_ into German; he published it with the following dedication
to Moses Mendelssohn:–

‘DEAR SIR,–I think I cannot give you a stronger proof of my
admiration of your excellent writings, and of your still more
excellent character, that of an Israelite in whom there is no
guile; nor offer you a better requital for the great gratification
which I, some years ago, enjoyed in your interesting society, than
by dedicating to you the ablest philosophical inquiry into the
evidences of Christianity that I am acquainted with.

‘I am fully conscious of your profound judgment, steadfast love of
truth, literary independence, enthusiasm for philosophy in general,
and esteem for Bonnet’s works in particular. The amiable discretion
with which, notwithstanding your contrariety to the Christian
religion, you delivered your opinion on it, is still fresh in my
memory. And so indelible and important is the impression which your
truly philosophical respect for the moral character of its Founder
made on me, in one of the happiest moments of my existence, that I
venture to beseech you–nay, before the God of Truth, your and my
Creator and Father, I beseech and conjure you–to read this work, I
will not say with philosophical impartiality, which I am confident
will be the case, but for the purpose of publicly refuting it, in
case you should find the main arguments, in support of the facts of
Christianity, untenable; or should you find them conclusive, with
the determination of doing what policy, love of truth, and probity
demand–what Socrates would doubtless have done had he read the
work and found it unanswerable.

‘May God still cause much truth and virtue to be disseminated by
your means, and make you experience the happiness my whole heart
wishes you.


‘ZURICH, _25th of August 1769_.’

It was a most unpleasant position for Mendelssohn. Plain speaking was
not so much the fashion then as now, and defence might more easily be
read as defiance. At that time the position of the Jews in all the
European States was most precarious, and outspoken utterances might not
only alienate the timid followers whom Mendelssohn hoped to enlighten,
but probably offend the powerful outsiders whom he was beginning to
influence. No man has any possible right to demand of another a public
confession of faith; the conversation to which Lavater alluded as some
justification for his request had been a private one, and the reference
to it, moreover, was not altogether accurate. And Mendelssohn hated
controversy, and held a very earnest conviction that no good cause,
certainly no religious one, is ever much forwarded by it. Should he be
silent, refuse to reply, and let judgment go by default? Comfort and
expediency both pleaded in favour of this course, but truth was mightier
and prevailed. Like unto the three who would not be ‘careful’ of their
answer even under the ordeal of fire, he soon decided to testify plainly
and without undue thought of consequences. Mendelssohn was not the sort
to serve God with special reservations as to Rimmon. Definitely he
answered his too zealous questioner in a document which is so entirely
full of dignity and of reason that it is difficult to make quotations
from it.[39] ‘Certain inquiries,’ he writes, ‘we finish once for all in
our lives.’ … ‘And I herewith declare in the presence of the God of
truth, your and my Creator, by whom you have conjured me in your
dedication, that I will adhere to my principles so long as my entire
soul does not assume another nature.’ And then, emphasising the position
that it is by character and not by controversy that _he_ would have Jews
shame their traducers, he goes fully and boldly into the whole question.
He shows with a delicate touch of humour that Judaism, in being no
proselytising faith, has a claim to be let alone. ‘I am so fortunate as
to count amongst my friends many a worthy man who is not of my faith.
Never yet has my heart whispered, Alas! for this good man’s soul. He who
believes that no salvation is to be found out of the pale of his own
church, must often feel such sighs arise in his bosom.’ ‘Suppose there
were among my contemporaries a Confucius or a Solon, I could
consistently with my religious principles love and admire the great man,
but I should never hit on the idea of converting a Confucius or a Solon.
What should I convert him for? As he does not belong to the congregation
of Jacob, my religious laws were not made for him, and on doctrines we
should soon come to an understanding. Do I think there is a chance of
his being saved? I certainly believe that he who leads mankind on to
virtue in this world cannot be damned in the next.’ ‘We believe … that
those who regulate their lives according to the religion of nature and
of reason are called virtuous men of other nations, and are, equally
with our patriarchs, the children of eternal salvation.’ ‘Whoever is not
born conformable to our laws has no occasion to live according to them.
We alone consider ourselves bound to acknowledge their authority, and
this can give no offence to our neighbours.’ He refuses to criticise
Bonnet’s work in detail on the ground that in his opinion ‘Jews should
be scrupulous in abstaining from reflections on the predominant
religion’; but nevertheless, whilst repeating his ‘so earnest wish to
have no more to do with religious controversy,’ the honesty of the man
asserts itself in boldly adding, ‘I give you at the same time to
understand that I could, very easily, bring forward something in
refutation of M. Bonnet’s work.’

Mendelssohn’s reply brought speedily, as it could scarcely fail to do,
an ample and sincere apology from Lavater, a ‘retracting’ of the
challenge, an earnest entreaty to forgive what had been ‘importunate and
improper’ in the dedicator, and an expression of ‘sincerest respect’ and
‘tenderest affection’ for his correspondent. Mendelssohn’s was a nature
to have more sympathy with the errors incidental to too much, than to
too little zeal, and the apology was accepted as generously as it was
offered. And here ended, so far as the principals were concerned, this
somewhat unique specimen of a literary squabble. A crowd of lesser
writers, unfortunately, hastened to make capital out of it; and a
bewildering mist of nondescript and pedantic compositions soon darkened
the literary firmament, obscuring and vulgarising the whole subject.
They took ‘sides’ and gave ‘views’ of the controversy; but Mendelssohn
answered none and read as few as possible of these publications. Still
the strain and worry told on his sensitive and peace-loving nature, and
he did not readily recover his old elasticity of temperament.

In 1778 Lessing’s wife died, and his friend’s trouble touched deep
chords both of sympathy and of memory in Mendelssohn. Yet more cruelly
were they jarred when, two years later, Lessing himself followed, and an
uninterrupted friendship of over thirty years was thus dissolved.
Lessing and Mendelssohn had been to each other the sober realisation of
the beautiful ideal embodied in the drama of _Nathan der Weise_. ‘What
to you makes me seem Christian makes of you the Jew to me,’ each could
most truly say to the other. They helped the world to see it too, and to
recognise the Divine truth that ‘to be to the best thou knowest ever
true is all the creed.’

The death of his friend was a terrible blow to Mendelssohn. ‘After
wrinkles come,’ says Mr. Lowell, in likening ancient friendships to
slow-growing trees, ‘few plant, but water dead ones with vain tears.’ In
this case, the actual pain of loss was greatly aggravated by some
publications which appeared shortly after Lessing’s death, impugning his
sincerity and religious feeling. Germany, as Goethe once bitterly
remarked, ‘needs time to be thankful.’ In the first year or two
following Lessing’s death it was, perhaps, too early to expect gratitude
from his country for the lustre his talents had shed on it. Some of the
pamphlets would make it seem that it was too early even for decency.
Mendelssohn vigorously took up the cudgels for his dead friend; too
vigorously, perhaps, since Kant remarked that ‘it is Mendelssohn’s
fault, if Jacobi (the most notorious of the assailants) should now
consider himself a philosopher.’ To Mendelssohn’s warmhearted, generous
nature it would, however, have been impossible to remain silent when one
whom he knew to be tolerant, earnest, and sincere in the fullest sense
of those words of highest praise, was accused of ‘covert Spinozism’; a
charge which again was broadly rendered, by these wretched, ignorant
interpreters of a language they failed to understand, as atheism and

But this was his last literary work. It shows no sign of decaying
powers; it is full of pathos, of wit, of clear close reasoning, and of
brilliant satire; yet nevertheless it was his monument as well as his
friend’s. He took the manuscript to his publisher in the last day of the
year 1785; and in the first week of the New Year 1786, still only
fifty-six years old, he quietly and painlessly died. That last work
seems to make a beautiful and fitting end to his life; a life which
truly adds a worthy stanza to what Herder calls ‘the greatest poem of
all time–the history of the Jews.’


Once find a man’s ideals, it has been well said, and the rest is easy;
and undoubtedly to get at any true notion of character, one must
discover these. They may be covered close with conventionalities, or
jealously hidden, like buried treasures, from unsympathetic eyes; but
the patient search is well worth while, since it is his ideals–and not
his words nor his deeds, which a thousand circumstances influence and
decide–which show us the real man as known to his Maker. And true as
this is of the individual, it is true in a deeper and larger sense of
the nations, and most true of all of that people with whom for centuries
speech was impolitic and action impossible. With articulate expression
so long denied to them, the national ideals must be always to the
student of history the truest revelation of Judaism; and it is curious
and interesting to trace their development, and to recognise the crown
and apex of them all in battlefield and in ‘Vineyard,’ in Ghetto and in
mart, unchanged among the changes, and practically the same as in the
days of the desert. The germ was set in the wilderness, when, amid the
thunders and lightnings of Sinai, a crowd of frightened, freshly rescued
slaves were made ‘witnesses’ to a living God, and guardians of a ‘Law’
which demonstrated His existence. Very new and strange, and but dimly
understanded of the people it must all have been. ‘The lights of sunset
and of sunrise mixed.’ The fierce vivid glow under which they had bent
and basked in Egypt had scarcely faded, when they were bid look up in
the grey dawn of the desert to receive their trust. There was worthy
stuff in the descendants of the man who had left father and friends and
easy, sensuous idolatry to follow after an ideal of righteousness; and
they who had but just escaped from the bondage of centuries, rose to the
occasion. They accepted their mission; ‘All that the Lord has spoken
will we do,’ came up a responsive cry from ‘all the people answering
together,’ and in that supreme moment the ill-fed and so recently
ill-treated groups were transformed into a nation. ‘I will make of thee
a great people’; ‘Through thee shall all families of the earth be
blessed’; the meaning of such predictions was borne in upon them in one
bewildering flash, and in that flash the national idea of Judaism found
its dawn; they, the despised and the downtrodden, were to become
trustees of civilisation.

As the glow died down, however, a very rudimentary sort of civilisation
the wilderness must have presented to these builders of the temples and
the treasure cities by the Nile, and to the vigorous, resourceful Hebrew
women. As day after day, and year after year, the cloud moved onward,
darkening the road which it directed, as they gathered the manna and
longed for the fleshpots, it could have been only the few and finer
spirits among those listless groups who were able to discern that a
civilisation based upon the Decalogue, shorn though it was of all
present pleasantness and ease, had a promise about it that was lacking
to a culture, ‘learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians.’ It was life
reduced to its elements; Sinai and Pisgah stood so far apart, and such
long level stretches of dull sand lay between the heights. One imagines
the women, skilled like their men-folk in all manner of cunning
workmanship, eagerly, generously ransacking their stores of purple and
fine linen to decorate the Tabernacle, and spinning and embroidering
with a desperately delighted sense of recovered refinements, which, as
much perhaps as their fervour of religious enthusiasm, led them to bring
their gifts till restrained ‘from bringing.’ The trust was accepted
though in the wilderness, but grudgingly, with many a faint-hearted
protest, and to some minds, in some moods, slavery must have seemed less
insistent in its demands than trusteeship.

The conquest of Canaan was the next experience, and as sinfulness and
idolatry were relentlessly washed away in rivers of blood, one doubts if
the impressionable descendants of Jacob, to whom it was given to
overcome, might not perchance have preferred to endure. But such choice
was not given to them; the trust had to be realised before it could be
transmitted, and its value tested by its cost. With Palestine at last in
possession of the chosen people, this civilisation of which they were
the guardians by slow degrees became manifest. Samuel lived it, and
David sang it, and Isaiah preached it, and the nation clung to it,
individual men and women, stumbling and failing often, but dying each,
when need came, a hundred deaths in its defence; perhaps finding it on
occasion less difficult to die for an idea than to live up to it.

The securities were shifted, the terms of the trusteeship changed when
the people of the Land became the people of the Book. The civilisation
which they guarded grew narrower in its issues and more limited in its
outlook, till, as the years rolled into the centuries, it was hard to
recognise the ‘witnesses’ of God in the hunted outcasts of man. Yet to
the student of history, who reads the hieroglyph of the Egyptian into
the postcard of to-day, it is not difficult to see the civilisation of
Sinai shining under the folds of the gaberdine or of the _san benito_.
It was taught in the schools and it was lived in the homes, and the
Ghetto could not altogether degrade it, nor the Holy Office effectually
disguise it. Jews sank sometimes to the lower level of the sad lives
they led, but Judaism remained unconquerably buoyant. Judaism, as they
believed in it, was a Personal Force making for righteousness, a Law
which knew no change, the Promise of a period when the earth should be
filled with the knowledge of the Lord; and the ‘witnesses’ stuck to this
their trust, through good repute and through evil repute, with a simple
doggedness which disarms all superficial criticism. The glamour of the
cause, through which a Barcochba could loom heroic to an Akiba, the
utter absence of self-consciousness or of self-seeking, which made Judas
in his fight for freedom pin the Lord’s name on his flag, and which,
with the kingdom lost, made the scrolls of the Law the spoil with which
Ben Zaccai retreated–this was at the root of the national idea, and its
impersonality gives the secret of its strength, ‘Not unto us, O Lord,
not unto us, but unto Thy name!’ This vivid sense of being the trustees
of civilisation was wholly dissociated from any feeling of conceit
either in the leaders or in the rank and file of the Jewish nation. It
is curious indeed to realise how so intense a conviction of the survival
of the fittest could be held in so intensely unmodernised a spirit.

The idea of their trusteeship was a sheet anchor to the Jews as the
waves and the billows passed over them. In the fifteen hundred years’
tragedy of their history there have been no _entr’actes_ of frenzied
stampede or of revolutionary, revengeful conspiracy. A resolute
endurance, which, characteristically enough, rarely approaches
asceticism, marks the depth and strength and buoyancy of the national
idea. Trustees of civilisation might not sigh nor sing in solitudes; nor
with the feeling so keen that ‘a thousand years in Thy sight are but as
a day,’ was it worth while to plot or plan against the oppressors of the
moment. Time was on their side, and ‘that which shapes it to some
perfect end.’ And this attitude explains, possibly, some unattractive
phases of it, since however honestly the individual consciousness may be
absorbed in a national conscience, yet the individual will generally, in
some way, manage to express himself, and the self is not always quite
up to the ideal, nor indeed is it always in harmony with those who would
interpret it. When a David dances before the Ark it needs other than a
daughter of Saul to understand him. There have been Jews in David’s
case, their enthusiasm mocked at; and there have been Jews indifferent
to their trust, and Jews who have betrayed it, and Jews too, and these
not a few, who have pushed it into prominence with undue display. The
infinite changes of circumstance and surrounding in Jewish fortunes no
less than differences in individual character have induced a
considerable divergence in the practical politics of the national idea.
The persecuted have been exclusive over it, and the prosperous careless;
it has been vulgarised by superstition, and ignored by indifferentism,
till modern ‘rational’ thinkers now and again question whether Palestine
be indeed the goal of Jewish separateness, and make it a matter for
academic discussion whether ‘Jews’ mean a sect of cosmopolitan citizens
with religious customs more or less in common, or a people whose
religion has a national origin and a national purpose in its
observances. With questioners such as these, Revelation, possibly, would
not be admitted as sound evidence in reply, else the promise, ‘Ye shall
be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,’ would, one might
think, show a design that ritual by itself does not fulfil. It was no
sect with ‘tribal’ customs, but a ‘nation’ and a ‘kingdom’ who were to
be ‘holy to the Lord.’ But though texts may be inadmissible with those
who prefer their sermons in stones, yet the records of the ages are
little less impartial and unimpassioned than the records of the rocks,
and doubters might find an answer in the insistent tones of history when
she tells of the results of occasional unnatural divorce between
religion and nationality among Jews.

There were times not a few, whilst their own judges ruled, and whilst
their own kings reigned in Palestine, when, with a firm grip on the
land, but a loose hold on the law, Israel was well-nigh lost and
absorbed in the idolatrous peoples by whom it was surrounded; when the
race, which was ceasing to worship at the national altars, was in danger
of ceasing to exist as a nation. Exile taught them to value by loss what
was possession. ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’
was the passionate cry in Babylon. Was it perchance the feeling that the
land was ‘strange,’ which gave that new fervour to the songs, choking
off utterance and finding adequate expression only in the Return? Did
Judas, the Maccabee, understand something of this as he led his
patriotic, ‘zealous’ troops to victory? Did Mendelssohn forget it when,
nineteen hundred years later, he emancipated his people from the results
of worse than Syrian oppression, at the cost of so many, his own
children among the rest, shaking off memories and duties as lightly as
they shook off restraints? Over and over again, in the wonderful history
of the Jews, does religion without nationality prove itself as
impossible as nationality without religion to serve for a sustaining
force in Judaism. The people who, while ‘the city of palm-trees’ was yet
their own, could set up strange gods in the groves, were not one whit
more false to their faith, nor more harmful to their people, than those
later representatives of the opposite type, Hellenists, as history calls
them, who built a temple, and read the law and observed the precepts,
whilst their very priests changed their good Jewish names for
Greek-sounding ones in contemptuous and contemptible depreciation of
their Jewish nationality. One inclines, perhaps, to accentuate the facts
of history and to moralise over the might-have-beens where these fit
into a theory; but so much as this at least seems indisputable–that
those who would dissociate the national from the religious, or the
religious from the national element in Judaism attempt the impossible.
The ideal of the Jews must always be ‘from Zion shall come forth
instruction, and the Word of God from Jerusalem’; and to this
end–‘that all people of the earth may know Thy name, as do thy people
Israel.’ This is the goal of Jewish separateness. The separateness may
have been part of the Divine plan, as distinctive practices and customs
are due in the first place to the Divine command; but they are also and
none the less a means of strengthening the national character of the
Jews. Jewish religion neither ‘happens’ to have a national origin, nor
does Jewish nationality ‘happen’ to have religious customs. The Jewish
nation has become a nation and has been preserved as a nation for the
distinct purpose of religion. This, as we read it, is the lesson of
history. And this too is its consolation. The faithful few who see the
fulfilment of history and of prophecy in a restored and localised
nationality–a Jerusalem reinstated as the joy of the whole earth; the
careless many who, in comfortable complacency, are well content to await
it indefinitely, in dispersion; the loyal many, who believe that a
political restoration would be a retrogressive step, narrowing and
embarrassing the wider issues; the children of light and the children of
the world, the spiritual and the _spirituel_ element in Israel, alike,
if unequally, have each their share in spreading the civilisation of
Sinai, as surely as ‘fire and hail and snow and mist and stormy wind’
all ‘fulfil His word.’ The seed that was sown in the sands of the desert
has germinated through the ages, and its fruition is foretold. The
promise to the Patriarch, ‘I will make of thee a great nation,’
foreshadowed that his descendants were to be trustees, ‘through them
shall all families of the earth be blessed.’ There are those who would
read into this national idea a taint of arrogance or of exclusiveness,
as there are some scientifically-minded folks, a trifle slow perhaps, to
apply their own favoured dogma of evolution, who can see in the Exodus
only a capriciously selected band of slaves, led forth to serve a tribal
deity. But the history of the Jews, which is inseparable from the
religion of the Jews, rebukes those who would thus halt mid-way and
stumble over the evidences. It lifts the veil, it flashes the light on
dark places, it unriddles the weary puzzle of the travailing ages,
leaving only indifferentism unsolvable, as it shows clear how the Lord,
the Spirit of all flesh, the universal Father, brought Israel out of
Egypt and gave them name and place to be His witnesses, and the means He
chose whereby ‘all families of the earth should be blessed.’

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