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Madness of Humankind: Moses Mendelssohn as a Critic of Sabbatianism

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According to Kant, Mendelssohn could not accept the idea of the moral progress of humankind, maintained by Lessing in Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts (1780), because he erroneously inferred from some historical events a pessimistic view of the whole of history: as a dogmatic metaphysician Mendelssohn did not consider judgements about intelligible objects as "regulative," i.e. pronounced by a faculty of judgement founded on practical reason, but as "constitutive," i.e. endowed with scientific value. This article argues that the deepest reason of Mendelssohn's criticism of Lessing's philosophy of history was rather his rejection of Sabbatian messianism. Mendelssohn was accused of being the author of the Fragmente eines Ungenannten (composed by Hermann Samuel Reimarus) that—according to some Christian readers—described Jesus as a Sabbatai Zevi ante litteram and were inspired by Sabbatianism; Lessing, who in 1777 presented the first part of Erziehung as "objections" to the fourth Fragment he edited, nevertheless shared the Ungenannte's critique of Jewish and Christian revelation and his eulogy of man's autonomy. Mendelssohn's denial of this authorship appears in his letter of September 24, 1781 to Herder, where he also mentions Moshe Hayym Luzzatto: while praising Luzzatto as author of the drama Layesharim Tehila and defending him against the persecution he suffered in Italy and Germany, Mendelssohn keeps him at a distance as writer of cabalistic texts and new Psalms which show a Sabbatian attitude. Mendelssohn was aware—as Karl Gotthelf Lessing wrote to his brother on October 26, 1769—of the Sabbatian Jacob Frank's contemporary preaching in Poland and of the similarity between Sabbatianism and Bonnet's and Lavater's chiliastic Christianity. This article also argues that the criticism of Sabbatian messianism is the background of Mendelssohn's unilateral interpretation of Judaism as centred on the synagogue.


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