LAWRENCE PASTERNACK | Guidebook to Kant on Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason | Routledge 2014


By Allen Wood

Appendix: Kant on Judaism, or, Kant and Mendelssohn

This essay is already longer than it is supposed to be, even though I have tried to keep it short by limiting myself to Pasternack’s treatment only of the first two parts of the Religion (see Part A). But on further reflection, I feel that I must comment at least briefly on the Kantian texts that, according to Pasternack, must to a contemporary reader “reek of anti-Semitism” (p. 197). Pasternack himself, to his credit, does not accept this harsh verdict. But I do not think that he sees—or that most readers of the Religion are likely to see—what is really going on in the very passage (AA 6:124–8) that provokes this wildly unfair response.

The passage begins: “The Jewish faith, as originally established, was only a collection of merely statutory laws supporting a political state […] Strictly speaking, Judaism is not a religion at all” (AA 6:125). And then Kant gives three arguments supporting this last claim: (1) the commandments of Jewish law are such that they can be coercively enforced, (2) Judaism involves no belief in an afterlife, and (3) Judaism excludes the rest of the human race from its communion and is therefore unsuited to be a “church universal” (AA 6:125–7). The ultimate aim of these arguments is to establish that Christianity alone “came from the mouth of its first teacher not as a statutory but as a pure moral religion” (AA 6:167).

These remarks, if we do not correctly understand them and their context, will leave a very nasty taste in the mouth. All we are likely to take away from them is: Kant says, “Judaism [] is not a religion”. I would even compare the quoted passage, so oversimplified and thereby misunderstood, to an IED[*], which more than one reader has stepped on, and had his understanding of Kant and of the Religion blown to smithereens as a result. I don’t think Pasternack, despite his best intentions, has done an adequate job of defusing the bomb.

There are a number of points about the context that enable us to understand these remarks better. I will mention only two of these—one quite brief, the other longer and a bit more complex.

First, we must not overlook that Kant’s remark that Judaism is “not a religion” concerns the “Jewish faith” only “as originally established”. Only a few pages later, Kant proclaims that by the time of Jesus, Judaism had ceased to be a merely patriarchal and political faith, and had—partly through external influences—already become a moral religion (AA 6:128). A fortiori, Kant cannot be saying that present-day Judaism is not a religion—at least to the extent that it still reflects those same influences; on the contrary, he is saying just the opposite. So if we take away from the passage only the message “Judaism […] is not a religion” then we have, on the most elementary level, simply misunderstood what Kant was saying.

Second, I think that Kant’s treatment of Judaism, and his comparison of it with Christianity, displays the powerful influence of Moses Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem (1783).[1] This is a work we know Kant greatly admired and respected (see AA 10:344–7). To put the matter simply (perhaps too simply, but I think the essence is correct, and the point is important): In the Religion, Kant is trying to do for Christianity what Mendelssohn had done for Judaism in Jerusalem.[2]

Kant’s aim inevitably involves what Pasternack calls a “critique” of Judaism, since Kant is trying to make for Christianity the same claims (mutatis mutandis) that Mendelssohn had made for Judaism. So Kant’s admiring imitation of Mendelssohn also involves a degree of competition. Each philosopher, namely, is trying to present his own religious tradition as the one that best fits the model of a rational and moral religion. Both projects, however, rest on a deep agreement about the essence of religion, its relation to reason and morality, and the way a historical faith can also be a rational and universal religion. Kant and Mendelssohn are also in virtually complete agreement on certain basic principles relating religion to politics, law and the state. Both philosophers favour above all principles of religious toleration and respect for differing religious traditions. Both hold that true religion can never be a matter of coercion: neither political nor ecclesiastical authorities can rightfully impose obligations of any kind to believe, or to profess beliefs. For both, belief is a matter to be determined by each person’s understanding and reason, uncoerced and untrammelled by any tradition or authority. This is the basis of the defence of religious freedom we find in common in Jerusalem and also in Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason.

Kant’s admiration for Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem specifically rests on its defence of “unrestricted freedom of conscience” in religious matters: “You have managed to unite with your religion a degree of freedom of conscience that one would hardly have thought possible and of which no other religion can boast” (AA 10:347). Thus Kant’s position can hardly be described as any form of anti-Semitism, or even as a “critique of Judaism”—at least as far as Mendelssohn’s version of Judaism is concerned. If in the Religion, or elsewhere, Kant issues a different judgement on ancient, or even present day, Judaism, it would have to be condemnation of a version of Judaism that rejects the Judaism of Mendelssohn. Of course we know such a version, or more than one, existed among the bitter foes of the Haskalah within the Jewish community. Kant too, of course, had his enemies among Christian traditionalists who were foes of the Enlightenment. I submit the real issue here is not Kant vs. Judaism, but, for both Kant and Mendelssohn, the real issue is rational Enlightenment religion vs. traditional unenlightened religion. Let’s at least get that straight for starters.

Nevertheless, there are in Mendelssohn and Kant two competing views of both Judaism and Christianity, and how each faith relates to the pure religion of reason and rational morality. Mendelssohn, namely, wants to claim for Judaism, and Kant for Christianity, two things:

  1. Their own religious tradition was in its original inception a rational and moral religion.
  2. That the essence of that religion is rational, rather than historical, and its historical or revealed traditions are suitable vehicles for a pure rational religious faith—in fact, the most suitable vehicles for it.

In Mendelssohn’s case, the claim is that Judaism, in its original inception, involved no theoretical doctrines that are not grounded on pure reason, and available to all human beings in all cultures who have been able to rise to rational insight into them. There are, he says, in Judaism no revealed doctrines, in the Christian sense of the term. There are no articles of faith in Judaism (Jerusalem, p. 97). The revealed part of Judaism is a revealed legislation—not commandments to believe but only commandments to act: “Among the prescriptions of the Mosaic law, there is not one that says You shall believe or not believe. They all say: You shall do or not do” (Jerusalem, p. 100). Judaism thus leaves the intellect and the conscience free. Moreover, the aims of the Jewish law (of which Mendelssohn was famously strict in his observance) aim at “rules of life which were to be peculiar to this nation and through the observance of which it should arrive at national felicity as well as personal felicity for each of its individual members” (Jerusalem, p. 127).

In other words, the Mosaic Law is pure moral religion, but as adapted to a certain time, place and people. This makes this law a suitable vehicle for those whose heritage is this tradition. Mendelssohn insisted on the separateness of Jews and their practices. “Brothers, if you care for true piety, let us not feign agreement where diversity is evidently the plan and purpose of Providence” (Jerusalem, p. 138). Judaism must go its own way, but this is not any way that threatens or oppresses any other faith, since for Mendelssohn (as for Kant) religion in general, and Judaism in particular, is incompatible with any form of coercion. The only function of all religion, Mendelssohn repeats again and again, is to teach, to persuade, to encourage, to comfort, all in the direction of rational conviction and moral conduct (Jerusalem, pp. 57–60).

Christianity, by contrast with Judaism, involves articles of faith and revealed doctrines, belief in which is taken to be indispensable to the faith. This seems to Mendelssohn to restrict religion to those who have accepted these revealed tidings. By contrast, although its practices are separate from those of other faiths, as far as belief is concerned, Judaism contains only “the universal religion of mankind” (Jerusalem, p. 97).

Kant was evidently impressed with Mendelssohn’s presentation of Judaism in Jerusalem. I submit that we can read Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason as his attempt to do for Christianity what Mendelssohn had so ably done for Judaism. Kant’s understanding of Judaism is no doubt different from Mendelssohn’s. It corresponds to the more common views of the time, both Jewish and Christian—to see the Jewish law as originally a coercive or political law, hence alien to the spirit of religion as both Mendelssohn and Kant see it. Because Kant wants to claim that Christianity, as it came from the mouth of its first teacher, was a pure moral religion, he emphasizes the ways in which even Mendelssohn might have to admit that Judaism was not, in its original inception, a pure moral religion, but a system of external legal statutes. That is what led Kant to make the remarks we are so likely to misunderstand.

But Christianity is also vulnerable to criticism from the standpoint shared by Mendelssohn and Kant. For Kant cannot very well deny that Christianity contains revealed doctrines. Mendelssohn’s denial of them to Judaism was, and always has been, controversial too. But Kant’s attempt to respond to this point is to represent Christian doctrines as capable of a symbolic interpretation so that they are suitable vehicles—for those standing in the tradition of this revelation—of the interests of the pure morality of reason (AA 6:109–14).

Kant and Mendelssohn both use the metaphor of the two stories or floors of a house, where Judaism is the foundation and Christianity is built upon it.[3] Mendelssohn’s and Kant’s respective use of the metaphor is in both cases quite subtle, as each tries to employ it to the advantage of his favoured faith. Precisely because Christianity, built on the foundation of Judaism, came along later than Judaism, Kant wants to claim that it issued from the mouth of its first teacher as a moral religion, rather than having to become one only through a process of historical development and external influence (as Kant holds about Judaism). This seems to Kant an argument for the superiority of Christianity, at least as regards its origin.

Mendelssohn suggests, by contrast, that the upper story involves a burden on reason and conscience with which the lower story is not afflicted. From an Enlightenment perspective, this is a powerful critique of Christianity, and Kant explicitly acknowledges its justice, at least for unenlightened versions of Christianity. He credits Mendelssohn with it when he says that “our yoke will not be lightened in the least by throwing off the yoke of external observances [sc. of the Mosaic law] if another is imposed in its place, namely the yoke of a profession of faith in sacred history, which, for the conscientious, is an even more onerous burden” (AA 6:166–7). Kant and Mendelssohn thus agree that faiths burdened with revealed doctrines one must believe in order to be saved are impositions on freedom of conscience.

For Kant, since Judaism involves an external law, confined to a time, place and people (and not only a universal morality), it was in its origins, and still is, encumbered with a burden that was supposedly lifted by Christianity. Mendelssohn, however, sees Jewish law as no burden, but rather the best way for a certain people to live in the way God meant them to live. Kant and Mendelssohn disagree about this. But Kant would agree with Mendelssohn that to require people to profess revealed doctrines having no moral value as a condition for their salvation would be an utterly intolerable violation of their freedom of conscience.

“Freedom of conscience” is the enlightenment ideal Kant and Mendelssohn share. It is the ideal that the intellect should not be burdened or constrained, that (in Mendelssohn’s words) there should be “no conflict between religion and reason, no rebellion of our natural cognitive faculty against the stifling authority of faith”.[4] Kant saw the defence of freedom of conscience as the great glory of Mendelssohn’s defence of religious freedom in Jerusalem. Here is more of the passage already quoted earlier:

How much [do] I admire the penetration, subtlety and wisdom of your ‘Jerusalem’. I regard this book as the proclamation of a great reform that is slowly impending, a reform that is in store not only for your own people but for other nations as well. You have managed to unite with your religion a degree of freedom of conscience that one would hardly have thought possible and of which no other religion can boast. You have at the same time thoroughly and clearly shown it necessary that every religion have unrestricted freedom of conscience, so that finally even the church will have to consider how to rid itself of everything that burdens and oppresses conscience […]. (AA 10:347)

Kant’s rationalist interpretation of Christianity has of course been every bit as controversial as Mendelssohn’s rationalist interpretation of Judaism. Both philosophers have regularly been accused, both by believers and unbelievers, of being shallow, indecisive, self-contradictory, irreligious, even disingenuous and hypocritical. Such charges, against either philosopher, when I come across them, fill me with indignation, but also with profound sadness and pity, both for those who make them and for our modern culture, of which they are an all too faithful expression. In our hopelessly benighted society and age, many people apparently, both believers and non-believers, can no longer comprehend an Enlightenment conception of religion. They see it only as a compromise, incoherent or even dishonest, between rationalistic unbelief and traditional religious orthodoxy. Many people today cannot even conceive of a religion that is freethinking and honest with itself, or a rational view of the world that is sincerely religious. The consequences of this incapacity for our culture are abysmal and ongoing. We are all victims of it—Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett as much as Billy Graham and Pat Robertson—and you and I as much as they. All too often, our culture offers us no alternative but to choose between an unspeakably barbarous, superstitious religious tradition and a hopelessly shallow, impoverished, dehumanized vision of nature and of ourselves. Each side would probably object that the harsh characterization of it I have just given is grossly unfair. But I think the more we listen to both sides defend themselves, the worse it would get for them.

The common path of Mendelssohn and Kant is for our culture a path not taken, a path far better than any we have taken, or than most of us can any longer even imagine taking. It would take another Jerusalem, or another Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, to reveal the full depths of the spiritual impoverishment that has been the result of our incapacity to understand where Mendelssohn and Kant were coming from, or to follow them. Both works were, and are, controversial in the same way, and for the same reasons. Both are attempts to represent an empirical, revealed religious tradition as the best existing representative of a pure religion of reason. Kant’s attempt seems to me plainly to have been based on Mendelssohn’s. Even “Kant’s critique of Judaism” only attempts to make for an enlightened Christianity the same claims Mendelssohn made for an enlightened Judaism. It too should be read as a tribute to his great contemporary, the author of Jerusalem, with whom Kant sometimes disagreed philosophically, but with whom he always also stood in a relation of profound and warm mutual admiration and esteem.


[1] M. Mendelssohn, Jerusalem, Or, On Religious Power and Judaism (1783), trans. A. Arkush (Hanover, NH: Brandeis and University Press of New England, 1983). Cited below as Jerusalem by page number.

[2] Henry Allison has recently argued that Kant’s Religion was inspired by Lessing’s idea that religion is the education of humanity (H. Allison, ‘Reason, Revelation and History in Lessing and Kant’, in Essays on Kant [Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012], pp. 254–73). I think this is consistent with what I have just said. If we ask by which of the two close friends, Lessing and Mendelssohn, Kant was most influenced, I think this may end in a pointless verbal dispute, such as the one Hume reports between those who argue about which superlatives are most appropriate in praising the beauty of Cleopatra.

[3] This metaphor seems to have originated with August Friedrich Cranz, Das Forschen nach Licht und Recht in einem Schreiben an Herrn Moses Mendelssohn (Berlin, 1782). This treatise, critical of Mendelssohn’s position, was published anonymously. Mendelssohn discusses it at length in Jerusalem (pp. 7–11, 86–8).

[4] M. Mendelssohn, Jerusalem and other Jewish writings, trans. and ed. A. Jospe (New York: Schocken, 1969), pp. 154–5. This passage comes from Mendelssohn’s reply to Charles Bonnet, the Christian apologist whom Johann Kaspar Lavater cited, impudently challenging Mendelssohn either to refute Bonnet or else abandon the faith of his fathers and convert to Christianity.

[*] Improvised Explosive Device

© Allen W. Wood, 2015.

Allen Wood is Ruth Norman Halls Professor of Philosopher at Indiana University, Bloomington, US. Among numerous articles and book contributions, he has published the following monographs: Kant’s Moral Religion (Cornell UP 1970, reissued 2009), Kant’s Rational Theology (Cornell UP 1978, reissued 2009), Karl Marx (Routledge 1981, 2nd expanded ed. 2004), Hegel’s Ethical Thought (Cambridge UP 1990), Kant’s Ethical Thought (Cambridge UP 1999), Unsettling Obligations (CSLI Publ. 2002), Kant (Wiley-Blackwell 2005) and Kantian Ethics (Cambridge UP 2008). His latest book is The Free Development of Each: Studies on Freedom, Right and Ethics in Classical German Philosophy (Oxford UP, 2014). He is also, alongside Paul Guyer, general editor of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant, and has translated several of Kant’s works as well as Fichte’s Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation. He currently works on a book on Fichte’s Ethical Thought. His Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals: A Commentary (co-authored with Dieter Schönecker), originally published in German, has recently been published with Harvard UP.