A natural yet providential tongue: Moses Mendelssohn on Hebrew as a language of action—by Avi Lifschitz (UCL)
By Hebrew and Jewish Studies, on 27 November 2015
Please join us for this lecture:
Institute of Historical Research (IHR) Jewish history seminar; Monday, 30 November 2015, 5:15 pm;
Professor Olga Crisp Room 102, 1st floor, IHR, North Block, Senate House
How did Moses Mendelssohn reconcile a naturalistic theory of language, advocating the contingent development of all tongues, with the belief that Hebrew was a divine language that did not change ever since its inception? The seeming contradiction was resolved by employing the contemporary notion of the language of action – a primordial means of communication, where gesture and melody were as significant as words. Mendelssohn’s view of Hebrew as the language closest to this idiom was accompanied by his suggestion that the Jewish ceremonial law is a living script which can be properly understood only through oral instruction. He employed both ideas to counter the notions that the Hebrew vowel points were a late invention and that some loci in the Hebrew Bible had been subject to textual corruption. For Mendelssohn, the allegedly supernatural aspects of spoken Hebrew could be naturalised through constant and lively human conversation across the ages. The appropriation of contemporary critiques of the arbitrariness of language allowed Mendelssohn to forge an original synthesis that could simultaneously accommodate naturalism and providentialism.