The estate of Lazarus Bendavid contains documents that provide information on his life and work, his writings on a wide variety of topics, and his correspondence with his contemporaries.
Lazarus Bendavid was born on October 18, 1762 into an open-minded and tolerant Jewish family in Berlin. Besides his traditional Jewish education and his studies in various yeshivot he was also tutored in the German language, arithmetic, and accounting. After a short period of orthodox religiosity, Bendavid abandoned traditional Judaism with all its “ceremonial laws” shortly after his Bar Mitzvah. After his father died, the leaders of the community therefore excluded him from leading prayers, whereupon he broke ties with the community. In the meantime he had completely turned to a universal humanistic education; he attended lectures on physics, chemistry and church history at the universities of Göttingen and Halle, studied disquisitions on medicine and mathematics, and made the acquaintance of the prominent professors and thinkers of his time. Bendavid, however, would remain self-taught all through his lifetime and never attained full membership in any scholarly institution. In 1785/86, he began to publish books and papers, to give lectures mainly on mathematics and philosophy, and made a name for himself among the enlightened public. In his philosophical writings, Bendavid eagerly advocated Kant’s philosophy and saw himself as its translator for an audience thirsty for knowledge. In Vienna, where he had been presenting public lectures since 1791, Kant’s ideas were, however, seen as subversive to both state and church, precipitating Bendavid’s return to Berlin in 1797, this time for good. There, the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences awarded him first prize in the category of speculative philosophy for his paper Philotheus, oder über der Ursprung unserer Erkenntniss (“Philotheus or: On the Origin of our Cognition”). Since 1802 he worked as the political editor of the newspaper Haude- und Spenersche Zeitung and continued to publish articles on various other topics, while concentrating mainly on Jewish themes during the last decades of his life.
Despite his public renunciation of traditional Judaism and its “ceremonial laws” in particular, he carried out his educational and social work within the framework of various Jewish institutions, which he had devoted himself to more intensely since the 1790s. In his writings on Jewish topics, Bendavid expressed his modern opinion that the “ceremonial laws” of Judaism were the hurdle on the way to an emancipation of the Jews and to their attaining full civic rights. In doing so, he became a typical exponent of the second generation of the “Berlin Haskalah”, as represented by Jewish intellectual figures such as Saul Ascher, Markus Herz, and David Friedländer. Following in Mendelssohn’s footsteps, even if not quite filling his boots, they sought to provide answers to the historical circumstances that were continuously changing in an era of modernization and secularization. And Bendavid was considered to be the most radical of them all. These men, all of them students and followers of Kant, mainly dealt with the theses that Mendelssohn had advanced in his book Jerusalem oder über religiöse Macht und Judenthum (“Jerusalem, or on Religious Power and Judaism”). With the aid of the concepts and ideas of contemporary German philosophers, they found manifold ways to retain Judaism: Some of them, like Saul Ascher, wanted to conciliate a religious renewal of Judaism with the needs of the state and suggested a far-reaching reform; others, like Bendavid and David Friedländer, sought a universal secular culture that would, in their eyes, reflect the core values of Judaism. They advanced deistic points of view, considered Rabbinical Judaism to be a deformation of natural religion, and looked up to the German “Republic of Scholars,” to which, in many respects, they themselves belonged. Their efforts to propagate these ideas gave rise to many initiatives in the fields of pedagogy and culture.
Lazarus Bendavid, moreover, was a member of many Jewish institutions: He joined the Gesellschaft der Freunde der Humanität in August 1797, becoming the society’s director in 1798. In 1800, he was named the secretary of the Philomatische Gesellschaft, and was granted honorary membership in the Association for the Culture and Science of the Jews in 1822. After the death of Daniel Itzig in 1806, Bendavid was appointed headmaster of the Jüdische Freischule in Berlin, which he ran until its closure in 1825. He strove to form the school in the spirit of deism and citizenship and to educate a new type of Jew, one who would feel at home in the society and culture of his environment. In his articles on Jewish topics as well, Bendavid advanced the universal principles of the Enlightenment and adopted the criticism of German Enlightenment thinkers such as Christian Konrad Wilhelm Dohm, who asserted that it was the Jews’ task to improve their own moral qualities all while struggling for their own equal rights and obligations to society. In his 1793 essay “Etwas zur Charakteristik der Juden” (“On the characteristics of the Jews”), Bendavid attempted to convince his Jewish readers to abandon their “ceremonial laws” and to return to the core of pure, i.e. natural religion, arguing that the depraved moral qualities of the Jews resulted from their adherence to the exterior of religion, i.e. the commandments, at the cost of its interior, i.e. universal human morals.
A few months after Bendavid’s death on March 28, 1832, Moritz Veit, a relative from his mother’s side of the family, turned Bendavid’s estate over to Leopold Zunz. These documents, which shed light on the manifold fields of Bendavid’s work, can be found in Section A of the Leopold Zunz Archives of the National Library of Israel.