After breakfast one morning last March, I walked into a cavernous, high-roofed barn in eastern Washington State and watched a stillborn calf get flayed. It lay on a butcher block stained with blood. The calf’s tongue extruded beyond its teeth; its eyes stared ahead; and its neck declined toward its chest at an unnatural angle, as if in sacrificial supplication. Ranchers skillfully sliced and sawed their way through this animal. Their charge was to excise a perfectly intact hide.

Only a few days before, at an identical hour, I sat down to a very different postprandial labor: grading midterm examination essays. I teach history at the University of South Carolina, and my students had written about the eighteenth-century Jewish philosopher and savant Moses Mendelssohn, and assessed his vision of Judaism’s future. When Mendelssohn arrived in Berlin from his childhood home in Dessau at age...

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