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Esther Cameron


As the bus rolled down one of the main avenues of Tel Aviv, I noticed at the entrance to a side street a small plaque with the words: Rechov Natan HeChakham. Nathan the Wise Street.

How odd, I thought.  Streets are usually named for historical figures, people who actually lived.  Whereas Nathan was, like Job, a fable.  On the other hand, he certainly did have an effect on history...

Nathan was the hero of a blank verse drama, Nathan der Weise, by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781), Enlightenment philosopher, friend of Moses Mendelssohn, critic of Christian intolerance. Few literary works have been written with better intentions than Nathan der Weise, and few have been more gratefully received. Yet it proposed a contract of tolerance that is deeply flawed, with fateful consequences not only for Jewry but for the Western world.

Lessing’s drama is built around an “interfaith” folk-tale1 that apparently came to Lessing through Boccaccio’s Decamerone. In its oldest version (from Il Novellino, a late thirteenth century compilation) the Sultan wants to press a Jew for money and begins by embarrassing him by asking him which faith is the best. The Jew gets out of it by telling a story about a father who had a ring which each of his three sons wanted, and who solved his problem by having a jeweler make two rings identical to the first, and presenting a ring to each son in private. Each son then believed he had the true ring, but the true ring was known only to the father; similarly with the religions. The Sultan, hearing this, “did not know how to entrap him, and let him go.”

We may already note that the three-ring parable is not told in an open forum of inquiry. The Sultan is not the Khazar king with whom one could reason about the respective merits of the three faiths. The best the Jew can hope for is a bit of sportsmanship. Boccaccio already begins to idealize the story, naming the Sultan Saladin (the one Muslim leader whom the West has been able to find sympathetic) and the Jew Melchisedek (the non-Jewish priest of Genesis 14:18!). In this version the Jew, having won the battle of wits, offers the loan of his own accord; Saladin pays it back in full, and the two become great friends.2

In Lessing’s version the parable is greatly expanded and embellished with many elevated sentiments. The stone of the ring “ha[s] had the hidden virtue him to render/ Of God and man beloved, who in this view,/ And this persuasion, wore it.”3 Regarding the claims of the three sons, Nathan observes that Muslim, Jew and Christian have equal grounds for their beliefs, namely the word of their loved and trusted ancestors: “How can I less believe in my forefathers/ Than thou in thine. […] The like of Christians.” As in preceding versions, Saladin concedes the game. “By the living God,/ The man is in the right, I must be silent.” Not content with this, Nathan has the three sons take their quarrel to a judge, who declines to pronounce judgment but notes that the real ring should eventually manifest its “hidden power to make the wearer/ Of God and man beloved” through their actions. Each brother should “… vie with both his brothers in displaying/ The virtue of his ring; assist its might/ With gentleness, benevolence, forbearance.“ Thus, Lessing/Nathan envisions a contest of virtue among the three religions, each determined to make the best of his own while refraining from enforcing it upon others. Lessing/Nathan’s “modest judge” concludes with the suggestion that after “a thousand thousand years” the litigants’ descendants might then appear before a greater judge, who would then decide. Nathan clinches the argument:

NATHAN.  Saladin,
Feel'st thou thyself this wiser, promised man?
Again Saladin obligingly yields to the force of truth.
SALADIN.  I dust, I nothing, God! [Precipitates himself upon Nathan, and takes hold of his hand, which he does not quit the remainder of the scene.]
Nathan then offers the loan of his own accord; Saladin accepts with shamefaced reluctance; later a long-expected tribute replenishes Saladin’s coffers, evidently obviating the need for the loan, which is forgotten amid the happy resolution of an elaborate subplot. But note again that the power relations are still there, in the guise of a contest of magnanimity which the Jew must win in order to keep in Saladin’s – and the audience’s – good graces.

The aforesaid elaborate subplot serves to fill out five acts and also to involve some Christian characters. To cut as straight a path as possible through the labyrinth: Saladin ordinarily executes any Templar who falls into his hands. But he has pardoned one Templar who reminded him of a much-loved deceased brother. This Templar, though he dislikes Jews, nonetheless rescues Nathan’s adopted daughter Recha from a fire. In a meeting with Nathan, he at first expresses Christian prejudice but then yields to the appeal of Nathan’s noble nature. The knowledge that Saladin has pardoned Recha’s rescuer supplies a second, nonpecuniary motive for Nathan’s meeting with Saladin. The Templar falls in love with Recha and asks Nathan for her hand, but Nathan puts him off, wishing first to investigate the Templar’s parentage, for which he is then provided with the necessary clues. In the final scene, Nathan reveals to Saladin, his sister Sittah, the Templar, and Recha that the Templar and Recha are brother and sister, born to Saladin’s late brother and a Christian lady. Thus the wedding is off, but in its place we are offered the hugs and kisses of an interfaith family reunion: “During the silent continuance of reciprocal embraces the curtain falls.”

It would not easy to play Nathan der Weise straight these days. Its style, elegant and elevated, presumes an audience prepared to believe the best about humanity and to participate in outpourings of noble and generous sentiment. That was the period. Nathan der Weise is the verbal equivalent of, say, a symphony by Haydn. We can still listen to the music without embarrassment; words, however, cannot help reminding us of things. The reader no longer caught up in Enlightenment enthusiasm cannot but notice how much Nathan had to give up in order to “deserve” the tolerance Lessing sought to obtain for him. Nathan clinches his victory in the magnanimity contest by relating, to the messenger who once brought him the infant Recha, how her arrival had reconciled him to God and man after the Christians had murdered his wife and seven sons. In a previous scene we were told that Nathan has not reared Recha to be a Jew but has given her only “the mere knowledge/ Of what our reason teaches about God.” It would not have served Lessing’s purpose to mention (if he knew it) that the Torah would have encouraged Nathan to marry again and raise a second family to carry on the lineage and faith of Israel. To portray the "ideal" Jew as one who has foregone all attempts to perpetuate either his lineage or his faith, is to offer tolerance on condition of extinction.

It is also tolerance on condition of dissociation. In the reconciliation scene with the Templar, the Templar begins as a Christian bigot; but when Nathan expounds his live-and-let-live philosophy, the Templar switches gears. Now he is an indignant universalist, railing against the nation that “first began to strike at fellow men” (the Jews invented warfare?), that “first baptized itself the chosen people” and “bequeathed” its pride to Christian and Muslim. His own eyes have been opened by the strife he has witnessed “here” – in the Holy Land. Nathan must (under Friedrich as under Saladin) forbear to mention to whom, in the script which both Christianity and Islam have pirated, the Creator granted that land. Nor may he object to Israel’s being blamed for the misdeeds of the plagiarists. Instead, Nathan magnanimously responds:

We must, we will be friends. Despise my nation -
We did not choose a nation for ourselves.
Are we our nations? What's a nation then?
Were Jews and Christians such, e'er they were men?
And have I found in thee one more, to whom
It is enough to be a man (Mensch)?

At last the Templar is won over, and this exchange too concludes with a handclasp. Nathan, in the name of humanity, has cut himself off from his people. He is to be found only in the singular; no other Jews come onstage, though there are three Muslims and four Christians. Nor may he favor his own; Al-Hafi praises him by saying that he gives “as freely,/ As silently, as nobly, to Jew, Christian,/Mahometan, or Parsee–'tis all one.” Again it would not have been politic to mention that while the Torah does enjoin benevolence toward all, there is also a scale of priorities that enjoins one to provide first for one’s own needs, then for those of one’s family, and so on in widening circles. Without that scale, the Jewish nation would not have survived.

But, of course, the survival of nations interested the Enlightenment not at all. All humans were to become brothers, in a global surge of magnanimity. This was specifically the ideal of the Masonic order to which Lessing belonged, as did Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and many other Enlightenment figures. The Freemasons’ Book of Constitutions obliged masons only to “that Religion in which all men agree, leaving their particular Opinions to themselves.”4 In Nathan der Weise one can literally see Lessing’s imagination literally reaching around the globe, as Al-Hafi sets off to learn from the “barefoot sages” on the banks of the Ganges. Freemasonry, which originated in Scotland, hoped to defuse the religious conflicts that had torn Europe apart by postulating a religion in which “all men agree”; but it is doubtful that its founders were personally acquainted with anyone whose ancestors had not learned the Ten Commandments.

In some respects, Nathan der Weise does represent the Jewish ideal fairly. Among the other characters Nathan stands out as moderate, deliberate in judgment and consistently benevolent. In contrast to Saladin, who bankrupts himself by grand gestures of generosity, Nathan gives prudently so that he may keep on giving. In contrast to the dervish Al-Hafi, Nathan while undoubtedly “spiritual” does not seriously consider throwing up his worldly responsibilities. In contrast to the Templar, he waits to get a clear picture of the situation before acting. In the end he is acclaimed as the wise teacher and father by all onstage.

But in all this, Nathan never refers to the Torah, nor is he ever shown engaging in any specific Jewish practices. A very careless reader could get the impression that Nathan is the embodiment of Enlightenment reason, and wonder why Lessing saw fit to make him a Jew. But of course the character which Lessing does partially succeed in depicting is not the fruit of reason alone. It results rather from a practical discipline, from the observance and study of the mitsvot, by no means all of them rationally explainable, which govern every area of Jewish life. It is these mitsvot that mark Israel as the holy people, the one nation without which the world cannot continue. Rationalism did not, and still does not, recognize the importance of the unique – the possibility that, just as life apparently originated only once in the universe, so the giving of the Torah and the choice of Israel may represent a unique chance for humanity.

There is, of course, a Jewish universalism – the Noachide covenant, based on the commandments given to Noach after the flood. During the Second Temple period many people actually declared themselves Noachides, till this phenomenon was suppressed by Christian persecution. In the Enlightenment period the Noachide covenant was, if fleetingly, remembered. The Freemasons made some use of this concept.5 And Moses Mendelssohn, in Jerusalem; a Treatise on Ecclesiastical Authority and Judaism, proposed to regard Christians as Noachides.6 But as Judaism understands it, the Noachide covenant reserves, at the center of a universal faith, a place for the Chosen People. This the Enlightenment could not absorb.

The Christian and Muslim characters seem designed to support the position that good people are to be found everywhere. Actually the Christian figures are shown in the least favorable light. Daya, Recha’s Christian nurse, is bigoted and superstitious; the Templar is also bigoted at first; the Patriarch is a cruel fanatic; the Friar though good is bound in mistaken obedience to the evil Patriarch. In the conflict with the Muslims as portrayed by Sittah, the Christians are the intransigeant ones: “'Tis this people's pride/ Not to be men, but to be Christians.” (Of course, in a work set in medieval Jerusalem, there is no need to refer to later events, such as the siege of Vienna in 1683.)

The Christian characters represented the community with which Lessing was polemicizing, the congregation he hoped to move to repentance, and certainly not to fortify in any sort of prejudice. This doubtless led him to portray the Muslim characters somewhat euphemistically. The first Muslim who comes on the scene, Al-Hafi, is Nathan’s friend and chess-partner and shares his ideal of the universal Mensch. With Saladin, on the other hand; the positive image has a shadow-side which is never fully turned toward us, but which is never entirely out of sight either, until the final hug-fest which is supposed to sweep away all reservations. It is striking how much credit Saladin gets for not killing the Templar. Moreover, his allegiance to the rules of the game is tenuous. In his chess game with Sittah he cheats in order to give her the victory, and when Al-Hafi points out how he can still win, he overturns the board. From a generous motive, yes. Al-Hafi has been persuaded to become Saladin’s treasurer in the hopes of assisting him in acts of generosity, only to become disillusioned: “What! and is't not cheating,/ Thus to oppress mankind by hundred thousands,/ To squeeze, grind, plunder, butcher, and torment,/ And act philanthropy to individuals?” Saladin’s generosity is in large part vanity. Behind his charm is bloodthirstiness; Al-Hafi takes it for granted that he could be impaled or beheaded, and his resignation of the treasurer post may necessitate his departure for India. Sittah is little more than a foil to Saladin, an affectionate sister, none too scrupulous. But it is precisely she who sounds one of the most screeching cognitive dissonances in all literature. Sittah says to Saladin:

Come awhile with me
Into my harem: I have bought a songstress,
You have not heard her, she came yesterday

Leaving aside the matter of slavery (again, Saladin’s and Sittah’s amiability plays against the background of their barbarism): if a woman ever kept a “harem” in a Muslim country, this may be the first and last mention of the matter. In other plays Lessing showed much sympathy with women, and the true position of women in Islamic society would presumably not have sat well with him. But to acknowledge it here would have derailed his project of tolerance. We see now that the whole affectionate and equal exchange between Saladin and Sittah was set up to keep our minds off this reality.

It seems that “tolerance” cannot always refrain from “editing” the to-be-tolerated, refashioning them into what it can live with. Thus it may fail to recognize what needs recognition, and to reckon with what will have to be reckoned with.

Evidently, Lessing earnestly desired the reconciliation of all peoples, and was impressed by the Jewish people in particular. He seems to have sensed that only the Jewish approach held the key to reconciliation and peace. But….One could imagine the Spirit of Quick Solutions whispering in his ear that to confront everyone with their past crimes and present failings – worse yet perhaps, with the necessity of recognizing the superiority of Israel and the Torah – would bring the work of getting everyone together to a grinding halt. To get past this difficulty, a great of surge of magnanimity had to be invoked that would lift everyone over all divisions. Only: if such a surge of magnanimity were real, wouldn’t it make it possible for everyone to confront their past crimes and present failings, and to rejoice in the greater merits of others? Again, we note a failure of reason, which thus shows itself insufficient as a source of human strength. Again, it was not reason that sustained the Jewish people through centuries of intimidation, but the faith expressed in Psalms, a faith anchored in Israel’s particularity. Failure to respect that particularity abets a cultural process that could end in the extinction of reason itself, through deference to the aggressor, through a culture of intimidation that shuts down thought, objective perception, creativity, and hope. Lessing’s shockingly absurd reference to Sittah’s “harem” was an early warning sign. From here we can see down the road to that ideology of “peace” which casts Israel’s existence as the problem.

That road: to what extent it was paved by the influence of Nathan der Weise can never be exactly assessed. But that influence was certainly considerable. The “reciprocal embraces” of the finale continue in Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” (“All humans become brothers…Be embraced, millions,/ This kiss for the whole world!”), written in 1785. On the wings of Beethoven’s music, this poem did indeed circle the globe, still sounding in many places where the name of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing is forgotten.

Most deeply affected by Nathan der Weise were the Western European Jews who, with its encouragement, gravitated toward assimilation and, often, conversion. The model for Nathan, Moses Mendelssohn, remained Orthodox in practice and had six children; but after his death all his children converted to Christianity. Tolerance and brotherhood were watchwords among assimilating Jewry, to judge from Heine’s poem “To Edom”: “You, you tolerate my breathing,/ while I tolerate your raving.// Only sometimes, in dark times,/ you were in a curious mood/ and your pious, loving paws/ you dyed with my blood.” Heine knew that that “curious mood” could return. Saddest of all, many assimilating Jews, having signed the contract of tolerance, contracted the Christian prejudice against those Jews who still clung to their ancestral peculiarities. In European society as a whole, resistance to universalism soon became manifest. The religious sectarianism which Lessing and his fellow-Masons hoped to dispel, was replaced by a secular nationalism which showed itself quite as belligerent. The secular Jews who had disclaimed their particularity and subscribed to the ideology of humanity, now saw themselves branded as “rootless cosmopolitans.”

Even after the final tragedy in Europe, the work of Paul Celan testifies to the persistence of Lessing’s vision. True, Celan’s style is very different from that of the Enlightenment. But the dream of a world-embracing spiritual union lives on in “The Meridian” and in The No-One’s Rose, where the word Mensch sometimes has much the same ring that Lessing gave it. And the speaker of “Before a Candle” pronounces on a figure who seems to personify his remaining hopes, the following “blessing”:

In the name of the Three
who feud with each other until
the sky plunges down into the grave of the feelings,
in the name of the Three, whose rings
shine on my finger […]
in the name of the first of the Three
who cried out
when he had to live where his word had been before him,
in the name of the second, who looked on and wept,
in the name of the third, who heaps up
white stones in the middle7

This is nothing other than a remake of the “ring parable.” Like Lessing, Celan evidently counts on a settling of religious feuds in the light of their effects on human life (“the sky plunges down into the grave of the feelings”). The first of the Three is Judaism, whose adherents had to live among nations that held faiths derived from, but antagonistic to, the Torah. The second is Christianity, which “looked on and wept” at deeds inconsistent with its founder’s preachment of love. The third, however, is not Islam. It is the poet, the exponent of human feelings, who is piling up white stones in a no-man’s land between two religions. The year was 1953, and the Islamic resurgence was still below the horizon. Perhaps Islam – or some other embodiment of totalitarian coerciveness – does come in at the poem’s end, in the guise of “the “Amen which drowns out our voices” and, edged by an “icy light,” “steps towering into the sea” – a nightmare vision against which perhaps only a final protest is possible

Such a conclusion to European and world history could not be warded off by an ideology of tolerance that rejected distinctions and that had an inbuilt animus against the particularity of Israel. Celan himself never gave up his Jewish identity, and in his last years, with such poems as “Just Think” and “The Poles,” his sense of Israel’s centrality gained a clearer voice.8 But in the end, perhaps weighed down by the European culture to which he was so deeply committed, he did not heed the call of Israel’s God: “Seek ye Me and live.” (Amos 5:4)

If this history holds some lessons for the present, perhaps it may suggests some reservations to the much-cherished belief that “to fight injustice to one group of human beings affords protection to every other group,” as Ben Hecht put it.9 If Israel’s particularity is what must first be recognized, then there is danger in pleading every cause but Israel’s own

But one should not conclude without at least pointing to some more positive tendencies which may have emanated from Nathan der Weise, or which at least indicate the direction in which a correction of its course could lead us. Nathan der Weise must, after all, have moved some Westerners to regard Jews in a more friendly light; and some Westerners, in the course of the nineteenth century, did look deeper into Jewish particularity. One reader of Lessing’s works was George Eliot, whose novel Daniel Deronda gave encouragement to the nascent Zionist movement.10 Early in the twentieth century the hope of an Israel-friendly universal culture was, at least briefly, in the air; and surely this was part of the background for HaRav Avraham Yitzchak Kook. In Orot Rav Kook warns that a universalism not based in a strong consciousness of Israel’s mission is to be avoided “like an ox that has been known to gore.”11 Yet at this same time he envisions not only a revived Jewish state but also a great circle of world culture with Israel as its center.12 And today there are again individuals, even congregations, who declare themselves as Noachides. There may yet be hope of rewriting the contract between Israel and the nations, and of laying a better foundation for world peace.13 Only if these things are possible, will the street of Nathan the Wise be other than a dead end.



1. “The Three-Ring Parable: Tales of Aarne-Thompson Type 972,” edited by D.I. Ashliman, 1999,
2. Ibid.
3. Quotations from Nathan der Weise are taken from Nathan the Wise, A Dramatic Poem in Five Acts, translated by William Taylor of Norwich. This translation, first published in 1830, is posted at
4. From the first article, “Of GOD and RELIGION “ 1769 edition of Anderson’s Book of Constitutions,
5. See James Anderson, Anderson’s Constitutions of 1738, Kessinger, 2004, p. 4.
6. Moses Mendelssohn, Jerusalem; a Treatise on Judaism and Ecclesiastical Authority, translated by M. Samuels, London: Longman, Orme, Brown and Longmans, 1838, p. 212
7. Gesammelte Werke, vol. I, Frankfurt, Suhrkamp, 1983, pp. 110-111. Translation mine. For a full translation of the poem see Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, translated by John Felstiner, Norton, 2001, pp. 61-63.
8. Celan, Selected Poems and Prose, pp. 306, 362.
9. Quoted in Rafael Medoff, “A Jewish Refugee Ship that Changed History,” Midstream, Vol. LIV No. 6 (November-December 2008), p. 12.
10. See Paul Johnson, “Behind Te (sic) Balfour Declaration,” New York Times, November 14, 2008.
11. Orot, Hotsaat Meavnei HaMakom, 5764, p. 339.
12. Ibid., p. 326.
13. I am thinking here of an article shown to me some years ago by Rabbi Dr. Zvi Faier, which argued that acknowledgment of Israel’s right to its land would be the true foundation of world peace.


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