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Men's Club Book Group
"Nathan the Wise" by Gotthold Lessing
Wednesday, Apr 13th, 2011 9 AM

One East 65th Street
Open to all Temple members
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nathan the Wise has been called the “Magna Carta” of Jewish emancipation in Germany. Lessing modeled the figure of Nathan on his good friend the German-Jewish Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, grandfather of the great composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. At the time that Nathan the Wise was written, it was a tremendous provocation for Lessing to make the hero of his play a Jew and the villain of his play an intolerant Christian patriarch. It was equally astounding for Lessing to make the Muslim sultan Saladin a wise and tolerant ruler. The familial relationship between the major figures in the play, revealed at the end, is a metaphor for Lessing’s vision of brotherly love and mutual understanding among the major monotheistic religions. In many ways Nathan the Wise is still a provocation, over two centuries after Lessing wrote it. Or can any of us claim that there are no figures like the intolerant, murderous patriarch alive and active today, in all three of the major monotheistic religions?

Lessing wrote Nathan the Wise because the Duke of Brunswick, his employer, had forbidden him to engage publicly in theological controversies. During the months before he wrote Nathan, Lessing — himself the son of a Protestant pastor and a former student of theology — had, in various journals of public opinion, done battle with Christian fundamentalists, particularly the chief pastor of Hamburg. While Lessing’s opponents argued that the Bible was revealed truth, and that it must be understood literally — and that any questioning of the Bible’s revealed truth was tantamount to criminal apostasy, Lessing argued for a liberal, tolerant Christianity. Religion was not true because of what was written in the Bible, he argued; rather, it was the absolute truth of religion itself that gave written words, even in the Bible, their significance. And the truth of a religion could only be judged based on the practical, real actions of that religion’s adherents in the world. If they behaved wisely, then their behavior spoke for the religion far more eloquently than any words; if they behaved foolishly or harshly, than that behavior spoke against the religion, no matter how eloquent their words. Lessing’s opponents argued that if the absolute truth of the Bible were questioned, then not only the religious but also the social order would be shaken; any overturning of fundamentalist religion might also overturn the absolute, divine right of sovereigns and kings. It was these arguments that moved the Duke of Brunswick to censor any further theological disputation on Lessing’s part; and in turn, it was the Duke’s censorship that moved Lessing to couch his arguments for tolerance in the form not of a conventional theological treatise but of a play that became one of the greatest works in the German theatrical repertory. Lessing’s vision of a religious belief based on tolerance and respect, and on practical work for good in the real world, still resonates with the problems of today. It is depressing to contemplate that over two centuries after Lessing’s vision of tolerance and respect among the three great monotheistic religions and eight centuries after the Crusades, which pitted Christians against Muslims in the Middle East, both the Middle East and the rest of the world are still torn by intolerance, self-righteousness, murder, and misunderstanding among the adherents of those same three religions, each claiming access to the absolute truth. The more the world changes, the more it appears to stay the same, with Lessing’s vision of tolerance and understanding appearing as an almost impossibly utopian dream on the very distant horizon.

Nathan the Wise was of course banned in Germany during the Nazi period, when neither its positive portrayal of a wise Jew nor its negative portrayal of anti-Jewish hatred could be tolerated by Nazi leaders who were themselves filled with anti-Semitic hatred and self-righteousness. After the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, Nathan the Wise was the first play to be performed in the newly reopened German Theater in Berlin that December. It was hoped that the play would signal the birth of a new age of tolerance in Germany, and the world. About a mile to the south of the German Theater the Holocaust memorial now stands as a reminder of the horrors of the twentieth century.

(Source: “Nathan the Wise and the Jewish Emancipation Movement”
by Stephen Brockmann, Professor of German Studies, Carnegie Mellon University)

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