Search for an example of interfaith understanding in the high culture of 18th century Prussia, and you will turn to two plays by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781). Here we see the gentile author’s about-face in his dramatic portrayal of Jewish people. Lessing’s pen was perhaps the first to artistically honor the Hebrew character in so open and public a forum before the 20th century.

In the introduction to a compilation volume, The Dramatic Works of G.E. Lessing, an English translation dated to 1878 and published at Trinity College, Cambridge, the editor writes, “Luther and Lessing are Germany’s representative men…” Needless to say, it is boastful to claim that a creative writer from the 18th century (Lessing) and a theologian of the 16th century (Luther) are of the same genus. Slightly hyperbolic by our contemporary standards, this is how Lessing was held in the cultural and secular explosion of Victorian England, (whilst he was largely shunned by his own generation). The connection of course is that the humanistic Reformation of Luther paved the way for German literary discourse. While the first few centuries of Protestantism in Germany created a literary renaissance, we find in G.E. Lessing’s plays, a tolerance of every religion that is unparalleled: a religious enlightenment.

In 1749, the play Die Juden or The Jew introduced for the first time an appreciation for Judaism and religious pluralism to a German theater. It is hard to find an officially published English translation these days, if one actually exists at all. In the play, “a comedy in one act,” there is a dialogue in which certain ugly stereotypes traditionally cast on Jewish people are addressed. But the Jewish character, “The Traveler” has a chance to prove his own worth.  


Your Lord wants to say well, it would have been Jews.

They had beards, that’s true, but their language was the

Language of ordinary local Baur.

If they were masked, I think certainly, as

You may well come the dawn stead.

Because I cannot understand how Jews

Should be able to make the streets unsafe,

But because we are not tolerated in this country



Remember just what I have told you of

The Jews. They are a loud, wicked, thieving people.



Maybe this guy is so stupid he is,

Or represents a rogue

Has been one among the Jews. If a Jew cheats

The Christian has him under nine times,

Maybe seven times…I doubt if many

Christians can claim to be moved…

Should faithfulness and

Honesty prevail between two nations?

Both have the same amount of help. But what

If it at one point a Religion,

A meritorious work would be

To follow others?

(The Jew, a comedy in one act)

In the German volume, G.E. Lessing Works, Volume III, Munich, 1970, Lessing was quoted in a moment of pure promotion of civil rights: “It [the play, The Jew], was the result of a very serious reflection on the shameful oppression, in which a nation must sigh, that a Christian should…” Such recordings of this brand of liberal rhetoric from a Christian towards a Jew, is very rare indeed for the era, but nonetheless poignant. Of Lessing’s two dramatic portrayals of Jewry and heterogeneous pluralism, Nathan the Wise was the more successful.

“The play became a lofty symbol of religious tolerance, a text that liberal Jews and Germans clung to tenaciously during the crisis of humanism.” said Professor Shmuel Feiner. Feiner is chair of the Leo Baeck Institute in Jerusalem and professor of Jewish Studies at Bar-Ilan University. “The Jews in Germany turned it into a secular bible of the emancipation.” he said referring to the era of the maskilim in Deutschland.  “They thought of it as the great declaration of their rights, as a basis for a possible and desirable symbiosis between Jews and Germans, and perhaps even as an insurance policy that was issued in 1779 and expired in 1933.” he said, referring to the Holocaust. Instead of an interview, Feiner has offered portions of his forthcoming article, slated to appear in the next issue of the Lessing Year Book (Volume XL) for the purpose of this piece.

It may be said that in the spirit of the times, especially on the Continent, G.E. Lessing was one of the freest and yes, pluralistic of thinkers. For instance, (as previously mentioned) it has been widely recorded that Lessing held a warm fraternity with none other than the Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelsohn and that the two of them co-authored an essay, Pope a Metaphysician! Or Pope ein Metaphysike (1756) about the English epic and philosophical lyricist of the prior century, Alexander Pope. Originally published as an “Anonymous Pamphlet in Defense of [Gottfried] Leibniz,” it protested the cynicism and pessimistic world outlook that dominated much of the European philosophy of the day. In a 2003 biography of Moses Mendelssohn’s grandson, the musical composer, Felix Mendelssohn (whose music and character later became a target in the anti-Semitic prose writing of composer, Richard Wagner) entitled, Mendelssohn: A Life In Music, author and Duke University professor of music, Larry R. Todd writes that the relationship between Moses Mendelssohn and G.E. Lessing may be viewed as one of the most “illuminating metaphors [for] the clarion call of the Enlightenment for religious tolerance.”

It is evident to see how Moses Mendelssohn’s Jewish heritage rubbed off on his gentile compatriot and of course how the church that Lessing’s name represented, influenced German Jewry during this century. “It was the Enlightenment in its age of innocence, long before the critical trends of post-modernism and post-colonialism, under the trauma of the World War and the atrocities in Europe, expressed profound despair with humanism and even attempted to expose the roots of oppression in the Enlightenment.” said Professor Shmuel Feiner in his statement.

At the time, Lessing himself was in a fight with the academy about building a less stringent form of Lutheran orthodoxy. Felix Mendelssohn had in his library, editions of Lessing’s works and, of course, his grandfather’s.” said Professor Larry R. Todd in a statement. “Also, the composer’s uncle, Joseph Mendelssohn, wrote a biographical preface to the collected works of [Moses] Mendelssohn in 1843, and sent a letter to [Felix] Mendelssohn saying that Felix was the first to give new life to the brilliance of your grandfather’s name…about the biography I can only say to you, it is true, the gulf between the conditions of the grandfather’s life and that of the grandson will astonish you.  If the moral world were always to make such giant steps, it would be inconceivable that it has not progressed further in 5000 years.”

When G.E. Lessing first moved to Berlin, his new friend, the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn had written an essay criticizing the Germans’ neglect of their own philosophical and other intellectual treasures, namely the writings of the philosopher, Gottfried Leibniz. Leibniz was a well-known metaphysician and rational idealist in the tradition of the German school of idealism that dominated the practice of philosophy in the era of the Enlightenment. It would have been dangerous for a Jew to speak so negatively and openly about a German, however, Lessing had Mendelssohn’s essay published anonymously in 1755. It was called Philosophical Conversations or Philosophize Gespräche.

In 1779, without so much as a dime in his pocket, G.E. Lessing wrote the play, Nathan the Wise or Nathan der Weise. Times were trying for him then. The playwright had laid his wife and child to final rest, and on top of these personal sorrows, Lessing was in the midst of a fierce theological dispute with the academy that would last until his death, as above mentioned, the push to weaken or change the fundamentalist element in Lutheran theology. Inspired by these events, the protagonist, Nathan’s wife and seven children were burnt alive in Germany by Christians during the Third Crusade (1189-1192). But in the play, revenge goes overlooked. Here there is a reconciliation; a forgiveness.


Nathan, you are a Christian. Yes, I swear

You are a Christian–better never lived.



                         Indeed! The very thing that makes me                                                                

            Seem Christian to you, makes you a Jew (to me).

But let us not distress each other thus,

‘Tis time to act, and though a sevenfold love

Had bound me to this strange, this lovely maid,

Though the mere thought distracts me, that in her

I lose my seven dear sons a second time,

If Providence require her at my hands

I’m ready to obey.

(Nathan the Wise, Act V, Scene III)

One read through the play and it is plain to see why the editor of the English translation classified Lessing along with Martin Luther as religious reformers. But Luther represented the religious Reformation. Protestantism was an egocentric and book-friendly religion for Christians but not tolerant of other faiths and denominations. Lessing’s Reformation was a secularized brand of Protestantism that preached religious tolerance. The script which features in its dramatis personae, the protagonist, Nathan, a wealthy Jewish Jerusalemite, a Christian Jerusalemite, a Friar, a knight Templar, an Emir, Mamelukes and of course the Egyptian Sultan Saladin (among a few other minor characters), was famously forbidden by the church for its pluralistic overtones. The play was originally written between 1778-9 in direct opposition to the theological censures of the Hamburg pastor. Its premiere was in Berlin in 1783, but met with scant success, according to records. In 1801, the classical German writers of slightly higher stature than G.E. Lessing, Schiller and Goethe reintroduced it on the Weimar stage. In the 1920s, Nathan the Wise was made into a silent film, produced in Munich. The only existing “print” of the film was found in 1996 in Moscow. An original score was added and it was performed. The original production of the film adaptation was produced by Manfred Noa and starred Fritz Greiner, Lia Eibenschutz and Carl de Vogt. It was made at Emelka Studios by Bavaria Film. According to the resource, Prawler, the original production provoked demonstrations in Munich from right-wing mobs that held it to be too pro-Hebrew. Not as a poet and playwright but as an essayist, Lessing helped to create the closest literary form to resemble our own critical tradition, for this he was known as the first ‘dramaturg’. This is especially evident in the aesthetical treatise, Laoocon (an essay on the limits of poetry and painting). Set during the Third Crusade in the holy city of Jerusalem, the play Nathan the Wise illustrates a world where a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim can overcome their religious and other social differences.


The thought she holds to most,

Is that the Templar was no earthly form,

But her blessed guardian angel, such as she

From childhood fancied hovering o’er her path;

Who from his veiling cloud, amid the fire

Rushed to her aid in her preserver’s form.

You smile incredulous. Who knows the truth?

Permit her to indulge the fond confusion,

Which Christian, Jew, and [Muslim] alike

Agree to own. The illusion is so sweet!

(Act I, Scene I)

According to some, the character of Nathan of course is modeled after Moses Mendelsohn, Judaism’s own reformer or, the father of the Haskalah. (Perhaps the name itself was inspired by Nathan the Babylonian). According to others, Nathan reflects Lessing’s own “Spinozaism,” his pantheism. In Act II, Scene II, we see how Jews are perceived by the Mamelukes. Of course, the tepid racial sentiment in these lines does not necessarily reflect the view of Muslims toward Jews during the Crusades, (whilst they did reportedly fight side by side against the French and German Christians). But Lessing takes care to paint his Jew as a man of wisdom and honor, hence the namesake of the play. This does much to reflect popular culture in 18th century Berlin. In the book Germany (Popular Judaica Library 1974), by examining the lives of certain famous Jewish Germans, we get a glimpse of just what that must have been like:

The beauty, wit, and vivacity of such Jewesses as Henrietta Herz (1764-1847) and Rachel Varnhagen (1771-1833) made their cultural salons the most brilliant in Berlin. They also created a certain type of Jew acceptable to the         intellectual and artistic amongst Christian German society.   By the time  Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) – the first modern Christian dramatist to   portray a Jew in sympathetic terms – wrote his play Nathan the Wise (1779),             some Germans were acknowledging the right of individual Jews to be treated as human beings. They were still selective in their friendships, but they were no longer indiscriminate in their prejudices.

When G. E. Lessing first met Moses Mendelssohn in Berlin, the two played chess. Apropos, Lessing has the Jewish protagonist Nathan play chess with the character of Saladin. “He’s wise, knows how to live, can play at chess;” Lessing’s Nathan could be perceived by historians as an apology for the German Crusades in which Jews were either massacred, forced to convert, or kill themselves in holy martyrdom. In an email, Duke University music professor, Larry R. Todd wrote, “If you are looking for illustrations you might consider Moritz Oppenheim’s 1856 painting showing Mendelssohn and Lessing playing chess.” He was referring to a painting depicting Moses Mendelssohn and G.E. Lessing playing chess at a table in Mendelssohn’s den.  Lavater (Johann Kaspar Lavater 1741-1801, a Swiss theologian) and Lessing visit Mendelssohn, is the title of the piece that hangs at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in San Francisco.

Painting is courtesy of Judah Magnes Museum in San Francisco. Lavater and Lessing Visit Moses Mendelssohn (1856), by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1800-1882). Oil on canvas.

The painting is courtesy of Judah Magnes Museum in San Francisco.
“Lavater and Lessing Visit Moses Mendelssohn” (1856), by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1800-1882). Oil on canvas.”

In the painting, there is a candelabrum and Sabbath candles, a maid bringing in a tray and an open book placed on the chess table before Moses Mendelssohn. The open book is Bonnet, according to the museum’s notes. The book is an allusion to Lavater’s German translation of a work by Charles Bonnet (1720-1793). Lavater’s hat and walking stick are placed on a stool in the corner of the den. On the bookshelf in the background, various sized books represent the co-placement of secular book alongside religious. There is a ritual hand-washing sink, a sign depicting “Mizrah,” used to keep in mind the Western Wall in Jerusalem to turn to while praying and a sign above the door saying “Blessed shalt thou be when thou comest in, and blessed shalt thou be when thou goest out  (Deuteronomy 28: 6).

When Lessing wrote the prior comedy Die Juden, or The Jew, he had just moved to Berlin and was a young man of 20 or 21 years. It was his friendship with Moses Mendelssohn that apparently changed his outlook on the Jewish race and religion—and how apropos of the age. Frederick the Great was the ruler of Prussia at the time, and the city was reportedly drenched in free-spiritedness and yes, even atheism. This caused the city of Berlin to be frowned upon of course by the church, which held such thinking to be salacious and an embarrassment to the Prussian Empire.

 Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-1786), the architect of one of the most efficient and successful military administrations of the century, illustrates this  ambivalence perfectly. He despised his Jewish subjects as a group; subjecting them to a degrading poll tax, limiting the number of their offspring, and even forcing them to buy a specified quantity of porcelain from the royal factory.

But in other reports we hear how anti-Semitism was relatively lower than in other eras of German history and that for the first time in many years, Jews were permitted to reside with their gentile neighbors.

But while thus making life miserable for the mass, Frederick was perfectly capable of sublimating his prejudices and being gracious to a few. Successful    traders, skilled administrators, all those who could be used as court   purveyors or financiers, became “privileged” Jews. They were allowed a host         of bounties and concessions which included the right to mix freely         with their         gentile neighbors, and even to reside among them. The majority of Prussian             Jewry (and Prussia’s Jewish population was later to be vastly I increased by   the partitions of Poland in 1793 and 1795) remained herded within             the ghetto. But there was significant numbers outside it, not only in Prussia but in       Frankfort, Dresden, Leipzig, Kassel,           Brunswick, Halle, and Westphalia too. [i]

The characters which represent the Jew, the Muslim and Christian all come together in the last scene with the parable of the ring. This scene is based on Boccaccio’s character, Melchisedech, in the third “novel” of the Italian Renaissance masterpiece known as the Decameron. In the play, Nathan is a Jewish merchant returning after a business voyage to his home in Jerusalem. He learns that his daughter, Raja, has been saved from a house fire by a German Knight Templar Crusader, who himself was a captive whose life was spared by Sultan Saladin. Nathan tells the Knight a story: “Once upon a time there was a man who possessed a precious ring. Whoever wore the ring was endowed with the magic power to win the love of God and man. When the owner of the ring died, he left it to his favorite son; and when the son died, he left it in turn to his favorite son.” So the father secretly made copies of the rings for each son of which there were three, but the sons never find out and they fight over who has the right to the precious spiritual jewelry. In the end, an ironic twist reveals that Nathan stole Daja, Racha’s Christian friend at birth. Knights are sent to spy on Nathan but they end up revealing to him that Daja’s father, Wolf Von Filneck was sent to fight in Gaza, and was finally killed at Ashkelon. Nathan says that when he found the babe, the Christians killed all the Jews in his town, including his wife and seven children. Eventually, Raja, the Jewess is married off to a Christian Knight Templar; and it turns out that Wolf Von Filneck is the brother of Saladin. As family, in the end, the representatives of each faith become reconciled.

There is also a Kabbalistic trope to be detected, in that the order of the creation of these faiths is somewhat allegorically explained, that is, that they all originate from a biblical patriarch, not to forget the shape of the ring, symbolizing the sefirot. Lessing’s relationship with Mendelssohn and penning of the positivist Crusade drama was a revelation born out of pain. In this era, as previously mentioned, the playwright could not make ends meet, his wife and child were recently deceased and his relationship with his father and his sister was in turmoil. In order to secure as many finances as possible from the project, he had it published on a subscription basis, so as to secure better revenue than were it to be published by a traditional bookseller. Looking back on it today, this play can be seen as a highly entertaining and even educational portrait of a culture that washed away many years ago. Whether there is any artistic or political relevance to our world, today, is up to the reader to decide. The play is still performed today in colleges and professional theaters.

[i] Germany, Popular Judaica Library (1974)