Yehuda Halevi and Gotthold E. Lessing
Sometimes people change Judaism with extreme interpretations.
The Bible seems to confirm that Jews are chosen by God for special loving treatment. Deuteronomy 7:6, for example, assures the Israelites, “you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: of all the people on earth the Lord your God chose you to be His treasured people.” Deuteronomy 7:7–8 reports God stating that God chose the Israelites “because the Lord loved you.”
Yet appearances are deceiving. It is reasonable to assume that God chose and loves all that God created. The prophet Amos teaches this important lesson. In 9:7, he quotes God saying that God loves and gives special attention to all nations: “Are you not like the children of the Ethiopians to Me, O children of Israel? Have I not brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and Aram from Kir?” All nations are chosen and have a divine mission and responsibility.
The twelfth century Spanish poet Yehuda Halevi is well-known today for his poetical defense of Judaism called The Kuzari, a book that is admired by so many Jews that numerous rabbis give classes and lectures on it, as if it is a holy book. Kuzari is a fictional account of a rabbi explaining Judaism to a non-Jewish Kuzar king. Halevi subtitled his Kuzari “The Book of Proof and Demonstration in Defense of the Despised Faith.”
I disagree with Yehuda Halevi’s key point. He teaches that Jews are biologically superior to all other people. Non-Jews are somewhere in-between animals and Jews. Even converts to Judaism are unable to reach the level of Jews because they lack their biology. Converts remain in the lower class. Non-Jews, he insists, are incapable of fully developing spiritually. Thus, a non-Jew cannot become a prophet. I dislike this notion of the superiority of one nation over another. I think that God created all people and loves all people, and we should respect all people.
The German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) wrote a dramatic poem play in five acts called Nathan der Weise, “Nathan the Wise.” Lessing was not Jewish. His father was a head pastor. He portrayed Nathan as a very smart, rich, and moral man, who wanted to help all people. Lessing expresses the view of the prophet Amos.
In the play, Saladin summons Nathan to his palace and insists that Nathan tell him which of three religions, Islam, Christianity, or Judaism he considers the best. Nathan replies that he can do so with a story.
There was once a man who received an unusually beautiful and priceless ring. The man was told that whoever wears the ring will be loved by man and God. The man liked the ring so much that he never took it off his finger. He decided that the ring should never leave his family. He would bequeath it to the son he likes the most, even if that son is not his eldest child. The son who receives the ring will be lord over his entire estate. So it happened, the ring was passed on with love generation after generation.
But there came a time when a loving father had three sons. He felt that each was worthy to have the ring and be his heir. Nearing death, he had to decide what to do, something that did not disappoint or embarrass any of his three sons.
He called an expert jeweler and had him make two identical copies of his ring. The jeweler was successful, even the father who had worn the ring for decades couldn’t tell which ring was the original.
He summoned each son separately and gave each a blessing and a ring. After his death, each son came to the estate with his ring and claimed that he was the lord of the property. There was tumult and debate, but all in vain. It was impossible to distinguish which ring was the original…the true religion.
Thus said Nathan to Saladin, I apologize. I am also unable to decide which religion is best because the father had expressly made the rings so that they could not be distinguished. But, Saladin objected, each religion is different. Religion is not the same as rings. Yes, said Nathan, there are many differences, but each is built on the same foundation. Each is transmitted by traditions and laws by people who love those to whom they gave the traditions and laws. Who am I to question your ancestors who love you? How can I dare charge them with lies?
Let me finish the story, Nathan said.
The sons went to court and presented their case before a judge. Each told what their father told them, that they were given the true ring. Each said that he was certain his father would never deceive him.
The judge said: I can only decide if your father lied if your father were here and testified. Now, each of you said that your dad also said that he who wears the ring has the secret power; he will be beloved by man and God. Let that decide who of the three of you is loved best.
If any of you only loves himself then he is holding the fake ring.
I suggest, continued the judge, that each of you should think that you have the true ring, that your dad loved you and showed his love to you by giving you the ring. But now you have to prove the power of your ring by showing kindness and love, as your dad showed you.
Saladin, Lessing concludes, was overwhelmed with the truth of what Nathan told him and was speechless.
This is a beautiful parable and I think it tells the truth – as far as it goes. But it raises a question that I will address in my next article.