More on Lessing


This Lessing parable that I discussed a few days ago is beautiful and sounds true, but a careful examination of Nathan’s parable and his entire play “Nathan the Wise” makes it clear that Lessing’s view, like that of Halevi, which I also discussed a few days ago, is extreme, although at the open-to-others end of the spectrum. It fails to answer a basic question many people ask about their religion.

The play describes life in Jerusalem during the crusades after the Muslim sultan, Saladin, conquered he city. There is a fire and a Templar saves a girl’s life. The Templar was captured during a battle and Saladin saved his life and let him move about freely because he has a striking resemblance and similar movements to Saladin’s brother who disappeared many years ago. Is he a Christian or is he related to Saladin and a Muslim? Does he even know what and who he is? The girl he saved is the daughter of Nathan the Jew. The Templar is attracted to Nathan’s daughter and she to him. He does not want to go see her because he feels he cannot marry a Jew. But is she a Jew or is she a Christian and does she even know who and what she is? The plot, like Nathan’s parable, plays with the question what is the true religion, and adds the questions what are the religions of the Templar and the daughter and does it make any difference since – as stated in the parable – all religions seek to aid people who practice it and each person should be respected. The play also raises the question of intermarriage but avoids answering the question.

In short, both the parable and the play posit that all religions are alike. Although practices differ each is transmitted by people who love their descendants and want to teach them how to behave properly. Lessing’s noble goal, and for this he should be praised, was to teach people to respect everyone no matter what their religion. In this he was successful. His goal was not to answer all questions about religion.

However, a careful reading of the parable and the play reveal that neither answers the question: Why should I be Jewish, Christian, or Muslim if all religions are essentially the same?