LESSING, GOTTHOLD EPHRAIM:
German poet and critic; born Jan. 22, 1729, at Kamenz, Upper Lusatia; died Feb. 15, 1781, at Brunswick.
Toleration and a striving after freedom of thought led him to condemn all positive religions in so far as they laid claim to absolute authority, and to recognize them merely as stages of historical development. A natural consequence of this principle was his sympathetic attitude toward the Jews; for he deemed it inconsistent with the dictates of religious liberty to exclude for religious reasons a whole race from the blessings of European culture.
In his comedy "Die Juden," one of his earliest dramatic works, he stigmatized the dislike of the Gentiles for the followers of the Jewish religion as a stupid prejudice. He went herein further than any other apostle of toleration before or after him. The full development and final expression of his views on this problem, however, are found in his drama and last masterpiece, "Nathan der Weise" (1779), Lessing thus beginning and ending his dramatic career as an advocate of the emancipation of the Jews.
The figure of Nathan, modeled in the main on that of his friend Moses Mendelssohn, was bound to convince the world that the tenets of toleration and humanity could be enunciated even by a representative of the race so bitterly hated by the world. The legend of the three rings, in which Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are allegorically represented as brothers, each deeming to possess the original magic ring, but all of them having, in reality, been cheated of it, clearly indicates that Lessing wished to represent the Jew as a man, and not Judaism as a dogmatic system. The prize of supremacy is not awarded to this or that confession, but to humanity and morality, which are not bound to any particular faith.
Lessing's "Nathan" had a liberating effect on the Jews in more ways than one. In the first place, the mere fact that he chose the Jew Nathan as his mouthpiece could not pass unnoticed, and was sure to act as a hindrance to persecution; and, secondly, he stimulated the ethical consciousness of the Jews themselves, who could not fall below the standard set up by a noble non-Jew.
While Lessing condemned the belief in positive revelation, he accepted its general concept, seeing in the dogmatic teachings of both the Old and New Testaments efficient educational instruments for the moral elevation of mankind.
In short, Lessing raised Judaism in the esteem of the European nations not only by showing its close connection with Christianity, but also by demonstrating the importance of Mosaism in the general religious evolution of humanity. It was really Lessing who opened the doors of the ghetto and gave the Jews access to European culture. In a certain sense he awakened Moses Mendelssohn to the consciousness of his mission; and through Mendelssohn Lessing liberated Judaism from the most heavy chains of its own forging.
As a Biblical critic Lessing is equaled by none of his contemporaries, and by very few of his predecessors.