Moses Mendelssohn, who was born in 1729 in central Germany, came from a poor Jewish family. He was fortunate to get a traditional Jewish education with some philosophical input. At age fourteen, he moved to Berlin to continue studying with his rabbi. While in Berlin he learned French, Italian, English, Latin, and Greek on top of the German and Hebrew he previously knew. Mendelssohn began to write and publish some philosophical essays in German. To some he was known as the Jewish Socrates. (2)
Mendelssohn became life long friends with Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who later wrote a play using Mendelssohn as the model Jew. He was portrayed as Nathan in Nathan the Wise, published in 1779, who was the Jewish hero and spokesman for brotherhood and love of humanity (2). This of course was written during the Enlightenment era.
In Nathan the Wise, the Moslem Sultan calls upon Nathan and asks him, What faith and what law do you hold to be the best? He asks him this because by the people he is known as very wise. The sultan, Saladin, wants to know Nathan s reason for being a Jew and states, A man like you won t let the accident of birth hold him to one religion! Or, if it holds him, it will surely be of his own choice because his insight and his reason prompt him to make that choice as the best religion of the three I ll also make it mine! The sultan then leaves the room and gives Nathan a moment to think about his answer. When he comes back Nathan is finally ready and has a story to tell. A quick summery of the story is that there was a father who received a ring of priceless value And whoever wore this ring, believing in its power, found grace with God and with man as well. It was to always stay in the family generation after generation and to be given to the most loved son, not the first-born. Then one father had three sons who he loved equally. He promised all three the ring. As he neared his death he had two exact copies made of his ring. When he got them back, they were so identical that the father could not even tell the difference. He then individually gave his three sons the rings and hen died. None of the sons could tell which ring was the true ring and each of them believed that their ring was the real ring. They couldn t prove which ring was the true original ring, nor was this possible, anymore so then now we can prove which religion is the true one. They then go before a judge and he says that if the true ring has magical powers then it will eventually prove itself. Then, in the days to come, when the magic powers contained within the rings, worn by your children s children, will brighten up the world, ill call you once again before this seat of judgment after a thousand thousand years have passed. On that day a wiser man will sit upon it and hand down is decision. (3).
What Lessing is saying here that who is anyone to say what the true and right religion is. Of course each religion believes theirs is the right one or they would no longer stay faithful to it. Nathan says it best when he says, Should I have less faith in my forefathers than you do in yours? Or, conversely, can I demand that you must deny yours and that mine may not be contradicted? The same holds true for Christians too. (3).
(1) Class Notes, page 159-160.
(2) Lessing, Gotthold. Nathan the Wise. Act 3; Scenes 5-7