The Ideal of Universal Humanity as Expressed in the Comedy the Jews

The one-act comedy The Jews (Die Juden, 1749), written when he was twenty years of age as the fifth of Lessing's dramatic pieces,25 is an important document from which to judge the religious thought of the young Lessing. The outline of the play is very simple.

A baron and his daughter are attacked on the highway by rascally, bearded "Jews." The victims come within an inch of being killed, but in the nick of time an anonymous traveler, accompanied by his servant, rescues them. The people nearby, including the baron, firmly believe that the criminals are Jews. But the traveler who rescues the baron and his daughter discloses the truth of the matter. It turns out that the real criminals, the warden Stich and the steward Krumm, are disguised Christian subjects of the baron, whereas the gracious traveler proves to be a Jew. The baron, heartily ashamed of his prejudice against Jews, sincerely apologizes to the traveler.

Lessing explains how this comedy came into being:

It was the outcome of a very serious consideration of the disgraceful oppression under which one people had to groan. I mean the [Jewish] nation, which a Christian can hardly regard without some kind of respect. From this nation, I thought, many heroes and prophets have arisen. . . . Yet does one doubt today whether an honest man is to be found among this people? My enthusiasm for theater was so great that everything which came into my head at that time metamorphosed into comedy. I soon got the notion, therefore, of trying to see what effect it would have on the stage if one demonstrated virtue in this people where it was not expected at all. I am eager to hear the verdict.26

In view of this remark, it might be possible to regard this comedy as "a splendid vindication of a despised people" (eine vortreffliche Ehrenrettung eines verachteten Volkes)}1 But the point Lessing really wanted to make seems to be not so much a vindication of the Jewish people as such but an impeachment of the prejudice, hypocrisy, and intolerance against Jews prevalent in Europe on the part of allegedly Christian society. The deep-seatedness of the prejudice against Jews in his age is well expressed in words uttered by the characters. Both the steward Martin Krumm, who wants to have his own crime imputed to Jews, and the baron, who was rescued by the anonymous Jew, speak with one voice in their prejudice against Jews.

Traveler: Your master absolutely insists that they were Jews. It's true they had beards, but their speech was the normal speech of a peasant from these parts. If they were disguised, as I most certainly believe, then the twilight really did come in handy for them. For I simply can't understand how Jews would be able to make the streets unsafe when so few of them are tolerated in this country. Martin Krumm: Yes, yes, I'm positive that they were Jews too. Perhaps you aren't really well enough acquainted with that godless trash yet. As many as there are of them, without exception, are swindlers, thieves, and highwaymen. And that's why it's a people which the Good Lord has cursed. It's a good thing I'm not the king. I wouldn't leave one of them, not a single one of them, alive. Oh! may God protect all upstanding Christians from these people. If the Good Lord didn't hate them himself, then why, in that terrible catastrophe a while back in Breslau, why did twice as many of them die as Christians? . . .28

Baron: You know, it really was Jews who attacked me. Just now my steward told me that he came upon three of them on the highway a few days ago. The way he described them to me, they looked more like criminals than honest people. And why should I even have any doubts about it? A people that is so bent on profit asks little whether it makes it justly or unjustly, by cunning or by force. They seem to be made for trade, or, to call a spade a spade, for swindling. Polite, free, enterprising, discreet, these are characteristics that would make them laudable, if they didn't use them all too often for our misfortune.—(He stops a moment.)—Jews have already caused me no end of harm and aggravation. . . . Oh! they are the most evil, the most despicable people—What do you say? You seem quite depressed.

Traveler: What should I say? I must say, that I have heard this complaint very often—

Baron: And isn't it true that their facial features have something about them that sets us against them right away? It's almost as if you can see the spitefulness, unscrupulousness, selfishness, deceit, and perjury clearly in their eyes—But why are you turning away from me?

Traveler: As I hear, sir, you are such a great expert in physiognomy, and I'm worried lest mine—

Baron: Oh! You insult me! How could you even suspect such a thing? Without being an expert in physiognomy I must tell you that I have never seen such an upright, magnanimous, and pleasant expression as yours.

Traveler: To tell you the truth: I am not partial to general judgments about whole peoples—You won't take this liberty of mine the wrong way.—I would like to believe that among all nations there were good and evil souls. . . . And among the Jews [as well]—29

The contrast between a prejudice against the Jews, deep-seated in Christian society, and a universal humanism transcending all sectarianism and partisanship, is sharply delineated here. Does the following conversation between the baron and the traveler suggest Lessing's idea of humanity, which found its ultimate expression in Nathan the Wise, the masterpiece of his later years?

Baron: All I see of you delights me. Come, let's see that the culprits are put into safe custody. Oh, how worthy of respect would all Jews be if they were all like you!

Traveler: And how delightful the Christians, if they all had your character!30

Be that as it may, an explanation is hardly needed for the fact that The Jews, written by the twenty-year-old freelance journalist, has resonances with the cardinal idea of Nathan the Wise. This one-act play is, to be sure, an immature piece with many theatrical difficulties. Yet it is, as Hans Mayer asserts, "anything but an insignificant piece of juvenilia to be relegated to graduate seminars and read there only because of the author's general importance."31 It may be no exaggeration to say that this one-act play demonstrates Lessing's real ability as an Enlightenment thinker more straightforwardly and acutely than Nathan the Wise. For in this play the young author sets forth his opinion frankly. According to Lessing, the espousal of freedom, equality, and tolerance in general terms is insufficient for realizing what the Enlightenment aims at. The touchstone for testing the real value of the Enlightenment is, rather, a matter of seeing whether and how, with an eye to those living in the real ghetto, one can overcome in practice the general prejudice against Jews.32

In response to the practical problem posed by the young Lessing, Johann David Michaelis, a professor of Oriental languages and theology at the University of Göttingen, published in the Göttingen'sche Anzeigen von gelehrten Sachen a comment which, though generally favorable, was in part highly critical:

The unknown traveler is . . . so thoroughly good, so nobly minded, so careful to do his neighbor no wrong, . . . educated, so that while it is not impossible, it is exceedingly unlikely that such a noble temperament could have come to be found among a people whose fundamental beliefs, way of life, and education color their dealings with Christians all too noticeably with animosity, or at least with a decidedly cold reckoning against Christians. This impossibility is a hindrance to our pleasure, the more so that we wish this noble and lovely image had truth and reality to it. But even run-of-the-mill virtue and honesty are so rarely to be found among this people that the few examples that are in truth to be found cannot diminish as much as one would like the hatred felt against them.33

Michaelis's criticism was pertinent to some extent. The traveler in Lessing's one-act play was, to be sure, too good, too noble a man. It no doubt struck at least some people as exceedingly unlikely that such an ideal person could have turned up in real history.

But about the time he read Michaelis's review, Lessing happened, by good fortune, to make friends with a young Jewish man of noble mind, a man very much like the hero in the play. This was Moses Mendelssohn from the ghetto in Dessau.34 The personal encounter between the young ex-parsonage freelance journalist, who throughout his life felt himself "a beloved bastard of a noble gracious lord,"35 and the future great Jewish philosopher, in praise of whom the phrase "Von Moses bis Moses war keiner dem Moses gleich" was later coined,36 was certainly good fortune not only for both young men but also for the German Enlightenment. Their friendship was to yield an exceptionally beautiful and moving page in German intellectual history.

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