Reason, Religion, Style (Lessing in Jerusalem)

2012 was an extraordinarily busy year for me regarding publications, mainly by accident. There was a huge backlog of old material prepared and/or submitted years ago that have finally seen the light of day. This one was not in the cooker too long. It reflects ongoing interests in liberalism, liberal religion, and aestehtics. The essay, “Lessing in Jerusalem: Modern Religion, Medieval Orientalism, and the Idea of Perfection,” appears in Encountering the Medieval in Modern Jewish Thought, edited by James Diamond and Aaron Hughes.

I have tried here to set Lessing’s famous play Nathan the Wise at the mise en scene of modern Judaism and modern Jewish philosophy. The upshot I want to pursue is that modern religion, including Jewish religion, has a lot to do with art and the history of aesthetic style, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, fantasy and faraway times and places, the idea of “perfection” and the pursuit of happiness. I sought to identify a reconstruction more felicitous than the ones offered by Strauss and his followers, who want to pigeonhole politically religion under “obedience.”

Advancing an idea that was to become common against the Enlightenment, the great nineteenth-century German Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz complained gently about Moses Mendelssohn. Simply put, the man whom Graetz held singlehandedly responsible for nothing less than the resurrection from the dead of the Jews and Judaism had no conception of history.2 In fact, however, the orientation of modern culture toward history and historical forms was not invented, as per Graetz, in the nineteenth century. The past was already alive in n and enlightenment culture. This is evident already among Mendelssohn’s contemporaries and in Mendelssohn’s own work as well. Images of the classical past—Greek, Roman, and Hebrew—were constructed as models upon which to secure freedom of thought and of culture and to foment opposition to Christian ecclesiastical authority in the present. Against medieval Christendom, German Jewish scholars in the nineteenth century such as Graetz, Abraham Geiger, and Michael Sachs will have found their classical ideal in the legend of a Jewish “golden age” in medieval Spain under Muslim rule. A highly stylized image of the Arab Orient will have lent itself to Jewish historians and their bourgeois readers as a fantasy platform upon which to model a free and open form of modern culture and modern Judaism. (pp.71-2)


Perfection is a multiplicity in unity, that place in which as many phenomena as possible subsist together. Instead of an unhappy picture of persecution and conflict, the image of the medieval in Lessing is happy and synthetic. Read alongside [Hava] Tirosh-Samuelson’s substantial study of happiness in medieval philosophy, Lessing’s world-image may not appear so foreign after all to the medieval Islamic milieu. I make this assertion in opposition to the type of thought predicated upon stark oppositions reflected in twentieth-century political theology. In works by Strauss, Schmitt, or Jacob Taubes, the relation between philosophy and religion is beset by essential structural predicaments; the soul takes on the character of an alien implant in the world; religion is reduced to the dictates of obedience and omnipotence. In contrast, the ancient and medieval Jewish and Jewish philosophical traditions explored by Tirosh-Samuelson are ones in which conflicts between religion and philosophy are not immutable, in which “happiness” is an objective condition rooted in the very structure of the cosmos.The viewpoints reflected in her study are not “radical.” They representa “bourgeois view . . . which entails a moderate and prudent enjoymentof life in this world,” a view of the world combining robust worldliness and recognition of the transience of temporal existence (p.97)


Ritual and poetry constitute the contribution of the imagination to the recognition and formation of common truths that both Mendelssohn and Lessing sought to separate out from any one single historical matrix. Unlike Lessing the unchristian Christian, Mendelssohn the Jewish Greek Jew allowed himself more freedom to think in what he thought was a tradition that keeps “pace” with new articulations of truth, and that allowed a modern subject to see poetry in scriptures, and to see scripture as poetry. By his own account in “Education,” Lessing will have one day left Jerusalem, whereas Mendelssohn never wanted or needed to do so. One should not neglect his debt to Lessing. Mendelssohn can only stay in Jerusalem because of Lessing. Truth moves in the Orient (Judaism à Christianity), to the occident (Enlightenment), back to the orient (Islam), to points unknown in the universe (metempsychosis). It is Lessing’s primary deterritorialization of religion out of prior, binding historical matrices that opens for Mendelssohn the possibility of reterritorializing Jewish thought and culture on a free basis, the resurrection of the Jews and Judaism in the modern period. (98)

Thanks to Jim and Aaron for all the hard work. The complete bibliographical details for the essay are Zachary Braiterman, “Lessing in Jerusalem: Modern Religion, Medieval Orientalism, and the Idea of Perfection” in James A. Diamond and Aaron W. Hughes (eds.), Encountering the Medieval in Modern Jewish Thought, (Leiden: Brill, 2012), pp.77-98.  For anyone interested, a pdf of the essay can be found at the publications page here at JPP. The image above is from a contemporary staging of Lessing’s play that I found at this website.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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