"Nathan the Wise": an Initiative for Tolerance

Religions' Moral Potential

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's Nathan the Wise is probably the most significant parable about tolerance between Islam, Christianity and Judaism. In a current project the newly restored silent film Nathan the Wise is being shown with life music by Rabih Abou-Khalil. Claudia Mende went along

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's Nathan the Wise is probably the most significant parable about tolerance between Islam, Christianity and Judaism. In a current project the newly restored silent film Nathan the Wise is being shown with life music by Rabih Abou-Khalil. Claudia Mende went along ​​

On 24 October the Goethe Institute hosted the world premiere of the restored silent film Nathan the Wise (Manfred Noa, 1922) in Munich's Gasteig arts centre. It was accompanied with live music by the Lebanese-German composer Rabih Abou-Khalil, played by the Bundesjugendorchester (German youth orchestra) conducted by Frank Strobel, famous internationally for his work conducting film scores.

On the day of world premiere a discussion was held between the writer Hilal Sezgin, Marcia Pally of New York University and the theologian Rolf Schieder on "the new wrath of God" and the significance of Lessing's ring parable for the twenty-first century. The production was supported by the German radio and television stations ZDF, Arte and Deutschlandradio Kultur.  

A plea for tolerance

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote his lyrical drama Nathan the Wise in 1779. It includes the ring parable, a plea for tolerance between the three monotheist world religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (photo: AP)
Plea for the peaceful coexistence of peoples and faiths: engraving portraying the German philosopher and poet Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781)

​​ Based on older literary sources, the parable tells the story of a father who owns a magic ring he wishes to bequeath to his sons. He has three sons however, each equally dear to him, and doesn't want to favour one over the others. And so the father gets copies of the rings made and leaves each of his sons a ring of their own; the rings stand for the monotheistic world religions.

In the story of the wise Jew Nathan, Lessing included outspoken criticism of sanctimonious Christian dignitaries and examples of Muslim tolerance embodied by the figure of Saladin; the historical background to his play was his personal experience of censorship by the church. No religion can elevate itself above the others, was the Enlightenment writer's message in the eighteenth century.  

"A film for humanity"

The 1922 silent film Nathan the Wise, by the German Jewish director Manfred Noa (1893-1930) is to date the only film of the play. It sticks closely to Lessing's plot and, in a cinematic language which still feels modern, tells a story set in Jerusalem during the third crusade when the city was besieged by crusaders. With their technically impressive film, Noa and his producer Erich Wagowski of the Munich-based company Emelka, made a significant statement within early film history in support of a more political cinema. Director and producer wanted to make a "film for humanity", a plea for the peaceful coexistence of peoples and faiths.

Rampant anti-Semitism during the Weimar Republic made it very difficult to show the film even in the 1920s; after 1933 it was not shown at all. It was only in 1996 that the Munich film museum discovered the film material, believed lost, in the Russian film archive in Moscow.  

Rabih Abou-Khalil, a Lebanese musician in Bavaria

photo: Wikimedia Commons
Transporting Lessing's idea to the twenty-first century: German-Lebanese oud virtuoso and composer Rabih Aou-Khalil


The music written by Lebanese-German composer Rabih Abou-Khalil for the new screenings contains his typical mixture of eastern and western stylistic elements. Abou-Khalil, who plays the oud (oriental lute), grew up in Beirut during the civil war and studied Arab and western music and the Beirut school of arts. In 1978 he escaped to Bavaria, where he continued his musical studies. He became famous for bringing together traditional Arab music, European classical music and American jazz, and is seen as one of the most significant musicians playing jazz and world music in Germany.

In 2002 he received the German music critics' annual prize for his life's work. For the world premiere in Munich's Gasteig arts centre Abou-Khalil played the oud. With his unique mixture of western and eastern harmonies and the restored silent film, a cinematic, musical initiative for tolerance has been created, transporting Lessing's idea to the twenty-first century. The Goethe Institute will be taking the film and the music on a tour of Eastern Europe, the US and Istanbul.  

Can reason bring religions together?

Lessing's idea was that in the era of the Enlightenment, through the advance of reason, the world's religions would grow closer to each other. Today too, we have to "accept the differences between religions and practice tolerance in our diversity," emphasised Marcia Pally, professor of Multilingual and Multicultural Studies at New York University, who has mainly been studying the evangelical Christian movement in the US. Then as now, no-one could definitively prove the truth of religions.

This question will remain unanswered until the end of time. Critical for Lessing, and still crucially important today, is how people practice their religion. He concedes that each of the three monotheist religions can be practiced according to ethical and moral criteria. For Marcia Pally "the renunciation of violence, reason and dialogue" are the essential criteria for a religion which can be practiced tolerantly.

A new understanding of sexuality in the religions

The religions continue even today to jar with the pluralistic vision espoused by Lessing in his ring parable. They each have sticking points, where their beliefs are not yet compatible with modern society. These include the rejection of homosexuality by orthodox Islam and the Catholic Church. The Muslim writer Hilal Sezgin pleaded for a new understanding of sexuality by religions.

Hilal Sezgin (photo: Julika Tillmanns)
Hilal Sezgin: "The biggest problem with religions for me is that they do not accept all post-modern lifestyles"

​​"The biggest problem with religions for me is that they do not accept all post-modern lifestyles," Szegin said. "Sexuality should not be understood morally." Continuing from Lessing's ideas, for her it was not important who you practice your sexuality, but how you treat your partner. Even though many people today have difficulties with the rejection of same-sex relationships by Christianity and Islam, Marcia Pally still emphasised all religions' capacity for change.

"Religion is not necessarily homophobic," she said, and cited the example of the US evangelical Christian movement which in recent years has largely moved on from its anti-homosexual position.

Religion as counter to the all-encompassing market

Alongside the rejection of postmodern lifestyles, the missionary aspect of Christianity and Islam has also attracted criticism ever since the Enlightenment – not unreasonably. Despite this, theologian Rolf Schieder felt that the perspective has changed. Today even scientists were asking what positive effects religion might have. All religions had a moral potential which is urgently needed in the era of globalisation as a counter to the pervasive power of the market.

He mentioned the example of Islamic criticism of a monetary economy separate from the real economy, as well as the churches' criticism of excessive spending on arms and the military. To Marcia Pally it was clear that "Religions are a tremendous repository of wisdom. We can't toss them out. Their prophetic role is important for the democratic state as a critic of government when it is unjust."

Claudia Mende

© Qantara.de 2009

Translated from the German by Steph Morris


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