||Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781), German dramatist, philosopher, and critic. One of the outstanding representatives of the Enlightenment in Germany, Lessing was devoted to the principle of toleration. One of Lessing's earliest literary ventures was Die Juden (1749), a one-act comedy in which for the first time a Jew was presented on the German stage in a reasonably objective manner. Lessing later upheld the play's defense of toleration against the criticism of J. D. Michaelis. Through a physician, Aaron Solomon Gumpertz, he became a friend and admirer of Moses Mendelssohn, whom he encouraged to publish his first philosophical work. The outcome of their common interest in aesthetics was Pope ein Metaphysiker (1755) and a critical journal, Briefe, die neueste Literatur betreffend (1759–60). Their correspondence, mainly on philosophical themes, continued until Lessing's death.
Mendelssohn was the inspiration for Lessing's Nathan der Weise (1779), his last play, and once more a plea for toleration. Based on the parable of the three rings, adapted from Boccaccio's Decameron, the play presents Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as three sons of a benevolent father who has given each an identical ring, although each one claims that his ring alone is authentic. Nathan is made the spokesman for the aspirations of the Enlightenment: tolerance, brotherhood, and love of humanity. Lessing's vision of Jewish-Christian amity was ridiculed by Julius von Voss in Der travestierte Nathan der Weise (1804), and attacked by the anti-Semites Wilhelm Marr, Karl Eugen Duehring, Sebastian Brunner, and Adolf Bartels. On the other hand Lessing's personal example and ideals were vigorously upheld and emphasized by German Jews such as Gabriel Riesser, I. H. Ritter, Berthold Auerbach, Emil Lehmann, and Johann Jacoby. Nathan der Weise was translated into Hebrew, notably by Simon Bacher and A. B. Gottlober and many of Lessing's other plays were also translated. His ideological and stylistic influence on the Haskalah was as decisive as that of Friedrich Schiller.
However, Lessing's attitude toward Judaism was ambivalent. While never forsaking the principle of tolerance, he came to depreciate Judaism in relation to Christianity with his publication of Fragmente eines Ungenannten (1774–78), the posthumous writings of the ultra-rationalist theologian H. M. Reimarus. He reached a further stage in his epoch-making Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts ("Education of Humanity"), which was published anonymously. In it the Old Testament is described as morally and aesthetically inferior to the New Testament, which itself is on the verge of being superseded by rational enlightenment. The monotheistic and universalistic mission of Judaism as the forerunner of Christianity had been completed. This attitude also appeared in Nathan der Weise, in which the brother representing Christianity accuses the Jewish religion of having given birth to intolerance through the concept of a chosen people.