Treatise on Tolerance

by Voltaire (1763)

Extreme Tolerance of the Jews

Hence both under Moses, the judges, and the kings you find constant instances of toleration. Moses says several times (Exodus xx.) that "God punishes the fathers in the children, down to the fourth generation"; and it was necessary thus to threaten a people to whom God had not revealed the immortality of the soul, or the punishments and rewards of another life. These truths were not made known either in the Decalogue or any part of Leviticus or Deuteronomy. They were dogmas of the Persians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Cretans; but they by no means formed part of the Jewish religion. Moses does not say: "Honour thy father and thy mother if thou wouldst go to heaven"; but: "Honour thy father and thy mother, that thou mayst live long on the earth." He threatens the Jews only with bodily maladies and other material evils. Nowhere does he tell them that their immortal souls will be tortured after death or be rewarded. God, who himself led his people, punished or rewarded them at once for their good or bad actions. Everything was temporal. Those who ignorantly maintain that Moses taught the immortality of the soul strip the New Testament of one of its greatest advantages over the Old Testament. It is certain that the law of Moses spoke only of temporal chastisement, down to the fourth generation. However, in spite of the precise formulation of this law and the express declaration of God that he would punish down to the fourth generation, Ezekiel announces the very opposite to the Jews. He says (xviii., 20) that the son will not bear the iniquity of his father; and he even goes so far as to make God say that he had given them "statutes that were not good" (xx., 25).

The book of Ezekiel was nevertheless inserted in the canon of inspired writers. It is true that the synagogue did not allow any one to read it until he was thirty years old, as St. Jerome tells us; but that was in order that young men might not make evil use of the too candid pictures of vice in chapters xvi. and xxiii. The book was always received, in spite of the fact that it expressly contradicted Moses.

When the immortality of the soul was at length admitted, which probably began about the time of the Babylonian captivity, the Sadducees continued to believe that there were no punishments and rewards after death, and that the power of feeling and thinking perished with us, like the power of walking and digesting. They denied the existence of angels. They differed from the other Jews much more than Protestants differ from Catholics, yet they remained in the communion of their brethren. Some of their sect even became high-priests.

The Pharisees believed in fatalism and metempsychosis. The Essenians thought that the souls of the just went to the Fortunate Islands, and those of the wicked into a kind of Tartarus. They offered no sacrifices, and met in a special synagogue. Thus, when we look closely into Judaism, we are astonished to find the greatest toleration in the midst of the most barbaric horrors. It is a contradiction, we must admit; nearly all nations have been ruled by contradictions. Happy the contradiction that brings gentler ways into a people with bloody laws.

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