Friday, September 4, 2009

Luther Wanted to Burn down Synagogues but he was not an Anti-Semite

I spoke about Martin Luther the other day. I asked my Hebrew Academy students to define anti-Semitism and whether Luther was an anti-Semite. (As an early modernist, one of my personal goals is that after a year of my class my students, when they hear the name Martin Luther, should not think of a black preacher with a dream but a fat, beer drinking German.) Almost every one of my students defined anti-Semitism as hating Jews. They also all saw Luther as an anti-Semite. I sympathize with my students’ feelings. When I was younger I agreed with my students. In my ninth grade history class I called Luther a bum. The history teacher, Mr. Jesse, responded that he was a Lutheran. I guess you can say oops. (Mr. Jesse was the perfect middle school teacher. He was physically intimidating as in over six feet tall, built like a brick wall, yelled and threw stuff. He also had a basic command of the material, was a genuinely likeably person and had a great sense of humor.)

There are certainly good reasons for viewing Luther as an anti-Semite. After taking a fairly positive attitude toward Jews early in his career, Luther turned on Jews with a vengeance in On the Jews and their Lies (1543). Luther advises :

First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. …
Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. For they pursue in them the same aims as in their synagogues. Instead they might be lodged under a roof or in a barn, like the gypsies. …
Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.
Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb.
Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside, since they are not lords, officials, tradesmen, or the like.

While this aspect of Luther was mostly ignored until the twentieth century, the Nazis made use of Luther, viewing him as a precursor of theirs. The modern Lutheran Church has officially rejected all statements of Luther’s regarding Jews.

I believe that it is important that for anti-Semitism to mean something it has to mean something more than hating Jews. The English hate the French and vice versa. At Ohio State we have a Hate Michigan Week every November. Pretty much every group on the planet has been hated by someone else, has been the subject of bigotry, discriminated against and even on occasion killed. Anti-Semitism is something beyond that. Jews are unique in the sort of hatred they have consistently evoked in so many different places and people. What other group of people have something to compare to the blood libel or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, one of the best selling books of the twentieth century? The Nazis hated lots of different groups of people yet there was something about the Jews that made them a special target. For example, the German war effort in 1944 was literally sabotaged in order to massacre Hungarian Jewry. So anti-Semitism is not just people hating Jews but people having a pathological hatred of Jews, a hatred of Jews that goes beyond reason.

When dealing with Christian-Jewish relations it is important to distinguish between Christians who were hostile to Jews for what they were and a Christian hostility that went beyond all reality. Let us be clear, medieval Jews were heretics, unbelievers and blasphemers, who hated Christians. Toldot Yeshu was accepted fact for Jews. They believed that their ancestors really did kill Jesus and were proud of it. To them Jesus was a bastard, a heretic and a magician while the Virgin Mary was a whore. From this perspective Luther was being perfectly reasonable. All his accusations were things that Jews would have admitted to. Jews curse Christians, fact. When Jews, in the sixteenth century, said the curse for heretics in the eighteen benedictions they meant Christians. Jews refer to Christians as goyim, fact. Jews call Jesus the ‘hanged one,’ fact. Jews practice usury, fact. Luther refers to the blood libel accusations. He was agnostic about these charges but argued that Jews hated Christians enough to murder Christians. Again this was a very reasonable assumption.

Luther was a polemicist, who wrote in an aggressive manner; even by the standards of the day Luther’s universe was highly Manichean one, sharply divided between the saved and the unsaved with no grey area in between. It was not just Jews whom he believed to be satanic. He believed that the Catholic Church and even fellow Protestants who disagreed with him were also of the Devil and going straight to Hell. So there was nothing particularly anti-Jewish about his demonization of Jews. The fact that they were Jews was incidental to the fact that they were people who disagreed with him.

In the pre-modern period all government authority was inherently religious. It was assumed that it was God’s will that a certain person rule. Because of this there was, almost by definition, no such thing as a non-political religious claim. Every religious claim had political implications and anyone who went against the established religion was by definition engaging in political subversion. For example, if God is not a Catholic then God clearly would not want the Catholic Charles V to rule over his German people and take care of their spiritual welfare like he has the Pope look after their spiritual welfare. Therefore anyone who was not a Catholic in early sixteenth century Germany was implicitly advocating for the overthrow of Charles V. Because of this it is impossible to ever accuse a pre-modern, Luther or anyone else, of being intolerant of other religions. Luther was perfectly in his rights to advocate the use of violence against Jews or any other religious subversives just as we accept the legitimacy of the use of violence even today against political traitors. And in fact Jews got off much easier than Luther’s Christian opponents. Luther explicitly warned against directly harming Jews. The fact that Luther only wanted to destroy Jewish property, interfere with the ability of Jews to earn a livelihood and practice their religion while at the same time advocating physical violence against Catholics and Anabaptists begs the question not why Luther was hostile to Jews but why he was not more hostile to them. One suspects that it had something to do with his strong Augustinian leanings.

In conclusion I do not think it is accurate or helpful to view Luther as an anti-Semite. He was an active opponent of Judaism which is nothing remarkable as to be a Christian, unless you are a very liberal one, requires that one be at least a passive opponent of Judaism, along with every other religion. Luther’s opposition to Judaism was internally consistent. His accusations against Jews are all grounded in solid fact; there is nothing fantastical about them. He took these things to their logical conclusion and endorsed a very reasonable sixteenth century solution to the problem. Jews today do not have any legitimate grounds for any personal animosity against Luther himself let alone to use Luther as a polemical club against modern day Lutherans.


jewpublic club said...

Well look, he wanted to be nice to the jews because he thought they could become his close supporters, he was more of a desperate man hunted by inquisition, but he was still of opinion that christian teachings have replaced Judaism and that is how you have to view him - he did not wish to kill Jews per se, just wanted them to help him in his ideological struggle, and since he also was sure that his teaching were so righteous, they will probably join his clan soon. Is that anti-semitism? depends on the eye of the beholder. A christian might say it is not, you can have your own

MIkeinAppalchia said...

"For example, if God is not a Catholic then God clearly would not want the Catholic Charles V to rule over his German people and take care of their spiritual welfare like he has the Pope look after their spiritual welfare."

Did you mean to use "spiritual" for both Charles and the Pope"?
Seems as if ummm...."worldly" better in the case of the German ruler. Or am I missing the point?

Izgad said...

You have a valid point about my choice of words. In terms of the pre-modern view of secular rulers there is both a religious and secular element where it is assumed that the king is an agent of God to care for both the worldly and spiritual matter facing their subjects. See The King’s Two Bodis by Ernst H. Kantorowicz.

One of the ironies of the situation was that it was the Church who were the ones mainly after a separation between Church and State to keep States out of their affairs.