Luther, Martin°

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LUTHER, MARTIN ° (1483–1546), German religious reformer. During the first period of his activity (approximately 1513–23), Luther often condemned the persecution of the Jews and recommended a more tolerant policy toward them, based on the spirit of true Christian brotherhood. Commenting on Psalm 22 (around 1519), he roundly condemned the "Passion preachers [who] do nothing else but exaggerate the Jews' misdeeds against Christ and thus embitter the hearts of the faithful against them." Speaking of the controversy between Johann *Reuchlin and Johann *Pfefferkorn, he strongly disapproved of the confiscation of the Talmud and rabbinic literature. Even in later times he referred to Reuchlin as his predecessor and teacher. Although declaring that it was impossible to expect the conversion of the whole Jewish people, he nevertheless nurtured the belief that, after listening to his teachings, many Jews would acknowledge the truth and accept Christianity.

Luther directly considered the Jewish question first in his pamphlet Dass Jesus Christus ein geborener Jude sei ("That Christ Was Born A Jew," 1523). Arguing that the Jews, who were from the same stock as the founder of Christianity, had been right in refusing to accept the "papal paganism" presented to them as Christianity, he added, "If I had been a Jew and had seen such fools and blockheads teach the Christian faith, I should rather have turned into a pig than become a Christian." Partly because of his polemics against the use of images in churches, he himself was branded a "half-Jew" (semi-Judaeus) by the church authorities. Perhaps encouraged by his conversion of one of the two Jews who had reportedly visited him at the Diet of Worms (1521), Luther had high hopes for the success of his mission among the Jews. Early missionary attempts had failed "not so much [because of] the Jews' obstinacy and wickedness, as rather [through] the absurd and asinine ignorance and the wicked and shameless life of the popes, priests, monks, and scholars." Pending their seeing the light, the Jews should be treated more considerately and given greater opportunities to gain a livelihood.

At first, Luther's disruptive impact on Roman Catholicism (which the Jews equated with the detested kingdom of *Edom) was welcomed by Jews as a break in the monolithic power of the Church. Others hoped that the turmoil arising in the Christian world through the spread of Lutheranism would lead to toleration of all forms of worship. Moreover they expressed the view that a partial reform of the Church was welcome since it led the Church away from its former evil. There were even some, like Abraham *Farissol, who regarded Luther as a Crypto-Jew, a reformer bent on upholding religious truth and justice, whose anti-idolatrous innovations were directed toward a return to Judaism. Some scholars, particularly of the Sephardi diaspora, such as Joseph ha-Kohen (1496-c. 1575), had strongly pro-Reformation sympathies.

However, although appreciating Luther's apparent kindliness toward them, the Jews resisted his message. Whether through irritation at their refusal to accept his truth or for some other reason, Luther grew increasingly hostile toward the Jews. In 1526 he complained of the Jews' stubbornness in clinging to their traditional interpretation of Scripture. His repeated attacks on usury began to assume an anti-Jewish bias and his successive Table Talks of the 1530s contain frequent complaints about "the stiffnecked Jews, ironhearted and stubborn as the devil." The increasing vehemence of his attacks is apparent in his "Letter Against the Sabbatarians," in which he harshly condemns that Protestant sect for adopting Jewish customs. Openly anti-Jewish and couched in Luther's characteristic style of extreme vituperation are two pamphlets written in 1542 and 1543, "On the Jews and Their Lies" and "On the Shem Hamephoras" ("The Ineffable Name"). Repeating the accusations and invective of medieval anti-Jewish polemics and making use of the works of the apostates Antonius *Margaritha and Bernhard Ziegler, he subjects the Jews to a torrent of vile abuse, calling them "venomous and virulent," "thieves and brigands," and "disgusting vermin." Although Luther poured out such violent language on the heads of all his enemies – princes, lawyers, bishops, and especially the pope – in the case of the Jews he also made practical suggestions, ranging from forced labor to outright banishment. As many of the Protestant rulers of the times relied on Luther's political advice, his attitude resulted in the expulsion of the Jews from Saxony in 1543 and the hostile Judenordnung of Landgrave Philip of Hesse in the same year. The tenor of his suggestions was equally virulent in his "Admonition against the Jews," a sermon preached in 1546, shortly before his death.

In Germany in particular, Luther's volte-face in his attitude toward the Jews caused bitter disappointment in Jewish circles. After his request to answer Luther's calumnies had been turned down by the authorities of Strasbourg in 1543, *Joseph (Joselman) b. Gershom of Rosheim expressed undisguised hostility to the Reformation, calling Luther "the unclean" (לא טהאר, a word play on his name). Among Reformation thinkers, a certain group (notably the Swiss Heinrich Bullinger and the Nuremberg preacher and Hebraist, Andreas *Osiander) criticized Luther's anti-Jewish stance.

Despite his fight against Judaism, Luther had a deep and abiding love for the Hebrew Bible. Although his Hebrew was weak and his Greek little better, his translation of the Bible into German was one of the most significant in literary history. He accepted the Hebrew language as the only one adequate for the expression of religious truth and sentiment. However, in his translation of and commentaries on the Bible he laid greater stress on intuition and revealed religion than on grammatical or linguistic questions. "I am not a Hebraist with respect to grammar [he said], nor do I wish to be one … I rather translate freely…. Accurate interpretation is a special gift of God." Although he often used, perhaps unwittingly, the interpretations of Rashi and recognized the importance of Moses and David *Kimḥi, on the whole he rejected rabbinic authorities, feeling that not only *Jerome but also *Nicholas de Lyre (on whom he relied heavily) were misled by them.

Inconsistency and violence characterized Luther's utterances in all fields, but perhaps in none with more disastrous consequences than in his statements on the Jews. Due to his vituperative anti-Jewish polemics, the Lutheran Church, unlike that which owed its foundation to John *Calvin, retained all the superstitious abhorrence of the Jews inherited from the medieval Catholic Church. Indeed Luther's attitude was worse, for he recognized no duty to protect the Jews. Throughout the subsequent centuries Luther's ferocious castigation of the Jews provided fuel for antisemites and the vicious force of that legacy was still evident in Nazi propaganda.


H.H. Ben-Sasson, Reformation in Contemporary Jewish Eyes (1970); idem, in: htr, 59 (1966), 385–9; Baron, Social 2, 13 (1969), 216ff., 421ff.; C. Cohen, in: jsos, 25 (1963), 195–204; L.I. Newman, Jewish Influence on Christian Reform Movements (1925), 617–30; R. Lewin, Luthers Stellung zu den Juden (1911); S. Stern, Josel of Rosheim (1965), index; Mauser, Kirche und Synagoge (1953), 39–51, 88–105. add. bibliography: A.G. Dickens, Martin Luther and the Reformation (1967); H.G. Haile, Luther: A Biography (1981); J. Bodensieck (ed.), The Encyclopaedia of the Lutheran Church, 3 vols. (1965).

[Joseph Elijah Heller /

B. Mordechai Ansbacher]

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Luther, Martin°

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