At the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, which Protestant churches will be observing in 2017 in remembrance of the posting of Martin Luther’s 95 theses on October 31, 1517, Christians must reckon with Luther’s writings and engagement against the Jews, repudiating how Luther’s devolution into binary categories against his enemies has had catastrophic consequences over the centuries and even up to our times. Though Luther embraced the centrality of the Jewish Torah’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” his actual practice in relation to Jewish neighbors was hateful rather than loving. This is something that we in the Protestant world must challenge, using the Reformation anniversary to undo whatever can be undone of the vast damage his words have helped spur against the Jewish people. In doing so, we must remind our own community that the Torah’s command in Leviticus is not only to love one’s neighbor as oneself, but also to “love the stranger.” The Jews are the classic “other” or “stranger” in Christian Europe, at least until millions of Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. While Luther knew well the central ethical command of neighbor love, repeated in various forms 36 times in Torah, he was oblivious to how this command applied to actual Jewish people. Here is the story of how Luther failed Jesus by ignoring this command.
The logic of Luther’s political theology should have led him to a different conclusion. Luther articulated the centrality of neighbor love for ethics, especially in his treatise, The Freedom of a Christian. However, instead of defending the Jewish people according to the imperative of neighbor love, Luther targeted Jews as enemies through vicious polemic — advocating the burning of synagogues, confiscating prayer books, prohibiting Jewish prayer and teaching, abolishing safe travel for Jews — that has continued to echo over the centuries. Luther’s ethical conclusions require critique, deconstruction, and repudiation. In controversy with his theological opponents Luther deviated from neighbor politics, in order to oppose and destroy his religious foes. Luther’s polemic and writings against the Jews not only had disastrous consequences in his own time but his position continues to undermine the integrity of the Protestant theological and ethical heritage 500 years later.
Luther against the Jews
Luther’s writings against the Jews call into radical question not only his ethics but his entire theology. The ethical integrity of the Protestant Reformation becomes severely questionable if the conclusions drawn by Luther in his writings against the Jews are not repudiated. Where did Luther go wrong? Is it possible to draw upon Luther’s own theological arguments to arrive at other conclusions? One key for interpreting, criticizing, and deconstructing Luther’s thoughts involves unmasking how intolerance of the religious other undermined the foundations of Luther’s own neighbor politics.
The conventional view — that Luther began his career with certain openness and generosity to the Jews in anticipation of their conversion to the gospel, who only later in life turned toward animosity and hatred against them — is demonstrably false. From his earliest writings onward, Luther demonstrated contempt for the Jewish people, not only on biblical grounds but because of his conviction that they had rejected Jesus as the Christ not only in the New Testament but in rabbinic Judaism. Although one could not have predicted that his utterances against the Jews would lead finally to Auschwitz, the legacy of anti-Semitism ignited by his pen and perpetrated by his followers is the most disastrous of all Luther’s ethical missteps.
Luther knew precious little about living Judaism: “He had neither Jewish conversation partners nor Jewish friends. His knowledge of Judaism was primarily dependent on what he read, and those readings were dominated by overtly anti-Jewish treatises, some of which were written by Christians and some by Jewish converts.” Luther consistently maintained the view that Jews were an apostate people and therefore blameworthy for their own subsequent mistreatment in Christian history. He employed the argument that for 1500 years the Jews had been living in defiance of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The only sensible explanation was that Jews were handed over to Satan by God. Their opposition to the gospel — and their resistance to admitting the reason for their abandonment by God — was intentional and therefore unforgivable. To Luther, Jewish people had abandoned their status as the “chosen people” due to their rejection of Jesus as Christ.
For Luther, the promise to Abraham’s seed was in reality the promise of the Seed, that is the Messiah/Christ (Gen 3:15). The physical seed of Abraham, the Jews, were God’s chosen instrument in Old Testament times as bearers of that promise. But Abraham’s true descendants/seed, even in Old Testament times, were always those who believed in the promise of the Messiah and not those who relied on physical descent. This is understood by Luther, an Old Testament scholar, as the fundamental error of the Jews, who trusted that they had been born into grace, that they are bound to God by birth, and thus that God owes them God’s benevolence. For Luther, this constitutes a theological obscenity, because the grace and benevolence of God can only be accessed by faith, and it has never been otherwise.
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Tikkun 2017 Volume 32, Number 3:34-38