Baptism or Expulsion: Martin Luther and the Jews of Germany

Article excerpt

Without any doubt Martin Luther was the most important leader of the Reformation in central Europe and especially in Germany. He was initially friendly to the Jews because he hoped they would convert to his reformed church. Because he sought to strip Christianity of its medieval accretions, Luther narrowed the gap between Judaism and Christianity. Just as the Pharisees had built a new form of Judaism apart from the Temple cult at Jerusalem, so Luther also built a new and dynamic form of Christianity apart from the Catholic hierarchical and cultic center at Rome. Luther and the other Reformation leaders swept away many of the pagan and non-Jewish elements that had crept into Christianity over the ages. Gone were the adoration of saints and of Mary and the use of incense; in their place was a renewed emphasis on God the Father and the authority of Scriptures. Significantly, Luther's translation of the Hebrew Scriptures was based on the Jewish, not the Catholic, version; hence, Maccabees I and II were omitted in the Lutheran Bible.

In the decade 1513-23, when Luther had hoped for the conversion of the Jews, he openly declared that both he and the Jews had suffered from Catholic bigotry. Shortly before he nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, he wrote that the Catholic clergy, not the Jews, were the ones who truly profaned the eucharist. (During the Middle Ages Jews were burned at the stake on the charge that they profaned the eucharist.) Significantly, these comments were included in Luther's lectures on the Epistle to the Hebrews, which was written by an author who sought to prove that faith in Christ was the fulfillment of Judaism. The Jews, Luther thought, were merely theologically misguided and would accept baptism once the truth of Christianity was revealed to them.

A year after he made these comments, Luther again defended the Jews and criticized the Catholic Church for its attitudes toward the Jews. He pointed out that during Holy Week priests often inflamed the masses against the Jews for their alleged role in the Crucifixion. He then wrote his best-known defense of the Jews, "That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew," in which he again blamed the Catholic Church for the refusal of most Jews to accept Christianity. The life of a pig, Luther exclaimed in his essay, was better than that of a Jew under the thumb of the Catholic hierarchy. He called on his followers to show only Christian love toward the Jews and to abolish the economic restrictions that had forced them into such occupations as money-lending.

Everywhere Jews greeted Luther's pro-Jewish writings, which were distributed among both confessing Jews and Marranos. (1) Many Protestants also approved of his defense of the Jews, and translations of his pro-Jewish essay as well as his other writings were distributed among French and Spanish intellectuals. Although many Jews did not like his emphasis on the Pauline doctrine of salvation by faith alone, they welcomed the split that he brought about in the unity of Western Christianity.

No doubt, Luther probably knew that his call for a change in Christian attitudes toward the Jews would be used by his opponents to attack him; indeed, his Catholic enemies branded him a half-Jew. His emphasis on the Bible as the sole religious authority for Christians provided more evidence to his enemies that this allegation was indeed true. Cardinal Girolamo Aleandro, the papal legate at the Diet of Worms, spread the rumor that Luther really was a converted Jew. Luther's enemies were wrong: He did not want to Judaize Christians but, rather, to Christianize Jews.

During the years 1513-23, Luther hoped for the success of his mission among the Jews of Germany. No doubt, he was encouraged by the conversion of two Jews who reportedly visited him while he attended the Diet of Worms. But, when Luther realized that, with few exceptions, the Jews would not convert to Protestantism any more than they had to Catholicism, he turned in bitter disappointment and deep anger against them. …