Monday, November 18, 2013

Martin Luther's Anti-Semitism

What follows is a book summary and review of Martin Luther's Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgement by Eric W. Gritsch that I recently wrote for my Church and the Holocaust course at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. The review is meant to assist educators in congregations prepare an adult forum or in-depth study series on the sin of historic Lutheran anti-Semitism. I hope you find this helpful and I'd love to hear what you think!

As I discussed at length in my film review of The Cross and the Star earlier this month, we are at a unique point in the history of Jewish/ Christian relations. While still living under the shadow of the Holocaust, we know the horrific, sinful consequences of following many traditional Christian lines of anti-Judaic if not outright anti-Semitic thinking. Indeed, many church bodies have publicly confessed these sins, and extremely productive relationships between Jews, Christians and their respective organizations continue to thrive on all levels. Yet, as apartheid-like conditions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories worsen and as an increasing number of our Arab Christian sisters and brothers are forced to emigrate, Christians are also called to carefully, responsibly, yet boldly work for a just and lasting peace in the Holy Land. If we are to engage with this important, complex social justice issue in a responsible way, and indeed with many of our likeminded Jewish allies, we as Christians must also continue to learn about, recognize, and confess the anti-Judaic sins of our collective history.

Particularly in Lutheran congregations, Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgement will prove an invaluable resource for pastors and lay members preparing to lead an adult forum or even an extensive course on Christian anti-Semitism. The book is researched and authored by notable Lutheran historian Eric W. Gritsch, who despite his affiliation with the Hitler youth as a young boy grew up to be an active participant in Christian-Jewish dialog, particularly during his tenure at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg (Gritsch xiii). Through three relatively short chapters and a brief conclusion, Gritsch guides the reader through the difficult concept of anti-Semitism, the most notable of Luther’s anti-Semitic texts and finally how those texts were used by subsequent generations of Lutheran scholars. Written in an academic yet easily approachable style, Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism allows Luther to speak on his own terms through robust and frequent quotations, all the while showing how the 16th century reformer was writing “against his better judgement.” Following a summary of its arguments and evidence, this review will briefly highlight particular strengths and weaknesses of Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism, concluding with suggested discussion questions for use in the parish.

In the first chapter of Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism, Gritsch provides a concise background discussion of the concept of anti-Semitism itself. After a brief etymological  history of the word, Gritsch cites a variety of sources in search of a definition. The Roman Catholic historian Edward H. Flannery for instance identifies four historic forms of anti-Semitism: the political and economic anti-Semitism of Cicero and Charles Lindberg, the theological or religious anti-Semitism of “anti-Judaism,” the nationalistic anti-Semitism of Voltaire and the racial anti-Semitism of the Nazi Holocaust (Gritsch 2). The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia on the other hand defines a variety of actions as anti-Semitic, including an overly critical view of the modern Israeli state and one’s complete rejection of Zionism (Gritsch 4). The chapter then delves into the relationship between anti-Semitism and race, particularly highlighting Ludwig Schemann’s late 19th century adoption of Arthur de Gobineau’s concept of race to justify societal hatred of Jews (Gritsch 6).

In his discussion of scapegoating and the Scriptures, Gritsch identifies three specific Christian teachings of contempt: “1) that the Jews were deprived of a homeland and had to live in dispersion, 2) that the Jews were superseded by Christians in the promise of salvation by a new covenant, and 3) that Jews committed ‘deicide’ by crucifying Jesus who, as the ‘son of God,’ was God” (Gritsch 10). Gritsch disproves each teaching by citing scriptural evidence, most notably Paul’s teaching that there is a “one and only covenant that unites Christians and Jews” in Romans 11:27 (Gritsch 11). In a brief yet detailed history of Christian anti-Semitism/anti-Judaism, Gritsch mentions some less well-known examples of the phenomenon, including Ambrose’s defense of arsonists who burned down a synagogue and John Calvin’s belief that the promise of salvation still belonged to the Jews, but only if they converted (Gritsch 17, 26). The first chapter then concludes with Gritsch’s working definition of anti-Semitism, which he identifies at its core as “hatred of the Jews” or “the projection of stereotypes on the Jewish people as a whole that portray them as essentially evil” (Gritsch 31).

The second chapter of Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism begins with a section on Luther’s hermeneutics. Martin Luther, who by today’s standards would have been considered a “Professor of the Old Testament,” nonetheless preached nearly thirty times more sermons on the New Testament throughout his career than on the Hebrew Scriptures (Gritsch 34). Despite his love for Genesis and especially the Psalms, Luther largely ignored early humanist historical-critical hermeneutics and thereby “intensified the traditional view of the church that Christ was prefigured in the “Old Testament” (Gritsch 35). Reading Christ into the Hebrew Scriptures in turn led Luther to distinguish between the faithful Israel of old and later “Talmudic Judaism,” cursed by God for rejecting Christ (Gritsch 35). Gritsch then delves into Luther’s commentary on Romans in detail, specifically discussing how by ignoring Paul’s teaching that Jews and Christians will be reunited by God on the Last Day , the reformer went against his better scholarly judgement and principles of interpretation (Gritsch 41). The concept of Mosaic law as leading to Christ through terrifying the conscience, the so-called “second use of the law,” is also briefly touched upon in Gritsch’s discussion of Luther’s view of Moses as doing the “alien” work of God (Gritsch 45).

Gritsch then follows the historical arc of Luther’s changing attitude towards Judaism and the Jewish people, primarily by citing textual evidence from the reformer himself. In his earlier work Luther’s anti-Semitism was grounded in the traditional Christian polemics of the day, albeit with uniquely colorful language. In his “Lectures on the Psalms” for instance, Luther employs scatological imagery to describe the Jewish rejection of the Messiah while commenting on Psalm 78:66:
But at this place, what seems to be more expressly denoted is that the recta, their innermost bowels, are sticking out through the rear, because their rear is different from the buttocks on which we sit… Their recta stick out, that is, the innermost feelings of their heart and their desires in opposition to Christ they display to the present. Therefore, the recta sticking out means that their will to harm and do evil appears, since they are not able to vomit the feces of evils against Him (Gritsch 50).
In this same period however, Luther disagreed with the medieval missionary practice of forced conversions and additionally supported a converted Spanish Jewish Hebraist’s call to the Wittenberg faculty (Gritsch 51). By 1519 Luther began preaching against the usury of his day by linking it to Judaism: “Look at those who lend wine, wheat, money, or whatever, to their neighbors, the oppress them with annual interest rates that are high than the sum of money borrowed. These are the Jewish little tricks” (Gritsch 57). Yet, in a sermon given the Saturday before Easter of 1521, Luther also spoke out against using the Passion of Christ as an occasion to be hostile to Jews.

Following his appearance before the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther’s anti-Semitism moderated as he moved into a period described by Gritsch as “pastoral evangelism.” In “The Magnificat, Translated and Expounded,” Luther wrote, “We ought, therefore, not to treat the Jews in so unkindly a spirit, for there are future Christians among them, and they are turning everyday… If we lived Christian lives, and led them [the Jews] with kindness to Christ, there would be the proper response” (Gritsch 60). Luther’s anti-Semitism moderated in relation to practical concerns as well, as indicated in “The Estate of Marriage” in 1522: “Marriage… is like any other worldly undertaking. Just as I may eat, drink, sleep, walk, ride with, buy from, speak to, and deal with a heathen, Jew, Turk, or heretic, so I amy also marry and continue in wedlock with him. Pay no attention to the precepts of those fools who forbid it (Gritsch 61).” During this period its clear Luther believed his reforms would make Jewish mass conversion more likely, and further that such a conversion would signal the imminent eschaton (Gritsch 63). Luther even mentioned to dinner guests that he discussed messianic prophecy in the Hebrew Scriptures with three learned rabbi, likely in 1526 (Gritsch 68).

However, as the years went by with few Jewish conversions, Luther became extremely frustrated. He increasingly spoke of the Christian Church as “the new Israel,” a term brimming with supersessionism. After hearing rumors of Jewish proselytizing in 1530, he approved of Jewish/ Christian segregation in the city of Prague. By 1536, Luther even agreed with Elector John Frederick’s decision to remove Jews from his territory (Gritsch 69). By the late 1530s, Luther became convinced Jews, along with Muslims, “papists,” unitarians and radicals were part of Satan’s plan to destroy the Christian foundations of the world (Gritsch 70). In response to new reports in 1538 of Jewish proselytizing and a Christian movement committed to following the Jewish sabbath, Luther authored his first radically anti-Semitic work, “Against the Sabbatarians: Letter to a Good Friend.” In this treatise he argues there is a new Christian covenant because Jews the failed to keep their first covenant with God. Most notably, Luther concludes God is actively punishing the Jews with exile because they have rejected God’s new covenant through Christ:
In brief, since these fifteen hundred years of exile, of which there is no end in sight, nor can there be, do not humble the Jews or bring them to awareness, you may with good conscience despair of them. For it is impossible that God would leave his people, if they truly were his people, without comfort and prophecy so long… it is evident that he [God] has forsaken them, that they can no longer be his people, and the true Lord, the Messiah, must have come fifteen hundred years ago (Gritsch 73).
At a key juncture in his argument, Gritsch concludes that when Luther assumed he knew the historical fate of the Jews in “Against the Sabbatarians” and subsequent works, he went against his better judgement, namely that one should speculate about deus absconditus, the “hidden God” which God has not ordained to reveal (Gritsch 73 - 74).

Gritsch then discusses Luther’s most notable anti-Semitic work, “On the Jews and their Lies,” published in 1543. After warning his readers to expect nothing but a “den of devils” in synagogues, Luther affirms a Christ-centered reading of the Hebrew Scriptures before citing the most egregious of medieval anti-Semitic claims, including that Jews contaminate wells and kill Christian children (Gritsch 81 - 83). In a final desperate attempt to convert the Jews through what he termed “sharp mercy,” Luther encouraged Christian action that foreshadowed the horrors of Kristallnacht nearly four centuries later: “… 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. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom…” (Gritsch 86). This, unfortunately, was only the first of seven similar actions Luther advised. After writing additional anti-Semitic treatises in his remaining years, Luther, although too weak to finish preaching on February 15, 1546, gave an “Exhortation Against the Jews” in which he described Jews as “public enemies,” “poisoners,” and “blood-suckers.” These were his final public words before dying three days later.

Gritsch’s final chapter summarizes how subsequent scholars used Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic writings. Only one reference to the Jews as “the prime example of divine punishment” made it into the normative Lutheran teachings of the second generation reformers, the “Formula of Concord” (Gritsch 98). Although Luther’s anti-Semitic tracks were occasionally re-published until the early seventeenth century, there were no subsequent reprints until Luther became a role model for German nationalism under Hitler (Gritsch 101). Although cited by some anti-Semitic writers, Luther’s earlier, more moderate missionary years tended to be the focus of most scholarly works. Lutheran Pietists such as Philip Jacob Spener and Count Nicholas of Zinzendorf even used Luther’s earlier writings to support their respect for Judaism (Gritsch 103). Although anti-Semitism was frequently critiqued during the Enlightenment, Luther was rarely criticized for his most egregious works until the late nineteenth century (Gritsch 105 - 111). Moving forward to Nazi Germany however, the Lutheran bishop Martin Sasse celebrated the burning of synagogues on Kristallnacht by calling for “the liberation of Germany from Jewish economic oppression” and praising Luther as “the greatest anti-Semite of his time” (Gritsch 117).

Following his third chapter, Gritsch summarizes his conclusions, which in addition to those alluded to above include that Luther moved away from his famous “theology of the cross” into a “theology of glory” in his anti-Semitic works. Indeed, perhaps the greatest strength of Gritsch’s book is that he holds nothing back from properly criticizing the reformer, even stating that “Luther’s anti-Semitism… dimmed the light of the gospel he rediscovered as part and parcel of the ancient covenant between God and Abraham” (Gritsch 141). Gritsch’s emphasis on allowing Luther to speak through his own words is extraordinary, as his discussion of how Luther’s Christo-centric hermeneutics for the Hebrew Bible partially led to his anti-Semitism. The extensive bibliography provided, including multiple film suggestions, is also helpful for those readers wishing to do further research. Finally, Gritsch’s brilliant discussion of anti-Semitism and summary of anti-Semitic Christian history allows Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism to serve as a “one-stop shop” for those clergy and lay leaders preparing to organize an adult forum. The only weakness of the book was that although briefly alluded to on page forty-five, there was little discussion of the inherent anti-Judaism of Luther’s tight law/gospel dichotomy. Overall however, Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism proves an amazing work Reformation scholarship, one that all Lutheran leaders should read during this unique point in Jewish/ Christian relations. We conclude with three suggested questions for group discussion:
  1. How did Luther’s reading of Christ into the Hebrew Scriptures lead to his later more vehement anti-Semitism? Is it possible for Christians to not read Christ in the Hebrew Scriptures?
  2. How did Luther’s anti-Semitism veer from “a theology of the cross” to a “theology of glory? How do we in our own churches interpret Scripture with a “theology of glory?”
  3. Knowing what you know now about Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism, what responsibilities do we have as contemporary Lutherans to move past this sinful aspect of our past?
Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.


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