The orig­i­nal Protes­tant’s slide into ha­tred

Luther’s Jews

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - By Thomas Kauf­mann Ninety-Five The­ses, Luther’s Jews, Je­sus Christ Was Born A Jew Jews and Their Lies. That On The Luther: Catholic Dis­si­dent Martin David-Hil­lel Ruben is Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor of Phi­los­o­phy, Lon­don Univer­sity

Ox­ford Univer­sity Press, £18.99 Re­viewed by David-Hil­lel Ruben

MARTIN LUTHER (14831546) was per­haps the sem­i­nal fig­ure in the Protes­tant Re­for­ma­tion. Many will know the leg­end of his nail­ing his crit­i­cal of many of the prac­tices of Catholi­cism, on the door of the church in Wit­ten­berg, sym­bol­i­cally seen as the found­ing act of Protes­tantism.

In Thomas Kauf­mann chron­i­cles Luther’s chang­ing views about Jews dur­ing the cru­cial years from 1523 — when he pub­lished

— to 1543, which saw the pub­li­ca­tion of

Kauf­mann ar­gues that the prin­ci­pal change was over the like­li­hood of their con­ver­sion.

In Luther’s “friendly” pe­riod, he hoped that, by ex­tend­ing the hand of friend­ship, some sig­nif­i­cant progress Martin Luther: con­ver­sion prob­lem could be made in the con­ver­sion of the Jews to Chris­tian­ity. Per­haps sur­pris­ingly, op­ti­mism about their con­ver­sion was cou­pled with a rel­a­tively favourable view about the Jews’ char­ac­ter; af­ter all, if they could be con­verted, they could not be so de­filed or de­graded as to be in­ca­pable of pos­i­tive re­sponse to the Gospel.

By 1543, how­ever, Luther was of the view that Jews were ir­re­deemable, in­ca­pable of hear­ing and un­der­stand­ing the word of God. So his aban­don­ment of the hope of their con­ver­sion was ac­com­pa­nied by a far less favourable at­ti­tude to­wards them.

They were now seen as im­mov­ably ob­sti­nate. Luther doubted that Jews would con­vert in any sig­nif­i­cant num­bers from authen­tic rather than self­in­ter­ested mo­tives.

Kauf­mann, with­out in the least at­tempt­ing to jus­tify Luther’s views in this pe­riod, does ex­plain that they may have been coloured by ill­ness and deep grief at the death of his young daugh­ter.

But, if not con­ver­sion, Luther had other plans for the Jews. He called for their syn­a­gogues to be burned, Jewish wor­ship to be banned, all He­brew books to be taken away from the Jews and for them to be driven out of their homes and made to sleep in barns.

Fi­nally, he ad­vo­cated ex­pul­sion. But there were few Jews left by then in what is present-day Ger­many. Jews rep­re­sented for Luther more a cat­e­gory than a real­ity; there is only one fully sub- stan­ti­ated en­counter he had with Jews in his en­tire life­time.

Hav­ingdis­missed­suchchar­gesinthe early pe­riod, the later Luther ac­cused Jews of some of the luridly imag­ined ac­cu­sa­tions from the Me­dieval past, most of which were no longer be­lieved by his en­light­ened con­tem­po­raries: poi­son­ing wells, rit­ual mur­der, and ab­duct­ing chil­dren and run­ning them through with “a spike”. The con­cept of the Jew’s ir­re­deemable and un­change­able de­gen­er­acy is an early sign of an­ti­semitism rather than anti-Ju­daism.

In the fi­nal chap­ter, Kauf­mann de­scribes the two dif­fer­ent, sub­se­quent Lutheran re­sponses to all of this: while one looks to the Luther of his “friendly” pe­riod (with friends like this, who needs en­e­mies?), the other re­sponse, as­crib­ing a dev­il­ish char­ac­ter to the Jew, leads straight to Na­tional So­cial­ism. Peter Stan­ford’s schol­arly

fo­cus­ing, in the main, on the ear­lier pe­riod up to 1530, will ap­pear later this year.

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