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  • Lars Fischer

Edom Divided: Jews and the Reformation

Lars Fischer on Jewish views of the Reformation and Christian anti-Judaism

“The Reformation” is really an umbrella term that covers a whole range of partly distinct, partly overlapping reformations that emerged and unfolded (even narrowly conceived) over the best part of a century. Some recent scholars have even suggested that the Catholic response to the Reformation ought really to be seen not, as it once was, as a “Counter-Reformation” but simply as the Catholic version of the Reformation. A simple search in the UCL library catalogue returned scores of books that refer, in their title, to reformations in the plural, beginning, as far as I can see, with Christopher Haigh’s English Reformations (1993). We now recognize that the Reformation most certainly was not in any common sense of the word an event, and academic historians have been working out the implications of these insights for several decades now. Yet popular perceptions still seem to focus on the Reformation as if it were just that—an event.

Against this backdrop, it is all the more unfortunate that the mainstream Protestant Church in Germany (EKD), rather than making a serious effort to challenge old myths, has chosen to tie its commemoration of the Quincentenary of the Reformation so closely and uncritically to a specific event. Apart from presumably being guided in high measure by the marketing experts, it has also, in so doing, effectively tried to assert a traditionalist Lutheran monopoly on the Reformation. Against this backdrop, the fact that we can be as certain as we ever can that Luther never pinned his 95 Theses to the door of any church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, or any other day, seems a negligible detail.

I mention this because Jewish commentators in sixteenth-century Europe, as we will see, were rather more alert to the diversity of the Reformation than mainstream German Protestantism and international Lutheranism seem to be today (and this although the EKD in fact unites both Lutherans and Calvinists)—and certainly more so than early modern Protestantism ever was to distinctions within early modern Judaism. That said, Jews too often used the name Luther, pars pro toto, to identify the Reformation as a whole.

In an attempt to invert the more conventional perspective on the relevance of the Reformation to Judaism and European Jewry, I will begin by presenting a variety of Jewish perceptions of, and responses to, the Reformation before turning, in the second part, to the reformers’ anti-Judaism and its implications and legacy (though some overlap will obviously be inevitable). In the light of my opening remarks, I will treat as contemporaneous with the Reformation texts written or published between 1517 and ca. 1615.

One final preliminary remark: Andreas Pangritz has suggested that in connection with Luther’s vile polemics against Judaism and the Jews one ought really to speak of antisemitism rather than anti-Judaism, firstly, because Luther integrated a host of extra-theological accusations into his line of argument and ultimately credited “the Jews” with more or less immutable characteristics; and secondly, because anti-Judaism has become something of a euphemism for antisemitism and the use of the term consequently risks whitewashing Luther’s position. This suggestion would merit a detailed discussion in its own right. In this piece I will continue to use the term anti-Judaism, simply because I continue to think that antisemitism is best understood as a phenomenon integral specifically to modern society. Both of Pangritz’s points are well made, though.

“Rivalry between Edom and Edom”: Jews and the Reformation.

A range of Jewish responses to the Reformation has been documented and discussed by Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson, Jerome Friedman, Abraham David, and others. The Jews at the time were—to introduce designations common among them—more used to Edom (Christianity) lashing out at Jacob (the Jews), so they were fascinated by the fundamental “rivalry between Edom and Edom” now unfolding before their eyes. As a general rule, Jewish commentators picked up predominantly on those aspects of inner-Christian religious controversy that were in some way relevant to their own self-understanding or to particular aspects of the relationship between Jews and Christians. None too surprisingly perhaps, the further they were removed from the cut and thrust of the emerging and proliferating denominational strife in Central and Western Europe, the more creative their discussion of the Reformation tended to be.

While the implications of the Jewish emphasis on the prohibition of the (graven) image are frequently exaggerated, one can easily understand why Jewish commentators would have shown particular interest in the Protestant iconoclasm that found its expression in the widespread removal of religious images and objects from, and/or their reevaluation in, places of worship and elsewhere. While radical iconoclasm was predominantly a Calvinist phenomenon and Luther himself in fact angrily opposed the “stripping of the altars,” Lutheranism too entailed a far-reaching demystification of religious images and objects. Abraham ben Eliezer Ha-Levi (ca. 1460–after 1528)—a Sephardi adherent and interpreter of the mystical Jewish tradition of the Kabbalah who, following the expulsion of the Sephardi Jews from Spain (known in Hebrew as Sepharad, hence Sephardi) in 1492, had eventually settled in Jerusalem—noted in 1525 that the new Christian denomination “has done away with idolatry.” The “Protestants destroy and burn images of their Gods, and their idols are cut down in all parts of his [i.e., Luther’s] domain.” As the historian and physician Joseph Ha-Kohen (1496–1578)—whose parents, having likewise been expelled from Spain, had settled in Italy—explained in a work published in Sabbioneta in 1554: “No longer were graven images set up” by the Protestants, nor was “homage paid to the saints, as before.” Observing developments from Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), Suleiman the Magnificent’s Jewish physician, Abraham Ha-Levi ibn Megas, also commented, in a text published in 1585, on the fact that “this [Protestant] congregation has cast off all faith in icons and priests and has discarded the form of this worthless creed [Catholicism].”

While Protestant iconoclasm appealed to Jewish commentators, for the most part they felt a closer affinity to Catholicism, and this by no means just, or even principally, because of Luther’s (and other reformers’) increasingly prolific and aggressive anti-Judaism. This was the case, for instance, in connection with one of the crucial points of contention between Protestants and Catholics concerning the role good works played in attaining salvation. Not least, given the need to develop a clear-cut distinction that could readily and effectively be deployed for propagandistic purposes, this delineation was reduced to a simplistic scheme. The old church, so the Protestant accusation went, suggested to its faithful that they could prove themselves worthy of salvation by engaging in good works. Yet in actual fact, since their expulsion from paradise, human beings were born so sinful that they would always remain hopelessly unworthy of salvation—which only God’s entirely inexplicable grace could grant them all the same. For Luther, the crucial emphasis lay on the suggestion that trust in one’s own good works amounted to self-justification, to self-reliance to the detriment of reliance on God’s grace. Ultimately, it was better inadvertently to sin while trusting in God’s grace than to do everything right out of a sense of self-righteousness—in Luther’s famous formulation: “pecca fortiter sed fortius fide,” sin boldly but more boldly still believe (in Christ). In Calvinism, the notion that everything depended on God’s grace was reinforced yet further by the doctrine of predestination, the assumption that God had decided whether each human being would be saved or not long before their birth. Consequently, their good works might reflect the fact that their salvation had been pre-ordained all along, but it certainly had no influence on the outcome. Current readers may wonder why, based on such assumptions, anyone would bother to behave in an orderly and ethical manner. To (quite literally) God-fearing early modern Europeans, however, the premise of this line of reasoning would have seemed entirely flippant.

This stark dichotomy between good works, portrayed as an expression of outward adherence to rules of behavior ultimately based on mere obedience or self-righteousness, on the one hand, and truly righteous behavior that springs from the humility required genuinely to accept God’s grace as the only possible source of salvation, on the other, was, of course, by no means new. As David Nirenberg has shown with great lucidity in his genealogy Anti-Judaism, the caricature Protestants now drew of Catholicism was one that the old church had long drawn of Judaism—and that various Catholic schools of thought had repeatedly drawn of their inner-Catholic opponents, labeling them Judaizers within the church. If the emerging new denominations now threw this dichotomy into particularly sharp relief, they placed a mode of self-identification center stage that was already heavily laden with anti-Jewish connotations.

From a Jewish perspective, the Protestant assault on the significance of good works had important philosophical implications regarding the role of free will in the context of religious virtue. Yet it also opened up a more fundamental gap between Judaism, with its focus on orthopraxy—life lived on a daily basis in accordance with the Torah—and the new Christian denominations’ inevitable emphasis on orthodoxy—the need to subscribe strictly to a specific set of beliefs and understand precisely what distinguishes them from other sets of beliefs.

As a Jew, then, one needed to be no friend of Catholicism per se to be critical of the Protestant assault on good works. When Rabbi Yehiel (Vitale) Nissim da Pisa noted in 1539 that “in our generation we have seen the sages of the gentiles divided into sects,” he characterized that division as one that pitted those who believed in “the principle of free will and choice,” on the one hand, against “the mockers who claim that man neither prospers nor suffers perdition by his works unless divine sanction has so determined,” on the other. The latter claimed that “all the actions of man are of necessity subject to God’s determination in the absence of which man can do neither good nor bad.” The doctrine of predestination he characterized as “more bitter than wormwood and destructive of the very foundations of faith.” The old church, by contrast, maintained “the principle of free will in a simple and straightforward manner, branding their co-religionists as heretics and apostates.”

Given how central the Talmud, the vast corpus of other rabbinic writings, and, where applicable, the various mystical traditions were to Judaism, it was also unlikely that the Protestant emphasis on direct engagement of the biblical text—unencumbered, in principle, by theological tradition—would sit well with Jewish contemporaries. As the foremost representative of Italian Jewry in his generation, the Venetian Rabbi Simone Luzzatto (1583?–1663) noted in the early seventeenth century, Catholicism, like rabbinic Judaism, understood “that many passages of Scripture cannot be properly understood without the light of tradition.” The Karaite scholar Isaac of Troki (who died around 1590) was the perhaps rather obvious exception to this general rule, given that the Karaites categorically rejected the layers of rabbinic interpretation of the Tanakh that had been codified in the Talmud and other rabbinic writings.

Troki lived in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth where a high measure of economically motivated toleration facilitated the proliferation of a particularly broad range of religious sects in which he showed considerable interest. These included radical groups who rejected the doctrine of the Trinity—thus displaying a greater affinity to the notion of the absolute unity of God so central to Judaism—and also those who, according to Troki, believed that “the divine law given to Israel by Moses at Horeb is pure and eternal and there is no other law besides it.” These groups therefore insisted that those were “mistaken who assert that Moses gave the first law and Jesus the second law.” Rather, on Troki’s account, they contended “that Jesus gave no new law but merely confirmed the commandments through Moses. Thus, on all the doctrinal points they are found to agree with us.”

A Hebrew chronicle compiled in Prague around 1615 also paid attention to the fate of the Anabaptists. Not only did they reject infant baptism, “for an infant has no understanding of the reason for baptism,” they also provided for “each other’s needs” and “desired to learn the law of Moses,” even though they “maintained their [belief] in Jesus, although not accepting all the dogmas of Catholicism.” The chronicle went on to give an account of the massive repression encountered by the Anabaptists. “In several places, members of this sect were caught and bound in unspeakably heavy bonds, but they disregarded [their shackles, saying] the soul belongs to the Almighty and the body is a thing of naught.” Elsewhere, they “were seized by fear and trembling”—likely an allusion to Isaiah 33:14 or perhaps, more subversively, to Psalm 55:5—because “they had to leave their houses, vineyards, fields, and animals and go despairingly from the land of their sojourn, not knowing which way to turn, becoming separated from their brethren, scattered here and there.”

As the Prague-based chronicler and mathematician David Gans (1541–1613) noted in 1592, since Luther’s appearance before the Imperial Diet at Worms in 1521 “more than thousands upon thousands were killed because of his faith.” Some Jewish commentators quite liked the idea that the disruption of the old church and the widespread civil strife that followed was a punishment for Christianity’s earlier abuse of the Jews. “Violence was risen up as a rod of wickedness,” Joseph Ha-Kohen noted. “This has come upon them for their pride because … they have vilified the people of God.” Ibn Megas suggested the Christians were “being scourged for their sins and the sins of their fathers for all that they and their fathers have perpetrated against Israel.” Moreover, once they had been sufficiently punished they would “find favor with God” and be “ready to accept the faith.” Ibn Megas, in other words, assumed that Christianity would collapse and that the Christians would “return” to Judaism.

Samuel Usque came from a family of so-called New Christians, i.e., Jews who had converted to Christianity more or less voluntarily on the Iberian peninsular prior to the expulsion of the Jews. Usque, however, later reverted to Judaism—making him a so-called Marrano. He lived in Ferrara and later in Safed. He went even further in his interpretation. In his Consolation for the Tribulations of Israel, published in Ferrara in 1553, he argued that the turmoil of the Reformation indicated “how much harm” European rulers had brought upon themselves “by compelling Jews to accept your faith.” Indeed, the forced conversions of the past would “in the end become the means that undermine and destroy them.” As he saw it:

many of the descendants of these Jews are probably still uncomfortable in the faith which their ancestors accepted so reluctantly. It would not be implausible to assume that from these people stem the Lutherans, who have sprung up everywhere in Christendom. For since throughout Christendom Christians have forced Jews to change their religion, it seems to be divine retribution that the Jews should strike back with the weapons that were put into their hands; to punish those who compelled them to change their faith.

Samuel Usque, Consolation for the Tribulations of Israel (Ferrara, 1553)


Others assumed that the dissension and strife precipitated by the religious upheaval signaled the onset of the messianic age. Abraham ben Eliezer Ha-Levi saw in Luther a “great, valiant and mighty man,” one who “laid bare the pretense of Rome and exposed her ignominy.” He would “marshal vast armies, originate a religion, and destroy the houses of the clergy.” He was “exceedingly noble in all his undertakings, and all these forecasts are realized in his person.” Ha-Levi evidently knew of Luther’s That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew of 1523 (on which more in the second part of this piece). To his mind, it pointed to imminent momentous change. He interpreted the groundswell of Christian Hebraism—the scholarly interest in the Old Testament and its rabbinic interpretation—in the same vein. “There will undoubtedly be large numbers of them [i.e., Christian Hebraists] who will turn in repentance to the one above.” Thanks to Luther “men in great numbers and of high repute are proceeding towards the goal” of conversion—to Judaism. “God’s right hand is outstretched to accept them before the advent of the messiah, for afterwards they are no longer acceptable.”

Jews living in central and western Europe where the Reformation had its most immediate impact found it more difficult to see in the reformers, and in Luther in particular, the precursor of the messianic age or much of a positive influence in any other respect. Nor could they content themselves with mere commentary. Their theological musings and written polemics aside, several reformers wrote memoranda for local authorities, recommending the harsh treatment of the Jews and, in some cases, their expulsion, and actively campaigned for anti-Jewish measures.

At the forefront of Jewish endeavors to contain the anti-Jewish propaganda and activism of the reformers stood Luther’s contemporary, Joseph ben Gershon (known as Josel) of Rosheim (1478?–1554), the foremost shtadlan of the Jews who resided in the Holy Roman Empire. (Rosheim, near Strasbourg, was one of ten Imperial cities in Alsace that formed an alliance in 1354, the Decapolis.) The shtadlan was a fixture in pre-modern Jewish politics. He interceded with the non-Jewish authorities on behalf of his own and other Jewish communities who requested his services. Ideally, he was well connected, intimately familiar with the culture and language of the surrounding majority society, and a master of diplomacy. Josel of Rosheim’s life has been expertly reconstructed by Chava Fraenkel-Goldschmidt who also published critical editions and translations of his writings in Hebrew and English.

Josel of Rosheim was in considerable demand and by no means all the troubles he was asked to help remedy involved Protestants. (If throughout this piece I pay relatively little attention to Catholicism this is due to the specific context and not because I would in any way want to suggest that Catholicism has no questions to answer when it comes to Christian anti-Judaism.) Sharp rejection of Judaism and the Jews was certainly no preserve of the Protestants and had clearly become more pronounced as the early modern period approached. The limited protection afforded European Jewry by the notion introduced by the church father Augustine—that the abjection of the Jews was integral to God’s plan insofar as it bore testimony to the fate that awaited those who, like the Jews, refused to follow Christ—had increasingly been eroded. For all that the Augustinian paradigm hinged on the Jews’ abjection it had also created a safe space of sorts insofar as the Jews could obviously fulfill their function only if they were actually present and visible. In principle (though not always in practice) this militated against their expulsion and all the more so against their physical annihilation. In the course of the high and late middle ages the Augustinian paradigm lost much of its force, not least, because Christians increasingly came to the realization that Judaism, far from being a fossilized representation of Jewish religion at the time of Jesus, was a living and evolving tradition. From the Christian viewpoint it was one thing for the Jews to misunderstand their own Bible and suffer the consequences but quite another for them to create a huge corpus of rabbinic writings that constantly elaborated upon and reformulated and thus actually compounded that error. On the eve of the Reformation, virtually all theologians and intellectuals in Europe—be they stalwarts of the old church, humanist dissenters, or budding Protestants—all their disagreements in other matters notwithstanding, did hold in common an often quite visceral rejection of Judaism and the Jews and the desire ultimately to be rid of them for good. If, over time, Josel of Rosheim and his peers found they were more likely to be tolerated by the Catholic imperial crown than the Protestant local princes in the Holy Roman Empire, this had rather more to do with the politics of the moment than changed attitudes among the Catholics.

Writing his memoirs in the late 1540s, Josel of Rosheim recalled the following episode pertaining to Luther and his movement: “In the year 5297 [1537] Duke Hans of Saxony [Elector Johannes Friedrich Hans] outlawed us, and refused to permit the Jewish people even one foot’s breadth of space in all his land. This was due to that priest named Martin Lo Tahor—may his body and soul be bound up in hell!” The Hebrew expression lo tahor means impure or unclean. (In Hebrew the written word comprises only the consonants—in this case LTHR—and the vowels have to be determined on the basis of various rules governed by the grammar, syntax, and context.) This word play on Luther’s surname is found in other contemporaneous sources too. “In the many heretical books that he wrote and disseminated,” Josel of Rosheim continued:

he said that there was no hope for anyone who aided the Jews. His numerous writings so inflamed the rulers and peoples against us that it was well nigh impossible for the Jews to maintain themselves. With the agreement of our rabbis, I procured excellent letters from other sages of the nations and from that place Strasbourg, and I journeyed up to request an audience with the Duke in Meissen and Thuringia. However, I did not succeed in presenting the letters until he came to Frankfurt [in 1539], to meet the other princes, including the Duke of Brandenburg, who likewise had intended to expel all the Jews. However, it so happened that through the disputations that I had in the presence of many gentile scholars, I [was able] to refute the arguments of Luther and Bucer and their followers [with proofs] from our Holy Torah, and they acknowledged the truth of my words.

Josel of Rosheim wrote this account with the benefit of hindsight. As he pointed out, he had been unable to obtain an audience with the Elector in Saxony. What he omitted from this account is the fact that he had hoped to enlist Luther’s aid in gaining access to Saxony but was turned down by Luther because, as he wrote in his response to Josel of Rosheim’s request, “your people abuse my service” and might “utilize my favor in support of your obduracy.” Had Josel of Rosheim already been as critical of Luther in 1537 as he claimed a decade later, he surely would not have sought Luther’s support in the first place. That he did so makes sense insofar as the first of Luther’s viciously anti-Jewish polemics was published only in the following year, in 1538. Even so, one should not read too much into Josel of Rosheim’s attempt to gain Luther’s support: what he had asked for was support for his request for an audience with the Elector. This does not necessarily imply that he also assumed Luther would support the substance of his cause. Put differently: Luther was not even willing at this point to help the foremost representative of the Jews in the Holy Roman Empire get a hearing, fair or otherwise, before the Saxon Elector. Once Luther published his anti-Jewish polemics, Josel of Rosheim was indeed so alarmed by them and their actual, and potential, impact that he petitioned the authorities in Strasbourg—unsuccessfully—to get the authorities in Saxony to lean on Luther and—successfully—to ban Luther’s anti-Jewish writings in their jurisdiction.

“Vain word-warriors”: the Reformation and the Jews

There is no shortage of literature on “Luther and the Jews” and the Reformation Quincentenary has generated yet another round of publications and republications. Gradually, a critical mass of studies on the other reformers is accruing as well. For the most part, their findings too are rather disconcerting. The two truly outstanding scholars currently working on Luther’s dealings with Judaism and the Jews are Thomas Kaufmann, a Professor of Church History at Göttingen, and Peter von der Osten-Sacken, an emeritus in New Testament who from 1974 to 2007 headed the Institut für Kirche und Judentum in Berlin and, all too often in the face of appalling hostility and boorishness, has arguably done more for the serious and critical study of Jewish-Christian relations than any other German scholar.

Many readers may be familiar with the time-honored notion that one needs to draw a categorical distinction between the early Luther and the late Luther when it comes to assessing his attitudes towards Judaism and the Jews. On the one hand, so the story goes, there is the Luther of 1523 who, in his pamphlet That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew, displayed extraordinary good will towards the Jews and expressly denounced canards like the blood libel. On the other hand, there is the Luther who, in the final decade of his life, published some of the most venomous and vitriolic anti-Jewish polemics ever written.

A version of this narrative even features explicitly in one of the surviving Jewish sources in which the Reformation is discussed. “He [Luther] and his followers,” we are told, “said one should not impose a heavy yoke on the Jews, treat them honorably and affectionately and bring them close,” i.e., render them amenable to conversion.

He demonstrated why and wrote a book—“Jesus from the Family of the Israelites.” Yet one mocked him, [suggesting] that he was almost an Israelite himself. Thus he regretted [his previous stance] and he sought to evade this suspicion; for they had mocked him and said that his insight followed the faith of Israel. When he heard this he inverted his words and wrote to all the peoples to the detriment [of Israel] … What he had previously done, he did in order to attract them to their [i.e., the Christian] faith with well-meaning words. Yet when they did not turn towards him and would not relent and follow his voice, he took to slander—true to the scriptural word: “he that uttereth a slander, is a fool” (Prov 10:18). All the malicious gossip he was able to find he turned into books.

Given that the author went on to make an explicit reference to Luther’s polemic Against the Sabbatarians, these lines must have been written after its publication in 1538; the reference to “books,” i.e., more than one anti-Jewish polemic, presumably places this discussion in the mid-1540s, i.e., after the publications of Luther’s rants, including, most famously, On The Jews and Their Lies (published in 1543).

This makes for a neat narrative: initially, Luther hoped he would be able to convert the Jews and assumed he was more likely to succeed if, rather than antagonizing them, he sought to gain their trust. Over time, it dawned on him that the Jews were not responding to his generosity and consequently he turned on them. Alas, this narrative is not so much neat as far too neat. To be sure, it is not without its kernel of truth, albeit one that resides more in Luther’s mind than the real world. Moreover, as we will see, Luther’s initial enthusiasm was short-lived indeed. Apart from making it absolutely clear that conversion was the name of the game, the lines I have just quoted, perhaps unwittingly, point to a much deeper truth, though—namely, the perceived contagion of limited (even purely conceptual) encounters with Judaism or the Jews (a point rightly stressed by Nirenberg in Anti-Judaism). To put it bluntly: even by offering the Jews just the tip of his little finger Luther had so massively disturbed the willfully asymmetrical conceptual and practical power relationship between Christians and Jews that he could overcome his subsequent dread at what he had done, and restore some measure of equanimity, only by tearing both arms off every Jew alive.

Most serious scholars in the field now acknowledge that Luther’s theological evaluation of Judaism was in fact remarkably consistent throughout—and this holds true not only of the early and the late reformer but also of “Luther before Lutheranism,” i.e., of the pre-Reformation Luther. What did change, for a short period of time, was his sense of how the Jews should be treated or, to put it more clearly: how they might best be persuaded (genuinely) to convert. What will be self-evident to specialists in the field but may well not be equally clear to a wider readership is this: there is nothing whatsoever to suggest that any early modern Protestant theologian—and this holds true of the early modern majority society in its entirety—ever contemplated the continued existence of Judaism qua Judaism, i.e., as a valid religion alongside Christianity. Even when Christian attitudes towards Judaism were at their most benevolent and relations between Christians and Jews at their most amicable, the suggestion that the Jews might be appreciated—to steal the apt phrase Gershom Scholem coined for a later period—for what they had to give rather than what they had to give up, remained inconceivable.

The more well-meaning early modern Protestants entertained the notion that “the Jews” might yet be rescued if they converted. The more hostile Protestants insisted that “the Jews,” following their refusal to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the redeemer—and, many would add, given that they had killed him—were subject to eternal damnation. Some Protestants were conflicted in this matter and occasionally switched or vacillated between these two positions. Among those who still hoped for the conversion of the Jews, and especially among those who assumed that the conversion of the Jews would be a precursor of, or even a precondition for, the second coming of Christ, opinions varied as to how much carrot and how much stick, respectively, might best bring about the desired outcome. For some, this concerned the pragmatic question of the individual conversion of contemporary Jews, for many this predominantly concerned their vision of the end of time, i.e., they envisaged the collective conversion of “the Jews” in the context of the Final Judgment. As far as contemporaneous individual conversions were concerned, I would suggest that the stark dichotomy between genuine inner conviction and mere outward adherence to rules and regulations so often thrown into sharp relief with all available propagandistic means by the Protestants clearly raised the stakes, and Luther repeatedly articulated a pronounced distrust of actual Jewish converts to Christianity. (That said, the increasingly obsessive distinction between “old” and “new” Christians that developed, and was legally codified, in fifteenth-century Spain after the—in many cases, forced—mass conversion of Jews demonstrates that this distrust was by no means a Lutheran idiosyncrasy.)

A selection of prints of Luther’s That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew (1523)


Given how much praise has been heaped on Luther’s text of 1523, That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew, it may be worth clarifying the nature of that text. Contrary to the impression one might gain from much of the literature, it did not offer a systematic assessment of Judaism and the Jews or Jewish-Christian relations. Luther wrote the pamphlet to refute claims that he had denied the virgin birth of Jesus, which, by extension, would have meant that Jesus was not the Son of God but “merely” an ordinary human being. He had claimed nothing of the sort, he explained, which ultimately made the refutation of that claim rather a waste of time. Hence, in order to give the text an additional purpose he intended to use the pamphlet to try and make his argument in a way that might also be persuasive for Jews and help bring about their conversion.

The notion that Jesus had been born of a virgin hinged in large part on a specific Christian interpretation of prophesies in the Old Testament long disputed by Jewish scholars. Luther’s reaffirmation of the virgin birth thus required him to dismiss those Jewish objections, which he did in some detail and without mincing his words. He accused rabbinic scholars, in some cases of feigning ignorance, in others of intentionally resorting to deception in their denial of the virgin birth and the fact that Jesus, consequently, was the messiah. Of one (imputed) rabbinic argument he suggested one would have to be drunk to accept it. Because of their alleged insistence on the letter (rather than the spirit) of scripture, he created the neologism “word-bellicose” (wortkriegisch) to describe the rabbinic scholars and called them “vain word warriors” (unnütze Wortkrieger). They engaged in a “childish and deplorable” use of words. In a discussion of Luther’s “Jewish writings” published by the Lutheran member churches of the EKD in 2013, Volker Weymann has made the astonishing claim that Luther did not deploy the deicide accusation against the Jews in That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew, which, for Weymann, amounts to a philosemitic feat. Yet Luther did in fact note in the text that the Jews had “crucified Jesus.”

All this notwithstanding, Luther’s suggestion that the carrot might be a better means of persuading the Jews to convert than the stick was indeed highly unusual by the standards of the time. It was motivated not least by the assumption, articulated several times in That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew, that many Jews actually sensed that something was fundamentally wrong with Judaism. To be sure, since, until now, they had not had access to instruction genuinely suited to explain to them where exactly the error lay and what the solution was, they often responded to this deeply felt insecurity with evasion and self-deception. But given that insecurity, they were truly ripe for the taking. Yet in terms of Luther’s consistent theological stance on Judaism and the Jews throughout his career, the position Luther took in That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew was also, by any standards, a fluke. As Osten-Sacken has shown, Luther’s flirtation with toleration was over within two years at most. Following an encounter with Jewish scholars, evidently his only such encounter, he was so enraged by their disrespectful references to Jesus that he promptly changed his mind. Having viewed the Jews as low-hanging fruit, he had evidently expected instant gratification. While he may not have begun to publish his vile stand-alone anti-Jewish polemics until more than a decade later, his change of heart was clearly reflected in various other utterances from 1526 onwards.

Apologists are inclined to see in this fluke the precursor of things to come two centuries later and argue that if only one reads Luther sufficiently against the grain, this fluke constitutes a redeeming feature. This seems to me to be more a grasping for straws than a legitimate interpretation. Indeed, I would draw precisely the opposite inference. The fact that Luther was, for whatever reason, temporarily able to envisage a more benevolent conversionist strategy makes his subsequent violent rhetoric all the more questionable. It also demonstrates that theologians who broadly shared Luther’s intellectual training and horizon were capable of thinking about strategies for the conversion of the Jews in a more nuanced way, one that deviated from the general consensus. The same holds true of the two early reformers routinely cited to demonstrate that not all of them shared Luther’s hostility towards the Jews: the Reformed theologian Wolfang Capito (1478–1541) and his Lutheran colleague Andreas Osiander (1498–1552). However benevolent their attitudes towards Judaism and the Jews may have been, one must surely ask why, if they could move beyond the consensus, others failed to do so too. Apologists argue time and again that one needs to evaluate the stance of Luther and other reformers by the standards of their time, rather than ours, which is fair enough. Yet this line of argument offers no explanation for gradations in “the standards of their time.” Whether somebody was more or less invested, more or less vitriolic in his theoretical and/or practical opposition to Judaism and the Jews is surely still important. How can “the standards of their time” explain Luther’s extraordinary vitriol when numerous contemporaries displayed—by those same standards—only an ordinary or even a lesser measure of vitriol towards Judaism and the Jews?

There is some plausibility in the argument that the shift between Luther’s relatively benign position in 1523 and the extraordinarily hostile stance he took in his final decade maps onto a shift from Luther’s preoccupation with the salvation of the individual believer in the early Reformation towards the creation of a righteous community as the institutionalization of Lutheranism gathered pace. Not least, this line of argument has the distinct advantage of not blaming Luther’s aggressive outbursts on the behavior of “the Jews.” The initial focus primarily on the individual believer allowed him to suggest an analogy between bad Christians and Jews. If the community was beholden to tolerate bad Christians in its midst and make every possible effort to help them return to the straight and narrow, this argument suggests, then it was also beholden to tolerate Jews in its midst and likewise make every possible effort to help them recognize that Christianity was in fact the fulfillment of the religion of their forebears.

It remained to be seen whether the Jews were really as obstinate as Christian tradition claimed, Luther argued in 1523. After all, whom in their right mind could the old church possibly hope to convert? Had he been a Jew and encountered the instruction of the old church, Luther claimed, he would more likely have become a sow than a Christian. Indeed, any good Christian subjected to that instruction might well have become a Jew. He went as far as to encourage his opponents, should they ever tire of denouncing him as a heretic, to start calling him a Jew. After that he might eventually become a Turk (in their eyes) as well. Luther’s hyperbole in this matter indicates that he deployed this line of reasoning not least, perhaps even principally, for rhetorical purposes: if the old church was unable to persuade even the Jews—the obvious testimony of their abjection notwithstanding and despite the fact that the religion of their forebears (supposedly) indicated the truth of Christianity so clearly—what redeeming features might such a church have?

Yet as Luther and his peers became increasingly preoccupied with the codification and institutionalization of the new denomination, his emphasis shifted to the commitment of the community not to tolerate wrongdoing and blasphemy in its midst. While it was one thing temporarily to tolerate Jewish religious practice as an aberration that would become obsolete in relatively short order, its persistence for the foreseeable future—and in defiance of the enormous generosity he felt he had shown in 1523, at that—now struck him as the worst form of blasphemy imaginable. It therefore needed to be eradicated at just about any price.

From Left to Right: Luther’s anti-Jewish polemics: Against the Sabbatarians (1538), On the Jews and Their Lies (1543), Of the Unknowable Name and the Generations of Christ (1543)


The Legacy

Much recent debate has focused on the circulation, reception, and direct impact (or lack thereof) of Luther’s

anti-Jewish polemics. As it turns out, they largely went out of fashion with the rise of Protestant pietism in the first half of the eighteen century and only began to gain traction again at the same time as modern antisemitism, i.e., in the second half of the nineteenth century. That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew had its heyday in the intervening period. While this obviously does not get Luther himself off the hook, apologetically inclined historians and theologians have argued that these findings call into question the notion of a continuous tradition of Lutheran anti-Judaism. This suggestion too hinges on a more or less uncritical appreciation of That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew, an exceptionally narrow concept of anti-Judaism, and an awful lot of very determined, not to say willful, reading against the grain.

More importantly, though, in terms of today’s challenges, the direct impact of Luther’s anti-Jewish polemics (or lack thereof) is hardly the key issue. To be sure, that they ever encountered any sort of positive reception within mainstream Protestantism, however partial or limited, is crass in the extreme, both (as I have explained) by the standards of Luther’s time and all the more so later on. That even today some Protestants are willing to invest considerable effort and energy into trying to find redeeming features in Luther’s utterances about Judaism and the Jews is also deeply disconcerting. Ultimately, though, all but the most hardened antisemites will instantly react with revulsion to Luther’s rants without needing to give the matter a second thought.

The much more profound question concerns the ways in which assumptions about Judaism and Jews were—and still are—woven into the fabric of Protestant theology. As the synod of the EKD declared in 2015 in connection with the Reformation Quincentenary, Protestantism also needs to confront a number of fundamental conceptual juxtapositions that have historically both reflected and underpinned its anti-Jewish tradition—and all too often continue to do so. The EKD declaration expressly mentions the juxtapositions of law and gospel, promise and fulfillment, faith and works, and old and new covenant. Ultimately, these juxtapositions tend to reflect tensions within both Christianity and Judaism, which Christian theology has sought to resolve in each case by identifying the preferred or prioritized option with itself and the rejected or subordinated option with Judaism. To be sure, none of these juxtapositions were the preserve of the Reformation. They were already deeply rooted in Christian tradition. Yet mainstream Protestantism accentuated and to some extent intensified each of them, not least because, throughout the Reformation, each of these juxtapositions was boiled down to a dichotomy that could easily and compellingly be visualized for propagandistic purposes—to warn those who had not yet seen the light and reassure those whose faith had led them into the “right” camp.

Innumerable images, not only in churches, portrayed the stark alternative between law and grace, for instance. Indeed, in at least one German city, the venerable Hansa city of Lübeck, an artisan specialized in placing the motif in relief above people’s front doors. Numerous variations on the theme exist but the images all follow the same basic pattern. Adam and Eve’s original transgression, adherence to the law (often represented by the tablets of the law), death, and eternal damnation—variously joined by the mouth of hell and other visual deterrents—resided on the left-hand side, indicating what lay in store for those who adhered to the old church. Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, his victory over the law, and the promise of divine grace, salvation, and eternal life were portrayed on the right-hand side, indicating the benefits of joining the new Protestant denomination. The anti-Catholic thrust of these images was indistinguishable from their anti-Jewish message.

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8–1543), An Allegory of the Old and New Testament (early 1530s). Oil on panel, 49 x 60 cm. Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. Photographer: Antonia Reeve


Workshop of Statius von Düren (ca. 1520–ca. 1570), Law and Grace Relief, Mengstraße 27, Lübeck.


I have already explained how Judaism and the Jews found themselves on the wrong side of the Protestant faith-and-works dichotomy in a number of respects. A further well-established and closely related juxtaposition—which we have already seen in action when Luther, even in 1523, referred to Jewish scholars as “vain word warriors”—concerned the letter (or the “mere” word) as opposed to the spirit of scripture, especially in connection with the Christian version of the Tanakh known as the Old Testament. After all, adherence to the letter parallels outward adherence to what is written while the ability to grasp the spirit of a text parallels true faith. It is sometimes assumed that a Christian theologian is more likely to be well disposed towards Judaism and the Jews the more interested he is in the Old Testament. The same is frequently inferred from a theologian’s interest in rabbinic interpretations of scripture. Given that the reformers (with the notable exception of Luther himself) showed a greater interest in the original Hebrew text of the Old Testament and rabbinic commentaries than the old church had traditionally done, so the argument goes, they would surely have been more appreciative of the Jewish tradition. Crucial, however, is not the extent but the character of that interest. Is the theologian in question willing to grant the Old Testament (or its rabbinic interpretation) genuine value in its own right or does he actually want to deploy Jewish texts to demonstrate their alleged support for Christian truth claims?

Christian theology had long since developed an extensive typological interpretation of the Old Testament, an interpretation, in other words, that understood much of the Old Testament as prefiguring the Christian narrative. As David Nirenberg has shown, Luther went a decisive step further. Christian exegesis had previously assumed that the text of the Old Testament had a more or less obvious literal meaning but also a deeper meaning that could be understood only if one also grasped the spirit of the text. The letter of the text, in other words, related to an independent—Jewish—reality but its spirit prefigured the Christian narrative. For Luther, however, even the letter of the text had only ever referred to the Christian narrative. Where Christian exegesis had previously appropriated the Old Testament, often aggressively, it now went in for its complete expropriation. The Jewish interpretation of the Tanakh had not so much become obsolete as it had misunderstood the text all along, and this although its “literal” meaning was (supposedly) so clear. That said, Luther’s approach was particularly extreme in this respect and various Calvinist reformers in particular deviated from it to varying degrees.

Insofar as the existence and legitimacy of Christianity hinges fundamentally on its relationship to, and delineation from, the religion of the biblical Jews, every Christian theological statement is implicitly a statement about Jewish-Christian relations. The true litmus test for the extent to which Protestantism has overcome its anti-Jewish tradition is not whether mainstream Protestants react with revulsion to Luther’s crass anti-Jewish polemics. That should go without saying. What really matters is whether they respond with the same sense of alarm to the suggestion that Christianity is about grace and forgiveness while Judaism is about strict adherence to the law and retribution; that Christianity is about genuine faith and the “spirit” of scripture while Judaism is about the outward adherence to the “letter” of scripture and religious rules and regulations; and that the Christian covenant exists not alongside God’s covenant with the Jews but replaced it.

For the EKD or any other mainstream Protestant church to declare the need to deal with these juxtapositions is one thing. A lack of well-meaning official declarations to this effect, for all the struggle it took for some of them to see the light of day, is hardly our principal problem. To what extent this agenda has actually trickled down and impacted ordinary believers in mainstream Protestant congregations is quite another matter. This is an issue not only of what is preached in Protestant churches or how scripture is interpreted in Bible-study groups. It also concerns the question of how best to deal with the deep imprint these juxtapositions and dichotomies have left on the choice of regular liturgical readings, in prayer and hymnbooks, in church music, and in the images and religious objects still displayed in Protestant churches, schools, and other institutions. Nor, I hasten to add, could the problem be solved by trying to erase this imprint at a stroke, as though the problem had never existed.

One need only think of Bach’s sacred cantatas, to name just one example with which I happen to be particularly familiar. Whatever his own personal convictions may or may not have been, Bach was steeped in the Lutheran orthodoxy of his day. Indeed, he was examined on his knowledge of, and commitment towards, that orthodoxy before he could take up his position as Cantor at St. Thomas in Leipzig and he would have been unable to hold on to that position if his colleagues, peers, and/or congregants had gained the impression that his output deviated substantively from that orthodoxy. It has repeatedly been suggested that Bach had no genuine influence on the theological meaning of his sacred compositions since that was surely determined by the librettos. Yet quite apart from the fact that Bach actually preferred to participate in the creation of librettos when possible, he could considerably influence the “message” his congregants were likely to take from his settings by deploying the musical means at his disposal to weight and stress or deemphasize certain elements of the libretto and color or nuance meaning by relating those elements in various specific ways to one another. Whether a particular textual element was presented in a chaste or triumphalist manner, for instance, depended in high measure on the musical setting. I emphasize this not least because according to the traditional understanding—which is still in rude good health and, if anything, advancing again as neo-traditionalism gains greater influence in mainstream Lutheranism and certainly in the EKD—cantatas were sermons in their own right and, what is more, assumed to be even more effective than the spoken sermon because, in addition to the spoken word, they could rely on musical means to move the souls of the faithful.

Inordinate amounts of ink have been spilled over Bach’s two Passions. Some work has also been done specifically on Bach’s cantatas for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity—known in the Lutheran church as Israel Sunday, because it is the day on which Lutheran congregations traditionally commemorate(d) the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE—and a handful of cantatas with librettos that make explicit anti-Jewish references. Yet the bulk of Bach’s surviving 200 sacred cantatas have not been looked at from this perspective—on the understanding that there can be no anti-Judaism were the words Judaism or Jew are not explicitly mentioned. Yet as I say, every Christian theological statement is implicitly a statement about Jewish-Christian relations. Bach’s cantatas are now a more integral part of Protestant liturgical practice, certainly in the German-speaking lands, than ever before. Indeed, they are increasingly being performed in Catholic liturgical settings as well. For liberal Christians they may do little more than raise the mood with beautiful music. For traditional Protestants, they are, as ever, musical sermons that render their theological message “real in the present.” It follows that cantata movements, which present the victory of the gospel over the law, for instance, allow the congregation directly to sense and encounter the triumphant nature of this victory. Conversely, it follows that where cantata movements provide a foil for that victory by reminding the congregants of the burden of the law, that burden too is directly sensed and encountered by the congregation. In case you are tempted to think (or hope) I am a making this up: Jochen Arnold, one of the most senior officials responsible for church music in the EKD, argues in his post-doctoral thesis of 2009 that movements from Bach’s cantatas that emphasize the law should not be played during the Eucharist, because the “real presence” of the law created by those movements could drown out the Eucharist’s message of redemption.

Stipulations like Arnold’s suggest that mainstream Protestantism as a whole still has a long way to go if it wants to overcome the stereotypical dichotomies woven into its theological fabric that are so heavily laden with anti-Jewish assumptions and implications—let alone arrive at a theology capable of genuinely integrating and cherishing the Jewish roots of Christianity without at the same time negating the otherness that lies in the Jewishness of those roots. A few years back, I mentioned this goal during a job interview at one of the foremost Schools of Theology and Religious Studies in the UK. One of the interviewers found this aim so alarming that he asked for instant assurances that I would not discuss this sort of thing with undergraduates. For all the efforts Christians have undertaken in recent years to move beyond traditional Christian anti-Judaism, much clearly remains to be done.


Lars Fischer is an Honorary Research Associate in the UCL Department of Hebrew & Jewish Studies. His research deals primarily with Critical Theory and various aspects of Jewish/non-Jewish relations. He edits the websites of the critical theories of antisemitism network and H-Music: The Network for Scholars Interested in Music in History. He lives in Berlin.


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