By Harriet P. Gross
I can’t swear to this on a stack of anyone’s Bibles, but I do believe I was the only Jew present in Fellowship Hall of Dallas’s Northway Christian Church for a recent lecture on “Martin Luther and the Jews.”
The speaker was Hans Hillerbrand, emeritus chair of Duke University’s religion department, whose areas of special expertise are the Protestant Reformation and the history of modern Christianity.
Background: Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a monk conflicted in his Roman Catholic faith. It was at the University of Wittenberg, where he was a theology professor, that on All Saints Day 1517, he famously nailed a list of 95 points critical of the church to the chapel door. Ultimately he was excommunicated, but his “Protests” gave rise to many new churches, the first of which bears his name.
However, along with the fame he gained as a reformer, Luther was also famous for his anti-Semitism. The American Luther Research Center, a new organization with Texas/Louisiana roots, presented Hillerbrand’s lecture as part of its current “Luther Decade,” the 10 years leading up to 2017, when Protestant churches everywhere will formally mark the Reformation’s 500th anniversary.
I learned a lot from Hillerbrand and the historic context into which he set Luther’s anti-Semitism, which has been a foremost theological topic — as well as an embarrassment to Protestants of good will — since World War II. In Luther’s own time, however, “His anti-Jewish remarks were 16th century commonplaces,” the speaker said.
In 1523, Luther actually stated publicly that Jesus was born a Jew, emphasizing a kinship that had existed from the start between Jews and Christians. But what he really wanted was conversion to his faith (although not of Jews only; once his “true testament” had been proclaimed, Luther thought atheists and Catholics, too, would accept its newly reformed beliefs). However, at the time there were widespread rumors of many Christians actually converting to Judaism, which “made him go ballistic,” Hillerbrand said.
Then, in order to suppress the idea that the Messiah had not yet come, Luther advocated the burning of synagogues and Jewish books, and the forcing of Jews from professional and business pursuits into manual labor.
Sound familiar? Surely Hitler drew precedent and strength from these earlier ideas and proclamations of Luther, and put them to use in the largely Lutheran Germany of his own time. Hillerbrand himself draws connections between Luther’s pronouncements and the Holocaust.
“Maybe Luther was very sick, or maybe he was edited,” the speaker opined. “But his self-assurance left no room for uncertainty. In 1517, Christians knew virtually nothing about the Jewish religion. Luther didn’t write on the basis of personal expertise. He used stereotypes that were pervasive Christian sentiment of the time, when Jews were on the margins of society, yet still perceived as a threat. To Luther, Jews were a constant reminder of the lack of persuasiveness of his Christian message.”
For a long time, Luther’s views on the Jews were lost within his voluminous writing on other topics, much of which was against other Christians. By the 19th century, emancipated Jews were enjoying full participation in German society (freedom that helped birth Reform Judaism). But when his 16th century anti-Jewish treatises were republished in 1929, “Luther became very big,” the speaker said.
Throughout the centuries, according to Hillerbrand, there have been two kinds of anti-Jewish sentiment: the theological and the cultural. The first represents a repudiation of Judaism as a religion, which has led to punishment of Jews for non-acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. The second musters unflattering anecdotal personalizations of Jews: they eat garlic and thus give off an unpleasant odor, for one example.
“Martin Luther was heir to both traditions, and his convergence of them was the problem,” concluded the speaker. “The historical impact cannot be wished away, or washed away.”
Interestingly, this seminar was held in a non-Lutheran church whose members call themselves “Disciples of Christ.” An old co-worker, very dear to me, belongs to this denomination, and over the years I’ve shared many religious experiences with her. So I had a hard time keeping myself from rising at the end of this conference to proclaim, “I’m a Jew, but some of my best friends are Disciples.”
However, since I chose not to do it, I’ll never know if the German-born Hillerbrand would have appreciated the irony in this reversal of many prior Christian comments. I’m sure, however, that Martin Luther himself would not have been amused.