A Struggle in Edom


Martin Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1529

by Ed Simon

About a hundred years after that fateful day when the Augustinian monk Martin Luther apocryphally affixed his remonstrance to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, and thus supposedly initiated the Reformation, an anonymous Jew in Prague wrote a detailed, sober, detached, scholarly, and objective account of the previous century’s Christian disunion. Translated by scholar Abraham David, A Hebrew Chronicle from Prague, c. 1615 has the anonymous Bohemian Jew analyzing the fracture of Christendom. He writes that a “priest named Martinus Luther created turmoil in the Catholic religion, deriding and repudiating its customs… [Protestants] agreed that priests could marry, that meat could be eaten on Fridays, that certain holy days should be abolished, that the Eucharist is false and that crucifixes have no substance.”

Almost shocking in its accuracy, for in the seventeenth-century when Christian Hebraism was nascent, it’s clear that this Jewish writer has a far more clear-eyed view of the theological, doctrinal, and ritual issues in a faith not his own then would his Christian equivalent writing about Judaism. For Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, depictions of Judaism still relied on the slurs of stiff-necked obstinacy, of stubborn legalism, and of moribund archaism. Christian polemics operated without awareness or concern to the dynamic genres of Midrash or the peppery rhetoric of pilpul; Judaism was not understood as the living approach to God that it was, but only through the projected prejudice of Christian anti-Judaism. Refreshing to see the attention paid to accuracy, then, in A Hebrew Chronicle from Prague, c. 1615, for it announces that even if the vast majority of people in early modern Europe couldn’t bother to properly understand other religions, at least this forgotten author could. Though maybe that’s less surprising; as a Jew he couldn’t have had the luxury of not comprehending those issues within Christianity. The burden of the marginalized is that they never have the option of not understanding those who control their lives; the privilege of the powerful is that they can believe whatever they want to about the persecuted.

In the medieval Jewish mythopoeic imagination, Christians were often referred to as the children of Edom, a tradition of biblical genealogy having identified them as the descendants of Esau; by contrast, the Jews were the children of Jacob, perennially oppressed by their brothers. The Reformation thus presented a surprising development within Edom, a conflict between the Christians. Rabbinical authorities parsed with nuance the theological debates occurring between adherents of Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, as well as the Counter-Reformation. Writing in The Marginalia Review of Books, Lars Fischer explains that “Jewish commentators picked up… on those aspects of inner-Christian religious controversy that were… relevant to their own self-understanding.”

Jewish ambivalence about the Reformation was born out of a clear-eyed understanding of theological minutia. Fischer records that the Italian Sephardic physician Joseph Ha-Kohen would write in 1554 that in Protestant lands “No longer were graven images set up” or was “homage paid to the saints, as before,” a seemingly shared iconoclasm perhaps predisposing him to the reformers (even as Lutheranism itself wasn’t particularly against images). By contrast, the Italian rabbi Simone Luzzatto disparaged Luther’s reliance on sola Scriptura, writing that “many passages… cannot be properly understood without the light of tradition.” Rabbi Yehiel Nissim de Pisa was similarly disturbed by Luther’s soteriology, in 1539 describing evangelicals as “mockers who claim that man neither prospers nor suffers perdition by his works unless divine sanction has so determined.” Concerning Calvin in particular, Nissim de Pisa was particularly condemnatory, calling double-predestination “more bitter than wormwood and destructive of the very foundations of faith.” By contrast, Christian commentators of the era would have been at a loss to as fully understand the details of belief for the Jews whom they had for so long relegated to the status of other.

Reformation split Judaism in a manner less dramatic than Christianity, but there was disagreement among rabbinic authorities as to which side of the schism they had more affinity toward. Some could point to Protestant prohibitions on imagery and find succor, others to Catholicism’s focus on tradition. With an eschatological fervency, Abraham ben Eliezer Ha-Levi actually saw Luther as a sort of savior of the Jews, a “great, valiant and mighty man… exceedingly noble in all his undertakings.” The young Luther would have found much agreeable in that estimation, one imagines. Such a Luther was the one who intoned in his 1523 essay “That Jesus was Born a Jew” that “If I had been a Jew and had seen such dolts and blockheads govern and teach the Christian faith, I would sooner have become a hog than a Christian… [Catholics] have dealt with the Jews as if they were dogs rather than human beings; they have done little else than deride them and seize their property.” Luther concludes that the “Jews are actually nearer to Christ than we are.” Understandable then why Ha-Levi would welcome the arrival of Luther, and why the empathetic humanity (and salty language) of “That Jesus was Born a Jew” would be conflated with an admirable Protestant philo-Semitism. The truth, of course, is far more complicated.

Protestantism is often historicized as a Hebraizing movement, both its valorization of scripture and its sober-eyed iconoclasm as somehow in the spirit of biblical Judaism in a manner that “paganized” Catholicism isn’t. Certainly by the seventeenth-century figures like John Selden embraced Hebraism as a model for Christians to emulate, as the enthusiasms for Hebrew learning and Judaica amongst Puritans testifies towards (all of those Isaacs and Jacobs…), or as configurations of Protestants as a remnant of a “New Israel” evidences (with all that’s problematic about those assertions). Such Judaic enthusiasms have a direct line from Luther’s essay to evangelical Christian support of Israel today. However, philo-Semitism can of course be just as dehumanizing as antisemitism, both threatening the erasure of actual people and the imposition of outside understandings on them, refusing them the right to self-definition. After all, the declaration of being a “New Israel” is but a slight revision of the traditional doctrine of supersessionism, the belief that God’s covenant with the Jews had been abrogated and replaced by the Church. Nor is the manner in which philo-Semitism can metastasize easily into its supposed opposite more than demonstrated in the figure of Luther himself.

As much as “That Jesus was Born a Jew” seems to indicate a tolerant ecumenicism, the reformer even imagining himself having been born as a Jew, the context is clear. Luther desired that the Jews would convert to Christianity, seeing their previous unwillingness to as being only the result of Catholic theological error, and not as a product of their own deep faith. He was still incapable of acknowledging the humanity or interiority of the Jews whom he used as model and foil, and so when mass conversion didn’t happen, he became a notoriously virulent Judeophobe. By 1543 this was on ample display in Luther’s vile pamphlet Concerning the Jews and their Lies. Angered at their supposed obstinance, and increasingly paranoid, Luther referred to the Jews as “poisonous envenomed worms,” a “base, whoring people” whose “law must be accounted as filth,” the synagogue being an “incorrigible whore and an evil slut.” Luther advocated that Jewish synagogues and yeshivas be burnt down, no Jews be allowed to live among Christians, the destruction of Torahs and Talmuds, and the banning of rabbinic teaching, among several other vile proposals.

Needless to say, this is a Luther that every mainstream Lutheran organization has denounced, seeing within those hideous words the antisemitism that he couldn’t overcome, considering the place and era in which he was born. Luther was obviously the inheritor of a medieval antisemitism that permeated Europe, among Catholic and Protestant alike. Such was the ideological and iconographic reality in which Luther was reared. Near the door at Wittenberg where the 95 Theses was supposedly affixed, there is a prime example of what art historians call a Judensau, that is literally a “Jew’s Sow,” a depiction of rabbis suckling at the teats of a pig. With not just its clear obscenity, but its mocking of kashrut, the Judensau is horrific in its antisemitism, but for Luther it was instructive. Writing again in 1543, this time in the essay Of the Unknowable Name and the Generations of Christ, Luther describes how at “our church in Wittenberg a sow is sculpted in stone. Young pigs and Jews alike suckling under her. Behind the sow a rabbi is bent over… holding her tail high and looking intensely under her tail and into her Talmud, as though he were reading something acute.”

In the triumphalist historiography of Protestantism, Luther’s antisemitism is an embarrassing footnote, a personality defect that can be explained away by cultural context. Rather the Luther that is remembered is that of Alistair McGrath’s Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution – A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First; a figure who provided a “powerful affirmation of spiritual democracy,” or of Eric Metaxas’ book whose title says it all – Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World. No doubt it would be unfair, and critically short-sighted, to reduce Luther to his worst utterances. It would be unfair to do that to any of us, of course. A full and fair grappling with Luther’s legacy has to partially credit him with his role in refocusing attention on scripture, on his noble fideism, on the commitment to the individual conscience in being able to interpret God. While Reformation historians tend not to endorse “Great Man” theories as much as they did in the past, there are credible reasons for why so often past scholars traced modern democracy and science back to the example of Luther.

But to elude or obscure Luther’s antisemitism as mere eccentricity, the ramblings of a drunken racist uncle who is otherwise beloved by the family, is to do its own violence. Luther’s antisemitism is not so easily forgotten, nor the fact that for all of the medieval Church’s antisemitism the reformer actually surpassed them in his rhetoric and proposals. Nor can it be said that Concerning the Jews and their Lies is a betrayal of his own previous thought – it’s instrumental to it. Luther’s initial philo-Semitism was in part the cause of his later beliefs. The supersessionism which sees Judaism as mere prelude to Christianity, which pretends that Jewish thought is a fossil that only exists to prefigure Christ, is the fundamental origin of the reformer’s hatreds. The inability to see others as fully formed and legitimate people in their own right, and to understand rabbinic Judaism and Christianity as duel response to the trauma of the Temple’s destruction and not the latter as a rightful inheritor of the former’s birthright cursed Luther’s thought, and it remains a hidden kernel that always threatens to sprout.

Fischer writes that the “true litmus test… is not whether mainstream Protestants react with revulsion to Luther’s crass anti-Jewish polemics.” That should be obvious, he says. “What really matters,” he continues, “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’… while Judaism is about the outward adherence to the ‘letter.’” Most of all, Fischer crucially argues, there must be a rejection to the noxious presupposition that the “Christian covenant exists not alongside God’s covenant with the Jews but replaced it.” No reason why Christian theology in general or Protestant in particular needs to be interpreted as anti-Jewish, but unless Fischer’s last point is deal with than such theologies naturally are such. That aspect of Luther’s legacy must be dealt with, it can’t be obscured, written over, or dismissed as a mere hiccup. If you maintain that Luther modernized faith, then we much contend with his bigotry as well; if you claim that he foregrounded faith, grace, and scripture, then we must also struggle with his legacy of rank hatefulness. Sobering to remember that in 1938 the Nazis executed a mass pogrom against the Jews in a night of broken glass remembered as Kristallnacht. Close to three hundred, synagogues were immolated, seven thousand Jewish-owned business destroyed, and 30,000 Jewish women, men, and children sent to concentration camps. Kristallnacht enacted the exact proposals made by Luther in Concerning the Jews and their Lies. The date purposefully chosen was November 10th – Luther’s birthday.


About the Author:

Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.