Q: Considering how violently anti-Semitic Martin Luther was and how he encouraged others to be that way, how does a Jew deal with those from the Christian branch that bears his name? – From H
A: When we own a religion or a secular culture we own all of it, the good and the bad. When any tradition, religious or secular, is hundreds or thousands of years old, one can expect that mixed in with its eternally valid teachings of compassion and forgiveness, there will inevitably also be teachings and practices that reflect the bigotry and blindness of older and less enlightened times.
For example, America is a great culture that has enshrined freedom for many, but American culture also includes a history of slavery and bigotry against many groups struggling to be free.
As Americans we own it all. I can be inspired by the writings of Thomas Jefferson but I cannot forget that he was himself a slave owner. As a Jew I can devote my life to the teachings of my faith while acknowledging that certain biblical verses commanding the murder of the children of idolaters, the domination of wives by their husbands, and the torture of women suspected of adultery are all a part of the same Bible that teaches us to love our neighbor’s as we love ourselves.
The way I say it is that I simply cannot hear the word of God speaking through some of my sacred texts. I believe that God’s revelation to us through the teachings of our wisdom traditions is real, but I also believe that God’s revelation is not static.
Revelation, like all of human learning, is progressive and able to change based upon the highest and truest and purest teachings of our revealed traditions. We must never change because we are convinced by some passing intellectual fad. We must only change because we realize that in many important ways, we have not had the pleasure of properly and fully understanding what God really meant to teach us about living together and about being saved from sin.
This is the problem with Martin Luther.
Luther died in 1546 at a time when Jews in Europe were still struggling to be granted simple civil rights. He lived during a time when anti-Jewish bigotry was deeply rooted in European culture. At the heart of this European anti-Semitism was the theological problem that Jews did not accept Jesus as the Messiah and therefore would not convert to Christianity. Because of the belief that there is no salvation outside of conversion to Christianity, Jews were, like blacks in America, consigned to an underclass without civil rights until the 19th century.
In his early writings, Luther was actually supportive of Jews in the hopes they would see the light and convert. When that proved impossible he succumbed to his own prejudices and those of his secular overlords and wrote some terrible screeds, most notably in 1543, “On the Jews and their Lies.” This virulent anti-Semitic work inspired attacks on the Jewish community in the 1580s and sadly also inspired later European anti-Semites.
On the Jews and their Lies remains a stain on Luther forever, but it is not a stain on Lutherans forever. All the denominations of Lutheranism have clearly and sincerely rejected all forms of anti-Semitism and have repudiated Luther’s writings on the Jews and Judaism.
I am also proud to remind you that this is the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the declaration of the Catholic Church in Vatican II absolving the Jewish people of all responsibility for the death of Jesus and repudiating anti-Semitism and “the teaching of contempt” for Jews in the Catholic Church.