(RNS) — This past week, I met a Lutheran minister at a clergy meeting. I wished him a mazal tov – on the upcoming celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which will happen on October 31st.
He appreciated my good wishes.
And then, I added: “…and really – no hard feelings.”
The minister knew exactly what I was talking about.
A Jew is allowed to have mixed feelings about the Protestant Reformation.
On October 31, 1517, a former monk named Martin Luther approached a church in Wittenberg, Germany. He carried a document that contained his complaints about the failures of the Roman Catholic Church.
That document became known as the Ninety Five Theses. Martin Luther nailed them on on the door of the church in Wittenberg – and with those taps of the hammer, a religious revolution was born.
Luther had become disillusioned with the practices and theology of the Roman Catholic Church. In particular, he was angry at the practice known as the sale of indulgences, in which a sinner could pay to have the punishment for a sin reduced.
Luther believed that a person could not gain salvation through his or her actions; rather, he believed that salvation depended on God’s grace. All you had to do was believe in Jesus Christ as the risen Messiah.
Luther believed that the Church had invented practices that had added unnecessary layers to Christianity. He believed that the study of the Bible was necessary for true religious feeling, which was not something that the Church emphasized.
That was how a new religion was born. Luther broke with the pope and with the church. His followers became known as Lutherans.
Luther was not alone in his reforms.
In Geneva, Switzerland, Calvinism was born.
Decades later, in England, King Henry VIII wanted a divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon. The Church said: no go.
So, Henry started his own church — the Church of England, also known as the Anglican Church, which in America is the Episcopal Church.
So, why should I – and why should we, as Jews – be ambivalent about the legacy of the Protestant Reformation?
When it comes to the Jews, Luther was a mixed bag.
At first, he condemned persecution of the Jews. He believed that his religious reforms would attract Jews to his new version of Christianity.
But, when that did not happen, Luther’s admiration turned into hatred.
These are his words:
First, let us set fire to their synagogues or schools.
Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.
Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings be taken from them.
Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach on pain of loss of life and limb.
Fifth, I advise that safe conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews.
Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping….
Where, and when, did Luther’s words come to life?
Kristallnacht. November, 1938. The Night of Broken Glass — in Germany and Austria.
As a matter of fact, some Christian clerics in Germany noted that Kristallnacht coincided with Luther’s birthday — and they imagined that it was a posthumous birthday gift for him.
As we like to say now: big time. There was a straight line from the anti-Semitism of Luther in Germany in the 1530s, to the anti-Semitism of Hitler in Germany in the 1930s.
German churches – both Lutheran and Catholic – adopted anti-Semitism as their default ideology.
But, not all of them.
Some German Protestant ministers organized the Confessing Church – which stood up against Hitler, and against the anti-Semitic teachings of Luther.
Imagine the moral heroism of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian and spy, who was part of a plot to assassinate Hitler, and who was hanged, naked, in the Flossenberg concentration camp on April 9, 1945.
Imagine the moral heroism of Martin Niemoller, the German Lutheran pastor and theologian, who is most famous for these words, which adorn the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.
The anti-Semitism of Martin Luther became one of the dominant themes in German history.
So, is there anything good that we can say about the Reformation?
Only that it completely changed human history.
People began to realize that the Church was not the only source of authority in the world. That gave birth to ideas that we take so much for granted – that those ideas are like the air that we breathe.
- You are allowed to be skeptical about the truths that you have inherited.
- People should use their reason to figure things out, and not simply rely on tradition and faith.
- You can read a text critically, and not only piously.
It is hardly an accident – that from the Reformation, we get the Enlightenment.
From the Enlightenment, we get the Emancipation of the Jews from the ghettos of Europe.
That leads directly to the beginnings of Reform Judaism – which happens in the same Germany that gave birth to Martin Luther. A choir; beautiful organ music in the synagogue; families sitting together; a sermon given in German; rabbis and cantors wearing black robes; even confirmation – all of these were the gifts of German Lutheranism to Judaism.
Had there been no Reformation, there would have been no Reform Judaism.
And no Conservative or Reconstructionist Judaism, either.
I will greet October 31st – the 500th anniversary of the Reformation – with mixed feelings.
On the one hand, I continue to revile the lethal legacy of Luther. He was one of history’s master teachers of Jew hatred.
On the other hand, I continue to respect the liberating legacy of Luther.
Because, let’s face it.
Had there not been a Luther, there would have been no modern world.