Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Mazel tov to my Protestant friends!

A statue of Martin Luther in Eisenach, Germany, in June 2017. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

(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.

READ: Berlin exhibit highlights how the Nazis exploited Martin Luther’s legacy

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.

Ideas like:

  • 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.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.


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  • To celebrate the 500 year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, let a new reformation begin with an update:

    The Apostles’ Creed 2017: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    (references used are available upon request)

  • Of greater consequence is the coming up jubilee of the crucifixion of Jesus in 2032 or 2033 which will be the most spectacular event on earth in 2000 years. So buckle up, put on your life jacket and safety helmet because the only rational conclusion is that it will be a wild and crazy ride.

  • A well written and thoughtful piece, remarkably restrained as well, given the colored history of anti-Semitism cloaked under the rubric of a distorted vision and application of the precepts of the Christian faith.

  • Luther thought he was right. He didn’t think anyone could disagree with him. In many ways he was just as stifling of differing views as the Catholic Church.

    “At first, he condemned persecution of the Jews. He believed that his religious reforms would attract Jews to his new version of Christianity.”

    When Jews and/or Israelis don’t convert, will Evangelicals’ “love of Jews” turn to hate too? Will they blame Jews if the Second Coming doesn’t happen.

  • The Catholic Church no longer believes that Jews killed Jesus, but many Catholics haven’t caught up to the Church yet. I’m not sure what the different Protestant churches believe now. In the 21st century the Catholic Church has gone farther than any Protestant church or Orthodox Church to mend its relationship with Jews. The Orthodox churches have not had an equivalent of a Vatican II.

  • Luther may have been many things. But in the end (or towards it?) he became a raging anti-Semite.
    PS: the last sentence. Bit of a stretch.