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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
German church reformer; born at Eisleben Nov. 10, 1483; died there Feb. 18, 1546. The Reformation originated in the Renaissance, being due partly to the general critical examination of traditional doctrines, and partly to the study of ancient languages, particularly of Greek and Hebrew, a study which was advocated and fostered by the Humanists, and the necessity of which was implied in the fundamental principle of Luther that Scripture alone is the infallible guide in religious belief. Luther attempted from the start to win over Reuchlin, the author of the first Hebrew grammar written by a Christian and the defender of rabbinical literature against the attacks of the apostate Pfefferkorn and against the Dominicans who supported him; but while Melanchthon, Reuchlin's nephew, was Luther's truest friend, and while he did not succeed in winning Reuchlin over to his cause, he incurred the enmity of Reuchlin's foes, one of them being the Dominican friar, Hoogstraten.
Scant Knowledge of Hebrew.
While Luther always upheld the Bible as the basis of belief, and while he speaks very highly of Hebrew, which he calls the best, the richest, and at the same time the plainest language, he himself did not go back to the original text; indeed, he admits that he was not a Hebrew scholar, and especially that he knew nothing of Hebrew grammar (ib. 62:313). A Hebrew book he had received, he gave to a friend, saying, "Excedit enim vires meas" ("Luther's Sämmtliche Werke," 2:612, "Briefe"). His exegetical principle is one which reveals the context by inspiration rather than by grammatical exposition, and while he speaks very highly of Moses and David Ḳimḥi, whose works he knew through Nicholas de Lyra and Paulus of Burgos, he often inveighs, in his characteristically coarse manner, against what he calls the perversions of the rabbinical exegetes who "versuchen, drehen, deuten, martern fast alle Wort" (ib. 32:174 ["Von den Juden und Ihren Lügen"] and 62:311-317; see Geiger, "Das Studium der Hebr. Sprache in Deutschland," pp. 5-7, 132, Breslau, 1870). He speaks highly of the Jews as having been chosen by God as the instruments for the promulgation of His message to the world. "The Jews," he says, "are of the best blood on earth" (Luther, c. 25:409); "through them alone the Holy Ghost wished to give all books of Holy Scripture to the world; they are the children and we are the guests and the strangers; indeed, like the Canaanitish woman, we should be satisfied to be the dogs that eat the crums which fall from their master's table" (25:260).
In Luther's attitude toward the Jews two periods have to be distinguished. During the earlier, which lasted until 1537 or shortly before, he is full of compassion for their misery and enthusiastic for their conversion to Christianity; in the later, toward the end of his life, he denounces them in unmeasured terms, saying that it is useless to convert any Jew, and accusing them of a relentless hatred of Christianity and of all the crimes which their enemies ever charged them with—well-poisoning, ritual murder, cowardly assassinations of their patients, etc. He wishes the princes to persecute them mercilessly and the preachers to set the mob against them. What caused this change of attitude is not exactly known. Luther himself speaks of polemical works written by Jews in which they blasphemed Jesus and Mary, of the propaganda which they made among Christians and which caused quite a number of Christians in Moravia to embrace Judaism, and of three Jews who had come to him to convert him.
"Dass Jesus ein Geborner Jude Sei."
The first of Luther's works dealing with the Jews is a pamphlet entitled "Dass Jesus ein Geborner Jude Sei," which appeared in 1543 and was republished seven times in the same year (ib. 29:45-74). The occasion for publishing the pamphlet was the accusation hurled against Luther, evidently by his Catholic opponents, that he had denied the supernatural birth of Jesus. After defending himself against the charge of being a Jew at heart, he speaks of the Jews and of the way to convert them to Christianity. "Our fools, the popes, bishops, sophists, and monks, these coarse blockheads ["die groben Eselsköpfe"], dealt with the Jews in such a manner that any Christian would have preferred to be a Jew. Indeed, had I been a Jew and had I seen such idiots and dunderheads [Tölpel und Knebel] expound Christianity, I should rather have become a hog than a Christian" (ib. 29:46-47). The accusation that Roman Catholicism presented Christianity in such a repulsive form that Jews could not be won over by it occurs repeatedly in his works. "If I were a good Jew, the pope could never persuade me to accept his idolatry. I would rather ten times be racked and flayed" ("ehe wollte ich mich zehen Mal lassen raedern und aedern"; ib. 62:355). In another passage he tells the anecdote, derived from Boccaccio, of a Jew who desired to embrace Christianity but wished first to see the pope. When the Jew returned from Rome he asked a priest to baptize him, "for the God of the Christians must indeed be a God who forgives all iniquity if he suffers all the rogueries of Rome"(ib. 62:377). "If the Apostles had dealt with the heathen as the Christians deal with the Jews, none ever would have been converted to Christianity" (ib. 29:47).
Luther closes this remarkable pamphlet with the following appeal: "I would advise and beg everybody to deal kindly with the Jews and to instruct them in the Scripture; in such a case we could expect them to come over to us. If, however, we use brute force and slander them ["gehen mit Luegentheiding umb"], saying that they need the blood of Christians to get rid of their stench, and other nonsense of that kind, and treat them like dogs, what good can we expect of them? Finally, how can we expect them to improve if we prohibit them to work among us and to have social intercourse with us, and so force them into usury? If we wish to make them better we must deal with them not according to the law of the pope, but according to the law of Christian charity. We must receive them kindly and allow them to compete with us in earning a livelihood, so that they may have an opportunity to witness Christian life and doctrine; and if some remain obstinate, what of it? Not every one of us is a good Christian" (ib. 29:74).
Hope of Conversion of Jews.
This book was undoubtedly written with the purpose of winning the Jews over to Christianity, as may be inferred from the fact that he sent it in the year of publication to a converted Jew named Bernhard (Geiger, "Jüd. Zeit." 7:24 et seq.). Luther was an enthusiastic believer in the Christianity of the apostle Paul, and therefore expected from the Reformed Church the fulfilment of Paul's prophecy that all Israel shall be saved (Romans 11:26). "If this prophecy has not been fulfilled yet, it is because papacy has presented such a perverted Christianity that the Jews have been repulsed by it." It is very probable that Luther expected the attestation of the truth of Christianity by a general conversion of the Jews, and, being disappointed, changed his attitude toward them. In one of his letters he speaks of a Polish Jew who had been hired to assassinate him, but this was most likely merely a vague rumor in which he did not himself believe (Geiger," Jüd. Zeit." 7:26). In 1537, when Duke John Frederick of Saxony, who was a strong supporter of the Reformation, ordered the expulsion of the Jews from his country, Josel Rosheim, the advocate of the Alsatian Jews, armed with a letter of introduction from Luther's friend Capito, asked Luther to intercede with the duke in behalf of his coreligionists. Luther, however, refused to act, saying that the Jews had not appreciated the kindness he had shown them in his book and that they were "doing things which are unbearable to Christians." The somewhat obscure allusions of this letter seem to indicate that he was incensed at the Jews for their refusal to become Christians (ib. 5:78-80; Geiger, "Jüd. Zeit." 5:28; "R. E. J." 13:112).
"Von den Juden und Ihren Luegen."
Two books published by Luther in 1544 are especially marked by bitterness—"Von den Juden und Ihren Luegen" and "Vom Schem Hamphoras und vom Geschlecht Christi," both printed in Wittenberg (ib. 32:99-358). The occasion for writing the first book was, as he states, the audacity with which the Jews attacked the Christian dogmas and especially the Christological exposition of the Old Testament. The bitterness noticeable in the writings of his last years and which was due to disappointment at the slow progress of his work, to the dissensions among his followers, and, not the least, to his physical ailments, is evident to a degree which is grievous to his most ardent admirers. He must have been influenced by some converts from Judaism, such as Antonius Margaritha and Bernhard Ziegler (ib. 32:357), probably the Bernhard referred to above, for he attacks the views expressed in the prayer-book as blasphemous, and repeats the old accusations that the Jew does not consider the "goyim" as human beings, that he prays for their misfortune (ib. 32:193), and that when a Christian comes to his house he says to him "Sched willkomm," which the Christian understands as a welcome, though in reality the Jew is calling him a "devil" (ib. 32:222). Luther praises the "dear Emperor Charles" for having expelled the Jews from Spain (ib. 32:231, evidently meaning Ferdinand, Charles V.'s grandfather), and expresses great satisfaction at a recent edict of expulsion from Bohemia. He repeatedly urges that their synagogues be burned, and is sorry that he can not destroy them with hellfire. He further advises that their houses be torn down, their books taken from them, their rabbis prohibited from teaching; that no safe-conduct be granted them; that their usury be prohibited; that their public worship be interdicted; that they be forced to do the hardest labor; and he admonishes everybody to deal with them in a merciless manner, "even as Moses did, who slew three thousand of them in the wilderness." The invectives which he uses against them are vile even for sixteenth-century standards. After admonishing his readers not to have the slightest intercourse with the Jews, he says: "If that which you already suffer from the Jew is not sufficient strike him in the jaw." The most fanatic statement is the following: "If I had power over them I would assemble their most prominent men and demand that they prove that we Christians do not worship the one God, under the penalty of having their tongues torn out through the backs of their necks" (ib. 32:257).
His "Shem Hamphoras" was written to refute a statement made by some Jews that Jesus performed his miracles with the aid of magic art. He attacks cabalistic and rabbinical literature, saying that if Jews possess the knowledge of magic art they must have had it from Judas Iscariot (ib. 32:342 et seq.). In both works he repeatedly declares it useless to attempt the conversion of any Jew, for a Jewish heart is so "stocksteineisenteufelhart" that it can never be changed (ib. 32:276). He also quotes, in his "Table-Talks," a report that in a church of Cologne is the statue of a dean who was a convert from Judaism and who had ordered the statue to be made with a cat in one hand and a mouse in the other, because just as mouse and cat will never live in harmony, neither will Jew and Christian (ib. 62:371).
These books aroused grave fears among the Jews, and Josel Rosheim asked the city council of Strasburg to allow him to publish a book in refutation of Luther's pamphlets (July 11, 1543); but this the council considered unnecessary. Josel complains that although he made seven attempts to see Luther he was never admitted, and in his memoirs, written in the year following Luther's death, he speaks with bitterness of the great reformer's attitude toward the Jews, expressing the hope that he was in hell, both body and soul ("R. E. J." 16:92; see also, on Josel's relations with Luther, Feilchenfeld, "Rabbi Josel von Rosheim," p. 121, Strasburg, 1898). Luther often referred to the Jews in his commentaries on the Bible, as in his exposition of the 109th Psalm, in which he explains the reference to the lot of the wicked to be a prophecy of Israel's misery. The argument that the sufferings of the Jews are the just punishment for their rejection of Jesus is as common with him as with all medieval theologians. The totally different attitudes which he took at different times with regard to the Jews made him, during the anti-Semitic controversies of the end of the nineteenth century, an authority quoted alike by friends and enemies of the Jews.
- Luther's Sämmtliche Werke, 67 vols., Erlangen and Frankfort-on-the-Main. 1826-57 (the edition used for the references given in the text);
- Herzog-Hauck, Real-Encyc. s. Bibelübersetzungen Deutsche and Luther;
- Gräz, Gesch. 3d ed., 9:196,304 et seq., 311 et seq.;
- Geiger, Jüd. Zeit. 5:23-29.
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Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Luther, Martin'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tje/l/luther-martin.html. 1901.