Rabbi: Church should apologize for Luther's anti-Semitism

by Gregory Tomlin, |
Plastic statuettes of 16th-century Protestant reformer Martin Luther, which are part of the art installation 'Martin Luther - I'm standing here' by German artist Ottmar Hoerl, as pictured in the main square in Wittenberg, Germany, on August 11, 2010. | REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

LOS ANGELES (Christian Examiner) – As Pope Francis marked the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation with a visit to a Lutheran church in Sweden Oct. 31, there was a call from another quarter to renounce the anti-Semitism of Lutheranism's founder.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, California, told The Algemeiner he believes next year's anniversary of the birth of Protestantism, the 500th, would be "the perfect time" to publicly renounce the church's history of anti-Semitism and Martin Luther's role in it.

The Roman Catholic Church has already apologized for its past anti-Semitism, an act that has led some Orthodox rabbis with Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Israel to promote a new era of Jewish-Christian relations.

On Oct. 31, 1517, Luther nailed a list of Ninety-Five Theses to the castle church door in Wittenberg, Germany. The act in and of itself, the posting of theses for debate, was not unusual. The content, however, was.

It struck at the heart of the Catholic Church – the pope's ability to forgive sins, to grant sinners an escape from purgatory, the sale of indulgences, and the idea that the pope was the representation of Christ on earth. It set off a series of events, which by 1529, had Protestant princes ruling over Lutheran lands. 

If we wish to wash our hands of the Jews' blasphemy and not share in their guilt, we have to part company with them. They must be driven from the country ... this is the most natural and best course of action which will safeguard the interests of both parties.

"It would be appropriate, especially when antisemitism is so rife in Europe for Protestant leaders and groups, like the World Council of Churches, to directly address the issue [of Luther's antisemitism] in the overall context of what they're celebrating in terms of this anniversary," Cooper said.

David Michaels, director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs with B'nai B'rith, also said the church should acknowledge its past and repudiate the anti-Semitism of Martin Luther.

"A number of individual Lutheran church bodies and figures have taken steps over the years to acknowledge, grapple with and repudiate the antisemitism that Luther ultimately promoted. This vile and violent antisemitism — targeting both Jews and Judaism — was both an outgrowth of and a significant contribution to Christian anti-Jewish animus, especially in Europe, where its influence was still felt in the implementation of the Holocaust," Michaels said.

Unfortunately for Protestants, that is true.


There is no indication of Luther's hatred of the Jews in his early years as a Reformer. In fact, most scholars suggest Luther believed that his "rediscovered" gospel – the gospel of justification by faith through grace, granted based on the merits of Jesus Christ alone – would resonate with the Jews.

It did not.

No one knows, however, if this was his principle motivation for attacking the Jews. In 1543, Luther produced his now infamous work, On the Jews and Their Lies. Its contents are raw and gritty and cast long shadows over history.

In the work, Luther provided suggestions for dealing with the Jews of his day:

- "First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools, and to bury and cover over with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them." When the synagogues are burned, he wrote, "all who are able should toss in sulfur and pitch -- it would be good if someone would also throw in some hellfire."

On November 9-10, 1939, 119 synagogues were destroyed by fire in different parts of Germany. The Nazis called it "Kristalnacht," for the sound of breaking glass.

- "Second, I advise that their houses be razed and destroyed."

- "Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings in which such idolatry, lies, cunning, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them."

The Nazi Party did so, and later burned them in bonfires for their Fuhrer.

- "Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth upon 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 safe keeping."

On April 1, 1933, within just a few months of taking power, Adolf Hitler ordered that signs be distributed and posted throughout Germany, which read, "The Jews have until 1 a.m. on Saturday to reflect. Then the struggle commences. The Jews of the world want to destroy Germany, German people resist -- don't buy from Jews." The Nazis also deposited gold confiscated from Jews in Swiss banks.

- "Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their living by the sweat of their brows, as it was imposed on the children of Adam (Genesis 3:19)."

After 1939, thousands of Jews were sent to work camps which supplied food, clothing and munitions for German soldiers. Those who would not work were executed.

- "Furthermore, if they cannot be controlled, they should be expelled. ... If we wish to wash our hands of the Jews' blasphemy and not share in their guilt, we have to part company with them. They must be driven from the country ... this is the most natural and best course of action which will safeguard the interests of both parties." By doing so, Luther wrote, Germany will have shown the Jews a "sharp mercy."

Luther's recommendations for dealing with the Jews fell mostly on deaf ears, as his proposals were far too radical for the German princes who had to account for the economic stability of their provinces. And though Hitler regarded Luther as a national hero for his resistance to the Catholic Church, he never cited Luther as the genesis of his ideas for the "Final Solution." Luther is mentioned only once in Hitler's work, Mein Kampf.


Even if Luther's work wasn't the impetus for later persecutions of the Jews, its motifs still spread "like a virus" beyond Europe, Michaels told The Algemeiner.

"This reality requires committed Lutherans and other Christians to ensure that there is fitting recognition and rejection of Luther's hateful beliefs about Jews, wherever these persist," Michaels said, even if they were "entirely unaware of the dark side to Luther's theology."

"It is so important, then, that all Lutheran bodies and figures of influence shine a light on the sin of antisemitism, both historic and contemporary – whether by educating clergy about its incompatibility with genuine faith, sermonizing against it or recognizing it even during events surrounding the 500th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation," Michaels said.

Michaels said he believes the engagement between the pope and Lutherans "is for those communities to manage," but he highlighted the need to confront the past and never forget it is there. He said faith communities should not tolerate anti-Semitism today. Most do not.

Pope Francis's visit to Sweden kicks off a year-long celebration for Lutherans around the world. It will culminate in Wittenberg, Germany, on Oct. 31, 1517.

Christianity Today reported last month that there is a movement afoot in Germany to cleanse old church buildings of their anti-Semitic imagery, some of which is directly related to Luther's first followers. Usually presented in bronze or stone sculptures, many feature a "Judensau" or a "Jewish pig." Most do not have inscriptions, though some do. One, at the church where Luther regularly preached, even names a specific rabbi.