Anti-Judaism and Luther’s Jewish Question

Debra Kaplan on David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition

anti-judaism - the western tradition
David Nirenberg, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013, 624 pp., $35.00

In his 1523 treatise, That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew, Martin Luther provocatively wrote that had he been a Jew, he too would have refrained from converting to Catholicism. Yet two decades later, Luther published several hostile tracts against the Jews, including his 1543 On the Jews and their Lies, in which he recommended burning synagogues and expelling the Jews. In Anti-Judaism, David Nirenberg joins a longstanding scholarly debate about Luther’s attitudes towards the Jews and Judaism.

Luther’s approach to biblical interpretation, Nirenberg asserts, shaped his attitudes towards Jews. His commentary on the literal meaning of both the Old and New Testaments was christological, in contrast to various Christian exegetes who had sought to enhance their understanding of the Bible by learning about Jews. For Luther, Jews were reduced to a single role — enemies of Christ.

Nirenberg also explains that the long-held Christian association of Jews with law and of Christians with spirit was given heightened importance in Luther’s theology. Luther opposed the Church’s emphasis on good works and insisted that faith alone brought salvation. Perceiving parallels between Jewish law and “good” works, Luther polemicized against “papists” and Sabbatarians in both his earlier and later treatises against the Jews.  Nirenberg posits that because Luther sought to apply his theology to “real” Jews by advocating for a specific Jewish policy, the reformer’s writings were transformative to Western anti-Judaism.

While acknowledging that Luther’s thinking shifted over time, Nirenberg shies away from fully explaining what caused this shift. Instead, he concentrates on the possibilities inherent in Luther’s works for developing solely negative understandings of the Jew, a phenomenon he sees as having redefined anti-Judaism in Western thought. Nirenberg’s focus on the power of Luther’s ideas, rather than on the nexus between Luther, his ideas, and the world in which he resided, captures the methodology Nirenberg very consciously employs throughout Anti-Judaism. He scoffs at those historians who would point to “larger forces” that contributed to Luther’s rise. Nevertheless, important elements are lost when one ignores the larger context of Luther’s ideas. As an illustrative example, one need only examine Luther in the context of the printing press. Luther’s ideas about reform and about the Jews gained traction not only because they resonated for readers but also because he was a best-selling author whose writings were accessible in the German vernacular, both in print and in sermons. The impact of his anti-Jewish writings was as much a product of the medium through which his ideas were conveyed as it was of his specific message.

We could compare Luther’s situation to that of the medieval exegete Nicholas of Lyra, who interpreted the literal sense of the Bible christologically and also wrote against the Jews (albeit less harshly than Luther). Yet there is a world of difference between the impact that Lyra and Luther had on their respective societies. The invention of moveable type and the use of vernacular rather than Latin were among the key differences between the two.

Luther’s contemporaries recognized that print had the power to transform the reformer’s ideas from words into mass action. Josel of Rosheim, the leader of German Jewry in the sixteenth century, appealed to the Protestant magistrates of Strasbourg in the wake of Luther’s 1543 writings, pleading that the magistrates censor their publication. Josel argued that printing these texts could lead to violence against the Jews. The magistrates granted Josel’s request.

Luther not only produced texts; he also consumed them. The availability of printed texts influenced his thinking. For example, Luther based many of the accusations in On the Jews and their Lies on the writings of a Jewish convert, Antonius Margaritha. Margaritha’s polemical writings against his former religion were published in the German vernacular with illustrations, rendering them readily available to Luther and others.

This cursory inclusion of print into our analysis thus highlights two important factors in considering Luther and anti-Judaism. First, the accessibility of Luther’s opinions to a large audience of vernacular readers was transformative. Fear of public access to those ideas led Josel to approach the magistrates and then to their acquiescence to refrain from printing some of Luther’s works in a Protestant city. Second, Luther was heavily influenced by prior understandings of the “hermeneutical” Jew as penned both by Christians and by former Jews.

Considering that Luther’s anti-Jewish rhetoric emerged in a world where Jews and Christians were familiar with one another’s writings and where Jewish leaders interacted with Protestant magistrates sharpens the questions implicit in Anti-Judaism. It is even more difficult to understand how Jews were consistently used as a negative foil in these societies, given that the consumers of the intellectual culture that Nirenberg painstakingly describes knew Jews personally.

Nirenberg is forthright about the fact that his book deals with ideas about Jews and Judaism, and that it is not a book about actual Jews. Yet, in constructing a tale of Western (and primarily Christian) thought about Jews without the context in which those ideas arose, Nirenberg over-marginalizes the Jewish presence in the various societies that he examines.

Consider that in 1537, Josel of Rosheim approached Luther to seek the latter’s help in renewing an expiring privilege that granted the Jews residence in Saxony. Although Josel brought letters of reference from Luther’s fellow reformer Wolfgang Capito and from Strasbourg’s magistrates, Luther refused to help, sending a personal response to Josel in which he cited the injurious behavior of the Jews. Jewish leaders, Christian reformers, and German political authorities communicated with one another directly about policies, a fact that underscores that the lives of Jews and Christians were intertwined.

I would argue (as Nirenberg anticipates in his introduction that a social and economic historian would) that the confluence of intellectual and social history allows us to achieve a robust understanding of how anti-Judaism emerged and reemerged in different contexts. Print, for example, contributed as much to spreading Luther’s anti-Judaism as his theology and exegesis. Moreover, the deep familiarity that Jews and Christians had with one another’s lives, ideas, and practices, evident from Jewish knowledge of Luther’s theology and writings, Christian Hebraists’ interest in Judaica, and the daily interactions between Jews and Christians, raises more profound questions about the meaning that anti-Judaism had for consumers of Western culture. Given the wonderfully complex portrait of interfaith relations in medieval Spain that is provided in Nirenberg’s Communities of Violence, the lack of such detail and nuance is disappointing, if understandable in a work of this scope.

The three-thousand-year sweep covered in Anti-Judaism leaves the reader with a jarring sense of the prevalence of anti-Judaism in Western thought. That rhetoric against Jews was present in so many different places, times, and contexts is a point powerfully underscored in this book. And yet, to further contemplate how that idea came to be, whether and when it had an impact and how it shifted in some cases from idea to policy, requires careful attention to detail, context, and to all of Europe’s residents that were affected by and exposed to such ideas.

[Featured image: Woodcut carved by Johann von Armssheim (1483). Portays a disputation between Christian and Jewish scholars (Soncino Blaetter, Berlin, 1929. Jerusalem, B. M. Ansbacher Collection). Via Wikimedia Commons.]

Also Recommended from MRB: