“What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people?”
III. Anti-Judaism goes virile
Of his five “Jewish” works, those that proved most fateful to Jewish survival were, On the Jews and Their Lies; and Of The Unknowable Name and The Generations of Christ (Vom Schem Hamphoras). Written months apart in 1543, they appeared just two years before his death.
Luther’s influence on the conditions of existence, the physical survivability of the Jewish people was considerable. His theology was always traditional Supersessionist, that God had transferred His favor from Judaism to Christianity, the “New Israel”:
“‘Listen, Jew, are you aware that
and your sovereignty, together with your temple and priesthood, have been destroyed for over 1,460 years?’… This work of wrath is proof that the Jews, surely rejected by God, are no longer his people, and neither is he any longer their God... Therefore the Jews have lost this promise, no matter how much they boast of their father Abraham… They are no longer the people of God.” (The Jews and their Lies) Jerusalem
And even as the Vatican, four hundred years after Luther and twenty years after Auschwitz collectively “absolved” today’s Jewish people of blame for the death of Jesus, Nostre Aetate also reminded that "the Church [is] the new people of God."
What clearer reminder of Christianity’s eternal Jewish Problem?
Was Luther, an “antisemite”? Certainly his teachings have the ring of modern antisemitism. But I prefer a clear distinction between religion-inspired anti-Judaism and its secular adaptation, antisemitism. By this distinction Luther’s polemics, mirroring “Matthew” and “John,” fall into classical anti-Judaism. Both terms describe prejudice, persecution and even murder as means of solving Christendom’s Jewish Problem. But where religion provides at least the appearance of escape through conversion, in secularism an assimilated Jew is still…, a Jew. And while a Jew may opt out of the identity through conversion to Christianity, conversion generally has proven poor camouflage throughout history. Antisemitism may have many parents from scripture to Chrysostum; as described by Augustine all proscribe punishment for “the Jews.” But Luther’s final two works, and particularly On the Jews and their Lies, bridge the theological and the secular in both form and intent. His immediate audience, “dear princes and nobles who have Jews in your domains,” provides specific instructions on how government should deal with Jews.
On the Jews and Their Lies: In this work Luther introduces his subject by comparing Jewish “misunderstanding” of their own scriptures with his own “correct” reading of the Jewish texts. He describes the traditional threat Jewish misunderstanding poses to Christianity and Christians. In 65,000 words divided into 13 sections he systematically quotes Jewish scripture to rebut each of his understanding of “Jewish lies.” Once exposed he asks rhetorically what “we Christians [should] do with this rejected and condemned people?” His “solution” is a series of seven steps, the first four of which appear below:
“What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews?”
“First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians…,
Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed… they might be lodged under a roof or in a barn, like the gypsies. This will bring home to them that they are not masters in our country…,
Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.
Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb.
Expecting not even these steps adequate he continues,
“But what will happen even if we do burn down the Jews' synagogues and forbid them publicly to praise God, to pray, to teach, to utter God's name? They will still keep doing it in secret...
“I wish and I ask that our rulers who have Jewish subjects exercise a sharp mercy toward these wretched people, as suggested above, to see whether this might not help (though it is doubtful). They must act like a good physician who, when gangrene has set in, proceeds without mercy to cut, saw, and burn flesh, veins, bone, and marrow…
“If this does not help we must drive them out like mad dogs, so that we do not become partakers of their abominable blasphemy and all their other vices and thus merit God's wrath and be damned with them. I have done my duty. Now let everyone see to his. I am exonerated.Amen.”