The great ‘shtadlan’: Josel of Rosheim takes on Martin Luther

Luther goes on to call for the death of rabbis who teach Torah, for forbidding Jews to travel, taking away all their wealth.

Martin Luther (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Martin Luther
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Martin Luther had high hopes for the Jews. In 1523, the leader of the Protestant Revolution in German lands penned a tract titled, “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew.” In this sympathetic portrayal of the Jewish people, Luther argues that the Catholic Church “dealt with the Jews as if they were dogs and not human beings.” As a result, he said, few Jews would leave Judaism for Catholicism. He continued: “I would advise and beg everybody to deal kindly with the Jews and to instruct them in the Scriptures; in such a case we could expect them to come over to us.” This tract is likely to have been widely read. But the Jews did not live up to Luther’s expectations. Few Jews embraced Luther’s Reformation and only 20 years after the sympathetic tract was written, Luther condemned the Jews in the language of hellfire and venom.
“Concerning the Jews and Their Lies” was published in 1543. By now, any sympathy Luther had for the Jews was a memory. “What shall we Christians do with this damned, rejected race of Jews?” Luther asked. His answers, in the post WWII era, should make us shudder: “First, their synagogues.. should be set on fire.”
Second, “their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed.” Third, “they should be deprived of their prayer-books and Talmuds in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught.”
Luther goes on to call for the death of rabbis who teach Torah, for forbidding Jews to travel, taking away all their wealth so they cannot engage in moneylending, and forcing them to work the land instead of engaging in “laziness, feasting, and display.” He advised leaders in the Germanic lands to “be free of this insufferable devilish burden – the Jews.”
Luther’s literary assault on the Jews in the mid-sixteenth century was not only a theological screed. Ashkenazi Jews were in real danger of persecution and pogroms. These Jews were caught between the warring factions of the Church and Luther. They were in dire need of a defender and an intercessor – in Hebrew, a shatdlan. And they had a great one in the figure of Josel of Rosheim.
As an advocate for Jews living in the Holy Roman Empire and other Germanic lands, Josel vigorously argued against Luther’s attack on the Jewish people. Although he was unsuccessful at defending the Jews of Saxony and Hesse, Josel’s efforts produced some positive results.
Historian Jacob R. Marcus states that in 1546 “a charter from Emperor Charles V... confirmed Jewish rights and privileges throughout the German Empire.” This was due to the intercession of Josel of Rosheim, an advocacy that this shtadlan describes in his Hebrew memoirs.
According to Marcus, “By means of the pen, the spoken word, and a winning personality [Josel] worked for the Jews throughout the Germanic lands, using his influence with the Emperors Maximilian I (1493-1519) and Charles V (1519-1556) to protect Jewry at a time when both Protestantism and Catholicism were opposing it.”
Josel had the title of “Chief of the Jews in the German Lands.” Time after time, Josel had to place his life at risk to defend his fellow Jews. In his memoirs he relates how he had to confront peasants in Alsace, rebelling in 1525, and convince them not to attack the Jews. His efforts in this matter saved the Jews of Alsace. Josel’s genius was rooted in his ability to persuade both Protestants and Catholics, based on the underpinnings of their theology and politics, not to harm Jews and to allow Jews to live in peace and with privileges. Toward the end of his life, he found himself siding with Catholic rulers to provide Jews with protection against Luther and the Protestant Reformation. While he realized that the emperors posed a danger to the Jews as well, he feared Luther most of all.
The aim of the Lutherans, in his estimation, was “to riot against us and uproot the nation of Israel so that it should not be a people any more, by sundry kinds of harsh decrees and destruction.”
According to historian H. H. Ben-Sasson, Josel of Rosheim prayed for the welfare of the Catholic leadership in Germanic lands and ultimately hoped that the Protestants would be defeated. Ben-Sasson praises Josel for leadership of German Jews that “was strong and firm.” As a harbinger of the “hofjuden” – the Court Jews in the Germanic states of the 17th and 18th centuries – he “directed Jewish economic activity so that it would be suited to the purposes of the central Christian authorities.”
Josel understood that in a very dangerous environment both politically and spiritually, the fate of the Jews of German lands depended on him and on his abilities and successes as a shtadlan. He had the courage to enter the courts of the emperor and argue the cause of the Jews.
Without an army and without a homeland, the shtadlan played a central role as the intercessor who would protect the interest of the Jewish community. This was so in the pagan, Christian and Muslim worlds, too: heroic figures would represent the Jewish community and protect Jewish interest in confronting the non-Jewish sovereign majority. For that feat alone – and for their courage and leadership – the shtadlanim should never be forgotten.