Luther, Martin

(1483–1546)
   German leader of Protestant Reformation. Believing that the Catholic Church had perverted the truth of Scripture, Luther learned Hebrew (not very well, he admitted) and translated the Old Testament into German. In his early lectures on the Old Testament, Luther emphasized that the Jews were the recipients of God’s wrath. However, he did protest against the hostile contemporary treatment of the Jews. Why should they convert to Christianity, he asked, when Christians treated them like dogs? The German Jews were grateful for such expressions, but showed no desire to embrace his version of Christianity either. Luther then railed at their stubbornness for ‘sticking to their old poison’. Ironically, the first fruits of the Reformation in Germany seemed to be that some Christians, like the Anabaptists in Moravia, were turning to Jewish beliefs and practices. In 1538 Luther published his ‘Letter against the Sabbatarians’, aimed at the Anabaptists and Christians like them, in which he openly condemned the Jews, ‘a people possessed by all devils’, as irredeemable.
   In his last years Luther’s writings against the Jews became violent (as did all his writings). ‘Of the Jews and their Lies’ (1542.) reiterated the ancient slanders about ritual murder, drinking of Christian blood and poisoning of wells. ‘What shall we do now with this rejected, condemned Jewish people?’ he asked. The answer was that their synagogues and schools should be set on fire, their houses destroyed, their sacred books confiscated, their rabbis forbidden to teach, their freedom to travel curtailed and usury to be forbidden. Their goods, the fruit of such usury, should be taken from them. In one of the last sermons he preached before his death, Luther returned to the theme of his earlier writings and urged Christians to treat Jews with kindness, so that they might repent and be converted. ‘But if not,’ he said, ‘we must not suffer them to remain.’ Probably because of Luther’s urging, the Jews were expelled from Hesse and Saxony. Certainly his virulent attacks meant that a large section of the new Protestant Church inherited the ferocious beliefs about the Jews prevalent in the Catholic world.

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

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