On the Jews and Their Lies

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Title page of Martin Luther's On the Jews and Their Lies. Wittenberg, 1543

On the Jews and Their Lies (German: Von den Jüden und iren Lügen; in modern spelling Von den Juden und ihren Lügen) is a 65,000-word treatise written by German Reformation leader Martin Luther in 1543.

In the treatise, Luther alleged various negative Jewish characteristics and actions and proposed various anti-Jewish measures against these. The most well-known and often quoted sentence in the treatise may be the sentence "we are at fault in not slaying them". This is often alleged to mean Luther advocated a future genocide of Jews. However, it occurred after Luther had alleged killings by Jews in the past of Christ and Christians and may therefore refer to Luther finding fault with alleged past Jewish crimes not having been punished in the past. Elsewhere in the treatise Luther clearly stated various proposed anti-Jewish measures that did not include a genocide (such as Jewish expulsions).

Lutheran church bodies have denounced and dissociated themselves from Luther's writings on the Talmudic Judaism. In November 1998, the Lutheran Church of Bavaria issued a statement: "It is imperative for the Lutheran Church, which knows itself to be indebted to the work and tradition of Martin Luther, to take seriously also his anti-Jewish utterances, to acknowledge their theological function, and to reflect on their consequences. It has to distance itself from every [expression of] anti-Judaism in Lutheran theology."[1]

Contents

Evolution of Luther's views

Luther's attitude toward the Jews different over the period of his life. In his earlier period, until around 1536, he seems to have been convinced that the Jews would convert to Christianity if only the Church were Reformed along his lines. In fact he made pro-Jewish comments. In 1519 for instance Luther attack the doctrine Servitus Judaeorum ("Servitude of the Jews"), established in Corpus Juris Civilis by Justinian I in 529. He wrote: "Absurd theologians defend hatred for the Jews. ... What Jew would consent to enter our ranks when he sees the cruelty and enmity we wreak on them—that in our behavior towards them we less resemble Christians than beasts?" [2]

In his 1523 essay That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew, Luther's fervent desire was that Jews would hear the Gospel proclaimed clearly and be moved to convert to Christianity. Thus he argued:

If I had been a Jew and had seen such dolts and blockheads govern and teach the Christian faith, I would sooner have become a hog than a Christian. They have dealt with the Jews as if they were dogs rather than human beings; they have done little else than deride them and seize their property. When they baptize them they show them nothing of Christian doctrine or life, but only subject them to popishness and monkery...If the apostles, who also were Jews, had dealt with us Gentiles as we Gentiles deal with the Jews, there would never have been a Christian among the Gentiles ... When we are inclined to boast of our position [as Christians] we should remember that we are but Gentiles, while the Jews are of the lineage of Christ. We are aliens and in-laws; they are blood relatives, cousins, and brothers of our Lord. Therefore, if one is to boast of flesh and blood the Jews are actually nearer to Christ than we are...If we really want to help them, we must be guided in our dealings with them not by papal law but by the law of Christian love. We must receive them cordially, and permit them to trade and work with us, that they may have occasion and opportunity to associate with us, hear our Christian teaching, and witness our Christian life. If some of them should prove stiff-necked, what of it? After all, we ourselves are not all good Christians either. [3]

In his later period however, after this conversion not occurring and after having read the Talmud, he expressed more anti-Semitic views.[4]

In August 1536 Luther's prince, Elector of Saxony John Frederick, issued a mandate that prohibited Jews from inhabiting, engaging in business in, or passing through his realm. An Alsatian shtadlan, Rabbi Josel of Rosheim, asked a reformer Wolfgang Capito to approach Luther in order to obtain an audience with the prince, but Luther refused every intercession.[5] In response to Josel, Luther referred to his unsuccessful attempts to convert the Jews: "... I would willingly do my best for your people but I will not contribute to your [Jewish] obstinacy by my own kind actions. You must find another intermediary with my good lord."[6] Heiko Oberman notes this event as significant in Luther’s attitude toward the Jews: "Even today this refusal is often judged to be the decisive turning point in Luther’s career from friendliness to hostility toward the Jews;"[7] yet, Oberman contends that Luther would have denied any such "turning point." Rather he felt that Jews were to be treated in a "friendly way" in order to avoid placing unnecessary obstacles in their path to Christian conversion, a genuine concern of Luther.[8]

On the Jews and Their Lies

Christ drives the Usurers out of the Temple, a woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder and commissioned by Martin Luther in Passionary of Christ and Antichrist.[9]

Luther read Der gantze Jüdisch Glaub (The Whole Jewish Belief) in 1539.[10] The antisemitic book had been published in 1530 by Anton Margaritha, a convert from Judaism to Christianity who had become a Lutheran. Josel of Rosheim held a public debate with Margaritha in the same year before Charles V and his court at Augsburg at which Josel was decisively victorious, resulting in Margaritha's expulsion from the Empire.[11]

It is believed that Luther was influenced by Margaritha's book in Luther's On the Jews and Their Lies, written in 1543, three years before his death. In his book, Luther recommends that Jews be deprived of money, civil rights, religious teaching, and education, and that they be forced to labor on the land, or else be expelled from Germany and possibly killed.

I had made up my mind to write no more either about the Jews or against them. But since I learned that these miserable and accursed people do not cease to lure to themselves even us, that is, the Christians, I have published this little book, so that I might be found among those who opposed such poisonous activities of the Jews who warned the Christians to be on their guard against them.[12]

Luther stated in his introductory remarks that he was writing in response to a pamphlet, unidentified by historians, written by an unidentified Jew or Jews, sent to him by Count Wolfgang Schlick of Falkenau:

Dear sir and good friend[13], I have received a treatise in which a Jew engages in dialog with a Christian. He dares to pervert the scriptural passages which we cite in testimony to our faith, concerning our Lord Christ and Mary his mother, and to interpret them quite differently. With this argument he thinks he can destroy the basis of our faith.[14]

He refers to Jews as "a brood of vipers and children of the devil" (from Matthew 12:34), "miserable, blind, and senseless," "truly stupid fools," "thieves and robbers," "lazy rogues," "daily murderers," and "vermin," and likens them to "gangrene." He then goes on to recommend that Jewish synagogues and schools be burned, their homes razed and destroyed, their writings confiscated, their rabbis forbidden to teach, their travel restricted, that lending money be outlawed for them, and that they be forced to earn their wages in farming. Luther advised "[i]f 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 our country" and "we must drive them out like mad dogs."

In conclusion, he wrote:

There is no other explanation for this than the one cited earlier from Moses — namely, that God has struck [the Jews] with 'madness and blindness and confusion of mind.' So we are even at fault in not avenging all this innocent blood of our Lord and of the Christians which they shed for three hundred years after the destruction of Jerusalem, and the blood of the children they have shed since then (which still shines forth from their eyes and their skin). We are at fault in not slaying them. Rather we allow them to live freely in our midst despite all their murdering, cursing, blaspheming, lying, and defaming; we protect and shield their synagogues, houses, life, and property. In this way we make them lazy and secure and encourage them to fleece us boldly of our money and goods, as well as to mock and deride us, with a view to finally overcoming us, killing us all for such a great sin, and robbing us of all our property (as they daily pray and hope). Now tell me whether they do not have every reason to be the enemies of us accursed Goyim, to curse us and to strive for our final, complete, and eternal ruin![15]

Luther advocated an eight-point plan to get rid of the Jews either by religious conversion or by expulsion:

  1. "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. ..."
  2. "Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. ..."
  3. "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. ..."
  4. "Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb. ..."
  5. "Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. ..."
  6. "Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them. ... Such money should now be used in ... the following [way]... Whenever a Jew is sincerely converted, he should be handed [a certain amount]..."
  7. "Seventh, I commend 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 bread in the sweat of their brow... For it is not fitting that they should let us accursed Goyim toil in the sweat of our faces while they, the holy people, idle away their time behind the stove, feasting and farting, and on top of all, boasting blasphemously of their lordship over the Christians by means of our sweat. No, one should toss out these lazy rogues by the seat of their pants."
  8. "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 our country" and "we must drive them out like mad dogs." [16]

Luther's arguments and accusations: Luther's first argument is that all races are equal, therefore the Jews should not boast about their lineage. [17]

  • "there is no difference whatsoever with regard to birth or flesh and blood, as reason must tell us. Therefore" neither Jew nor Gentile should boast "before God of their physical birth . . . since we both partake of one birth, one flesh and blood, from the very first, best, and holiest ancestors. Neither one can reproach or upbraid the other about some peculiarity without implicating himself at the same time." (148).

In On the Jews and Their Lies, Luther made a number of accusations against the Jews:

  • "In the first place, they defame our Lord Jesus Christ, calling him a sorcerer and tool of the devil.[18] This they do because they cannot deny his miracles. Thus they imitate their forefathers, who said, 'He casts out demons by Beelzebub, the prince of demons'

Luke 11:15."[19]

Text

References

  1. "Christians and Jews: A Declaration of the Lutheran Church of Bavaria", November 24, 1998, also printed in Freiburger Rundbrief, 6:3 (1999), pp.191-197. For other statements from Lutheran bodies, see:
  2. Luther quoted in Elliot Rosenberg, But Were They Good for the Jews? (New York: Birch Lane Press, 1997), p.65.
  3. Martin Luther, "That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew," Trans. Walter I. Brandt, in Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1962), pp. 200-201, 229.
  4. "Luther, Martin", JewishEncyclopedia.com. See also the note supra referring to Robert Michael.
  5. Martin Brecht, Martin Luther (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985-1993), 3:336.
  6. Luther’s letter to Rabbi Josel as cited by Gordon Rupp, Martin Luther and the Jews (London: The Council of Christians and Jews, 1972), 14. According to [1], this paragraph is not available in the English edition of Luther’s works.
  7. Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New York: Image Books, 1989), p.293.
  8. cf. Luther's "Warning Against the Jews" (1546)s:Warning Against the Jews (1546); original German text: Weimar Ausgabe 51:194-196; J.G. Walch, Dr. Martin Luthers Sämmtliche Schriften, 23 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1883), 12:1264-1267).
  9. The references cited in the Passionary for this woodcut: 1 John 2:14-16, Matthew 10:8, and The Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 8, Of the Church
  10. [2] p.18.
  11. Jewish Encyclopedia
  12. Luther's Works, Martin Bertram, trans., Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971, 47:137
  13. Luther’s correspondent Count Schlick
  14. Luther's Works, Martin Bertram, trans., Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971, 47:137.
  15. Martin Luther, On the Jews and Their Lies, Trans. Martin H. Bertram, in Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 47:267.
  16. Luther, On the Jews, 47:268-288, 292.
  17. Page number citations are to Luther's Works, Vol. 47: The Christian in Society IV. (translated by M. Bertram) Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1999, ©1971.
  18. "Most of these and the following charges are contained in the works of Margaritha and Porchetus which Luther had consulted (cf. Introduction), and beyond this, were part of the common medieval tradition. In many cases, the charges and countercharges are traceable to the earliest polemics between Jews and Christians in the first and second centuries." (Luther's Works, Vol. 47, footnote 159).
  19. Luther, Martin: Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan (Hrsg.); Oswald, Hilton C. (Hrsg.); Lehmann, Helmut T. (Hrsg.) Trans. by Martin H. Bertram: Luther's Works, Vol. 47: The Christian in Society IV. Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1999, ©1971, 47:256.
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