Part I: Foreground – Antisemitism in the Lutheran Church

I have already provided some historical background in my discussions of Machiavelli and Erasmus. Further, the topic of antisemitism and its importance needs to be placed in the here and now to allow us to look backward. For, as is well known, though most of us grew older in an age and place relatively free of much expressed antisemitism, this was not the case in my youth; the expressed value, however, was complete equality of civil rights. Further, there has been an upsurge in antisemitism in very recent years.

There are a wide variety of theories concerning the origins and recent upsurge of antisemitism in the contemporary world. Shalom Lappin in his forthcoming essay of the July issue of the Journal of Contemporary Antisemitism (2:1) offers a variation on the theme that contemporary antisemitism has its roots in the political economy of the world. For him, anti-globalism and antisemitism go hand in hand; the rise of antisemitism can be correlated with the rise of anti-globalism since the financial crash of 2007 and the increasing disparities in income between the upper 1% and the rest. In another perspective, the rise of populism and its links between right wing nationalism and antisemitism is a result of the democratic deficit, the gap between public will and bureaucratic elites. Others shift to international politics rather than the international economy, citing the collapse of the Camp David and Taba negotiations in 2001, Intifada II, the subsequent decline of the peace camp in Israel and the three full-scale wars in Gaza. Still others trace the upsurge to the vast increase in immigration pressures and, once again, the rise of the populist far right.

The roots, however, go back centuries. Christianity laid the foundations for contemporary antisemitism. The militant antisemitism of the 19th and 20th centuries was combined with social-Darwinist racial theories, religious ideologies of racism in a secular form, as well as psycho-social and political motives. However, if you read the 1998 Roman Catholic report, We Remember: A Reflection of the Shoah, we find two themes: 1) the blame for centuries of anti-Judaism in the Church was a result of textual misinterpretations; 2) a distinction between the new antisemitism that emerged in the nineteenth century that drew on theories of race, social, cultural and political theories rather than Christianity. In other words, reinterpret the words of the New Testament and insist the Church is divorced from 19th and 20th century antisemitism. And why should Jews not go along with this ruse if it results in allies for Judaism? One answer: because it may simply shift the hatred from religion to politics, from Judaism to Israel.

But explanation is not my goal here. Any or all of the above explanations may have merit in accounting for the recent upsurge, but there has always been a solid foundation in both Christian and Muslim countries for antisemitism and not just anti-Judaism. In non-Christian and non-Muslim countries that do not concur with Jewish beliefs, there is no significant antisemitism.

In any case, I am concerned with the roots of antisemitism in Europe and not its contemporary expression, in particular, specifically, the antisemitic writings and initiatives of Martin Luther in the sixteenth century. Normally, I would begin with a discussion of Martin Luther and his contemporaries. Instead, I will end there by focusing on education, but on the way, provide a contemporary example of antisemitism linked to Martin Luther, then leap back to the New Testament and the connections between antisemitism in the Bible and Martin Luther, explore the contemporary rejection of Luther’s antisemitism in the Lutheran Church and then deal with Luther’s antisemitic theology. In some sense, it is backwards, but in Luther’s case, I believe this approach will offer the best insight.

I will insert quotes from a 2016 novel by Lauren Belfer that I read last Sunday, And After the Fire. [pp.AAF] When I quote from it, I include the page numbers afterwards. I could have quoted from: Heiko A. Oberman (1984) The Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Age of Renaissance and Reformation, or from Richard Marius (1999) Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death, or from Brooks Schramm and Kirsi I. Stjerna (eds.) (2012) Martin Luther, the Bible and the Jewish People: A Reader, particularly Stjerna’s essay, “The place and significance of Martin Luther in the long history of Christian anti-Semitism.” However, novelists write more vividly. See, of course, Martin Luther On Jews and Their Lies.

In the Middle Ages, Jews were expelled from England, burned at the stake in France, and murdered by the tens of thousands in Spain. “Pogroms were a way of life in many parts of Europe… accusing Jews of murdering Christian children to use their blood in religious ceremonies, resulting in further anti-Jewish violence. The Holocaust did not come out of nowhere.” (81AAF)

A current debate has been underway within the German Evangelical Church and among art historians about whether a grotesque antisemitic 14th century relief should be removed from the façade of a church in the German city of Wittenberg, the church where Martin Luther once preached, the church where he was married to Katharina von Bara, and the church where the couple baptized their six children. Prior to German reunification, the town church leaders decided to keep the sculpture on the church. A youth group within the church created a memorial plaque on 11 November 1988 at the foot of the relief on the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht to counteract the “Judensau.”

Anti-Semitic Sculpture Outside Luther's Church Creates Controversy

The sandstone “Judensau” 1305 relief on Martin Luther’s Wittenberg Church is perched 26 feet above the ground, on the exterior southeast corner. The sculpture of an enormous sow includes two people in identifiably medieval Jewish hats suckling at the sow’s teats. Another holds a piglet’s ear. An additional Jewish person, believed to be a portrayal of a rabbi, lifts the tail while looking into the sow’s rear. Luther in his verbal depiction of the relief sarcastically insists the rabbi was reading the Talmud.  Not only is this a portrayal of gluttony, uncleanness and sinfulness, it is particularly defamatory since Jewish law views pigs as unclean animals unsuitable for food.

The inscription, “Rabini Shem Hamphoras,” a vile bastardization of shem ha-meforasch, the ineffable Jewish name for God, is the title of Luther’s 1543 book, On the Schem Hamphoras (Vom Schem Hamphoras und vom Geschlecht Christi, Of the Unknowable Name and the Generations of Christ) The book was published in English in 1992. In the volume, Luther insults the Talmud and the alleged Jewish name for God by linking both to the actions of Jews with pigs and Satan. On the margins of a plaque in Hebrew on the ground in front are words from Psalm 130: “Out of the depths, I cry to you.”

Some rationalize that Luther’s virulent antisemitism was really expressed in the last three years of his life when he suffered from insomnia, kidney stones, migraines, heart problems, and was losing both his sight and hearing. But that was simply when his violently antisemitic views were condensed into volumes. As we shall see, antisemitism permeates Luther’s writings from the start. Nor is his antisemitism excused by pointing out that the language depicting the pope was even worse; he advocated that the pope’s tongue be cut before he was nailed to a gallows.

In his early years, Luther was akin to Erasmus in trying to convert Jews. “I would request and advise that one deal gently with them. If we really want to help them, we must be guided in our dealing 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, 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.”

The obscene sandstone relief on the church is clearly visible to the public and has been on the church for over seven centuries. There are perhaps 30 folk-art “Jewish pig” reliefs on churches across Europe, most of them in Germany.

I received the following note from a very learned reader which I have added to my blog:

Interesting post. Here are photos of the Judensau and of its associated modern inscription from the Catholic cathedral in Regensburg (Ratisbon), Germany. This is the city in which Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) taught and where his brother Georg was choir director of the famous Regensburger Domspatzen.

The inscription reads:

“On the pillar to the right of the southwest entrance, which leads to the medieval Jewish ghetto, is to be found the so-called ‘Judensau’, an object of derision. Depicted is a sow from whose teats Jews are sucking. This sculpture must be viewed in the context of its time as a petrified witness of a vanished age. Its anti-Jewish message is disconcerting for the modern viewer. The relationship of Christianity and Judaism in our days is characterized by tolerance and mutual respect.”

FYI, the Jews were expelled from Regensburg in 1519 and their synagogue destroyed, but not before the great Renaissance artist Albrecht Altdorfer was able to make some etchings of it. The community was eventually re-established, but its early 20th century synagogue was destroyed on Kristallnacht. In February of this year, a new synagogue was dedicated was dedicated with great fanfare in Regensburg.

However, the Wittenberg Church is a UNESCO heritage site. Perhaps even worse than the relief is the fact that its removal is even controversial. Further, it was not a decision initiated by the Lutheran Church but arose because of a petition and a court complaint filed by one member of the German-Jewish community. The 10,000-signature petition, which I believe includes my name, was initiated by Dr. Richard Harvey, a British Jewish theologian, a convert to Christianity and specialist in Jewish-Christian relations. It does not ask that the mural be destroyed, but that it be removed and integrated into a new monument that would offer an educational context.

Seven other factors are relevant. The 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation took place in 2017. Second, the church recently cleaned and restored the sandstone relief for Martin Luther’s fifth century anniversary for the 80,000 tourists a year that visit the church. Third, the church resisted and rejected the request. Fourth, during the Reformation, this particular relief added an anti-Jewish text from Luther’s writings referring to Jews studying the Talmud. Fifth, in 2019, 1,400 Jews live in the state of Saxony-Anhalt where Wittenberg is located and they have determined that the relief should not be removed but should serve as an educational device to remind viewers of the depth of antisemitism in the Lutheran Church in particular and in Christianity in general. “The sculpture represents a testimony of medieval thinking and Christian architectural tradition,” said Max Privorozki, chairman of the executive committee of the association of Jewish communities in the state of Saxony-Anhalt. Sixth, a German court agreed with church officials and the local Jewish community that, although the relief was abusive and insulting to Jews, it was nevertheless an important piece of historical art.

Sixth, as one expert put it, “Where do you stop?” “We can’t allow this to lead to a kind of iconoclasm,” opined Insa-Christiane Hennen, an art historian and the author of a book on the Wittenberg church. “The problem of modern-day anti-Semitism cannot be solved by removing these medieval objects.” European art and history are rich with a plethora of heinous depictions of Jews. Harvey, on the other hand, argued that this was Europe’s most egregious example because the relief is in full public view on an historic church. Further, there are precedents. The city council of Salzburg, which had such a relief on its town hall since 1487, removed it by the order of a Bishop during the Enlightenment in the 18th century. More recently, two “Judensau” in Wiener Neustadt and Bad Wimpfen were removed and placed in municipal museums.

“There is no doubt that the 14th-century ‘Judensau’ sculpture at Wittenberg is unseemly, obscene, insulting, offensive, libelous, a portrayal of hate speech and anti-Semitism that defames Jewish people and their faith,” said Privorozki. “However, it should be seen within the context of the time period in which it was made.” Contrary to the position of the local Jewish community, however, the sculpture is not just about mediaeval thinking. It is about how the thought informing that sculpture continues into the present.

Many Lutheran Church officials are sympathetic to the petition. Irmgard Schwaetzer, a German politician and head of the leadership council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, noted that the relief “expresses pure hatred of Jews. A centre of education that finds acceptance beyond the parish should be established here. This also means considering the feelings that this place awakens in our Jewish brothers and sisters.” “The Judensau grieves people because our Lord is blasphemed,” added 74-year-old Lutheran Sister Joela Krüger who belongs to the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary, a Lutheran Christian group based in Darmstadt, Germany, the main focus of which is repentance, Christian reconciliation and the education of Christians about the Jewish roots of their faith.

To be continued

One comment on “Part I: Foreground – Antisemitism in the Lutheran Church

  1. Jack Ketch says:

    “In America hardly any Antisemitism exists. It’s a myth.” -Uri Avnery, former member of the Israeli Knesset.

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