Part V: Luther’s Pedagogy and Antisemitism

Luther was prolific. He had mastered the new world of the Gutenberg printing press and the new form of writing powerful epistles. He was also passionate as well as skilled in using the new media. Nazis would show the same proficiency in the age of radio. It was no accident that Kristallnacht took place on 9 November, just before Luther’s birthday. To prevent Jewish contamination, Luther insisted that synagogues had to be razed, Jewish homes destroyed, the Talmud burned, Jewish property expropriated and this had to be followed by the ethnic cleansing of Jews.

Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone rejected obedience to established authority. The individual was ultimately responsible for his or her relationship to God. God was not a redeemer of a people but a saver of individual souls. Once one’s soul was saved, once a person was redirected away from materialism and self-interest, then they had a duty to serve others in need as well as proselytize on behalf of the faith. That meant that they had to be educated first to save themselves; they had to read the Bible. And to save others, they had to spread the holy word. Once man is certain of his own salvation, he is free to serve others. That is why, in Luther’s pedagogical doctrine, study of the Bible was the main course at the primary level and why Bible study occupied such a primary place on the secondary level of education.

There is, however, another dimension to this portrait of Jews related to Martin Luther’s universal message on education. Education, for Luther, was a universal prerequisite. Otherwise, humans would behave as wild beasts. Humans had to be educated to serve society, the polity and the church. Otherwise, they would end up serving “the belly…and living like hogs, wallowing forever with filth.” Luther soon became convinced that Jews were presumably uneducable since the vast majority refused to be converted, and those who agreed were distrusted as opportunists.  Jews, therefore, became “the devil’s people” rather than the chosen people of God. The Nazis were explicitly influenced by Luther and pressured educational boards to introduce his views of Jews into the curriculum. School children were taken on excursions to view the “Judensaus” reliefs.

During the Renaissance, Europe underwent a revolution in education that had started back in the 14th century and aristocrats, who, as macho men, previously disdained reading and writing as fit only for priests and women, began to acquire an education and attend universities. In the 16th century, explorers were opening up the world to Europe as Ponce de León reached Florida and Balboa reached the Pacific. By 1522, Magellan had circumnavigated the globe. The new world was opening up in all senses of the term.

All three levels of education were restructured at different stages and in different places. Changes in education were pushed by the rise of the territorial state versus an empire, the beginnings of a real capitalist economy, the new technology, especially of printing, the emergence of a new middle class that was broader than just clergy and teachers, the dramatic changes in culture and the retreat of the Catholic Church from absolute control over education. The new states needed a well-trained bureaucracy. Good governance required “the law of the head” and not the fist, “wisdom or reason, among the wicked as among the good.” The administration of the growing legal system in the new territorial states required educated jurists, scholar, chancellors, secretaries, judges, lawyers, notaries and political advisers. The trivium and quadrivium of the obsolete cathedral and monastery schools needed to be replaced by a system of schools akin to that established by Geert Groote and the Brethren of the Common Life that had increased the range of subject matter and changed the methodology.

Martin Luther had been a beneficiary of those schools, as had Erasmus. But he also saw dangers in raising the study of pagan texts to such a high level as Erasmus advocated. Faith had to be solidly inculcated before such exposure. Wittenberg University was established in 1502 by Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony. The changes at the tertiary level were more extensive and Wittenberg introduced a humanist education of pagan as well as religious works as well as the study of languages and history.

Martin Luther, who received a M.A. in philosophy from the University of Erfurt, joined the Wittenberg faculty in 1505 just after Leonardo da Vinci completed the Mona Lisa and Michelangelo sculpted David. In 1506, Luther took his final vows as an Augustinian monk and was ordained the following year. In 1508 he became a lecturer in moral philosophy and in 1511 he took over the Chair of Staupitz and the following year earned his Doctor of Theology degree. In 1513 he began his lectures on Psalms, in 1515 on Romans and in 1516 on Galatians, the same year Erasmus published Novum Instrumentum, the first Greek New Testament.

When Pope Leo X changed the Indulgence of the Cross to raise money for building St. Peter’s in 1518, Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg. The Protestant Reformation had begun. Philip Melanchthon arrived in Wittenberg the following year and together they set out to revolutionize education (Luther wrote 144 books or tracts on the subject) just when Rome began the process of excommunicating Luther, which culminated in 1520 when Leo X issued the papal bull giving Luther 50 days to recant. Luther burned both the papal bull and a copy of Canon Law. The excommunication was completed the following year and Luther went into hiding under the protection of Frederick the Wise. Luther’s first dogmatic text, Loci Theologici was published.

By 1522, Luther published the New Testament in German, wrote his own prayer book and translated the Pentateuch into German. One book after another came out. And the Diet of Speyer in 1526 gave German princes the right to establish the religion of their subjects and the Second Diet in 1529 issued Protestio, the charter of Protestantism for those who agreed with Luther. By then, the humanists who started out as allies with the Protestant reformers became effusive critics of Luther.

Luther taught but bracketed the Greek and Roman classic lest they contaminate Christianity. Luther carried over from Roman Catholicism the need to control what was taught to ensure that the Christian religion was properly inculcated. Though he was not a proponent of spare the rod and spoil the child, he was still a strict disciplinarian, though not quite the one depicted in Belfer’s novel. “Conservative Lutheranism was strictly hierarchical. The opinions of children counted for nothing.” (231AAF)  Further, it is no surprise that Jewish texts were included in his bans. Instead of being hidden as the Catholic Church did, the classics – Greek, Roman and Hebrew – were valuable as prophetic voices for the emergence of Christianity and, eventually, Lutheran Protestantism. But certain works, like the Talmud, were considered contaminants.

However, his greatest success was in establishing a primary and secondary state-run school system based on Geert Groote’s ideas, but with stricter boundaries. The schools were no longer restricted to teaching reading and writing to enable students to read the Bible, but included history and language study, logic and literature, music and mathematics and even gymnastics and the study of nature. These were all taught in the vernacular. Though far more restricted than the schools which emerged in Italy itself under the humanist push, they were a radical improvement over the old and, certainly over the way Judaism was taught by rote and harsh discipline. He complained about the failure of Erasmus’ lack of curiosity about how a fruit develops from a seed and sarcastically commented that Erasmus looked at nature like a cow looks at a gate. His strictures about the Jewish failure to attend to nature were even more biting. Yet Luther rejected the conclusions of Copernicus.

The backwardness of Jews with respect to education fed the intolerance of Luther for Jews and any possible respect for their universal education and learning. Talmud studies were just a variation of Scholastic disputation. But Luther was also a universalist and worked to make schools both a right and compulsory for students, like military service. (See his “Sermon on the Duty of Sending Children to School.”) He had a passion for founding libraries and opposed education based on rote learning and memorization, adapting Groote’s premise of appealing to a child’s natural inquisitiveness.

Protestant Christianity spread like wildfire under the force of the new learning and the adoption of vernacular languages for education. For Luther, languages provide the sheath for the swords under which the banners of Protestant Christianity surges forth. Students were taught to hear and speak those languages before learning their grammatical rules. But the humanists, particularly Erasmus, attacked the idea of faith as the exclusive route to Christianity. First, for Erasmus, there was no true and certain knowledge. Second, Luther’s insistence that true and certain Christian knowledge could and had to be acquired through conscience was rejected by the southern Renaissance sceptics.

If the scholastics were primarily logicians and if the Reformers were primarily rhetoricians, Luther was both and, in addition, practiced dialectics, not of the deconstruction kind, but of creative aufheben. It should be no surprise that Germany has the best system of education for skilled craftsmen. Luther insisted that the prince exercise his power to make schools compulsory just as he had the power to compel a town or a village to support schools, just as the prince had the power to force it “to contribute and to work for the building of bridges and roads, or any other of the country’s needs.”

However, Jewish education and Lutheran education, though united in their universalist approach to who should be educated, differed with the Jewish and Catholic emphasis on discipline and corporal punishment to keep the wayward in line. Luther shared with Erasmus and their mentor, Groote, a belief in a child’s desire to learn, the importance of play and discussion in developing a child’s mind. However, in the end, Luther placed the greatest importance on the need for educating people for service to God and the Church. Further, he was a disciplinarian compared to Erasmus.

Luther might have been a rabid antisemite. His antisemitism may have been intimately entwined with his theology. But he was not only a religious reformer, but also an educational reformer that Jews, with their obsolete pedagogical devices, could have learned a great deal. Rabbi Gunther Plaut learned from his German education and tried to teach me that when you teach a lesson (or give a sermon), you should make one point and one point only – say what it will be, elaborate on it and then sum it up. The talk should be simple and direct. I am afraid I still follow the scholastic practice of overloading a lesson with information. I employ arbitrary divisions and engage in logical expositions based on definitions and arguments. I am sure a simple homily well illustrated would be better, but I have never been capable of inculcating this lesson from either Plaut or reading Martin Luther.

Rabbi Yael Splansky’s best sermon was when she enriched it with her personal experience in talking about her health problems to deliver a dynamic and very personal lesson. Her worst teaching session, which is rare for her because she is such an exceptional teacher and communicator, was last Shabbat in Torah study when she went through the various meanings of the term Torah, especially in the mystical Jewish texts, but without a critique. It is as if we were engaged in an act of voyeurism or else infantile teaching by instructing a child to understand how many kinds of fruit there are but without any analysis of why a tomato is called a vegetable.

I am comforted by the knowledge that even the best of our teachers also fail. I am also conscious and humbled that even the worst of our teachers – Martin Luther as an example – may also be blessed with ideas that were far in advance of his time. 

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