Part I: Giordano Bruno and Judaism – Background

We have covered three men from the first half of the sixteenth century: in the Italian Renaissance, the unique mind and role of Machiavelli whose greatest hero was Moses; from the northern Renaissance in the Netherlands, the brilliant Erasmus, a pioneer in the Counter-Reformation, who had a critical but rather milquetoast attitude towards Jews and Judaism; and then Martin Luther from Wittenberg on the River Elbe between Leipzig and Berlin in Saxony-Anhalt, one of the founding fathers of the Reformation, who also happened to be a virulent antisemite.

We now return to southern Italy and enter the second half of the sixteenth century with Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) who had perhaps the most brilliant mind of all. Further, he was undoubtedly the most courageous, for his commitment to his ideas and beliefs led to his imprisonment and torture for seven years (1593-1600) in the infamous prison of the Inquisition in Rome near St. Peter’s Square. Finally, on 20 February 1600, after a month of interrogation in the final stage of a years-long trial, he was led outside, manacled and with a gag in his mouth atop a wood pyre, was set on fire and burned alive on the Field of Flowers (Campo de’ Fiori). Of the 29 heretical beliefs for which he had originally been charged, he was found guilty of eight cosmological propositions which Bruno, in the end, refused to renounce.

Bruno was truly a renaissance figure in the contemporary meaning of the word “renaissance”. He was a religious theologian, a philosopher, a scientist, a playwright and a poet. He has been described as “an inspired Magus” and was, historically, a runaway monk, an excommunicated Calvinist, an expelled Lutheran, a convicted Catholic heretic and the most avant-garde thinker of his time. 

For further study, I suggest:

Jack Lindsay (tr. and intro.) (1962) Cause, Principle and Unity

Frances A. Yates (1964) Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition

Karen Sylvia de León Jones (1997) Giordano Bruno – the Kabbalah: Prophets, Magicians and Rabbis

Richard J. Blackwell and Robert de Lucca (eds.) (1998) Giordano Bruno: Cause, Principle and Unity: And Essays on Magic 

Ingrid D. Rowland (2008) Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic

Hilary Gatti (2010) Essays on Giordano Bruno.

Of the above galaxy of outstanding minds in the sixteenth century, Giordano Bruno was probably the most brilliant. And also the most courageous, for he died giving witness to his beliefs, religious as well scientific, which clashed with the official view of cosmology of the Church and the fundamentals of the Roman Catholic faith. Bruno had also become a lover of the Kabbalah of Judaism. My focus will be the latter but, after finishing a sketch of his background, I will sum up his cosmology for there is a direct connection with his religious beliefs, or, at the very least, his disbeliefs, and his view of the cosmos.

Bruno was born in 1548 in Nola near Naples, a satrap of Spain, but then the fifth largest city in the world. Two hundred and fifty years earlier, during the reigns of Charles I and II, but not because of their reign so much as the lapse in their power, Naples was known for its mass conversion of Jews and creation of conversos primarily because of the zealotry of the Dominican Inquisitors in Southern Italy. This may be the source of the rumour that Bruno had a Jewish past, especially since he was trained by the Dominicans.

Bruno at a very early age was propelled by scepticism that went much deeper than that of Erasmus when, as a young boy, he learned that seeing is not believing, for sight could and did deceive. But so also could thought that was not subject to rigorous criticism. Contradiction rather than conviction provided the fuel; in that, he was somewhat at odds with both Machiavelli and Erasmus. “What are the grounds of certitude?” That would become the question that became the foundation of philosophic inquiry from Descartes until the nineteenth century. For Bruno’s more radical scepticism, there was no evidence or rationale for certitude whatsoever.

This radical scepticism, propelled by the stirrings of political rebellion against Spain and religious rebellion against Rome in Naples, was also fostered by Bruno’s reading Peter of Ravenna’s Fænix (1491) as a young teenager. He quickly mastered mnemonics, the mediaeval art of memory. In Naples, he first attended a monastic school at the age of eleven and then entered the Dominican Order in the convent of San Domenico Maggiore at the age of 15 in 1563. The order specialized in developing the art of memory. There he was introduced to the theories and lessons of Johannes Romberch (1533) and later would add to his learning, the techniques of Cosmas Rossellius (1579). His greatest influence was probably Giulio Camillo, though, as I will try to show in the end, he used Camillo’s L’Idea del Theatro theatre for very opposite purposes. In 1569, he was called to Rome by Pope Pius V to display his brilliance and memory; he recited psalms in Hebrew upon request.

Blessed with a prodigious memory refined by these techniques developed in the previous four centuries, he fell out of love with Christianity and in love with two aspects of Judaism, the cosmology of the Torah and the mysticism of the Kabbalah. But he lacked the breadth of education of Erasmus and Luther. For in the Dominican monastery school that he attended, he was instructed only in the scholastic manner, in letters, logic and dialectical argument, but principally in intellectual submission to which he became allergic. Instead, Felipe Bruno, renamed Giordano when he was ordained a priest in 1572 at the age of 24, became one of the most intelligent men of his age.

When he entered the convent of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples, a convent that both taught submission to the church but was, at the same time, a centre of resistance to Spanish rule, he connected the latter with the former and began purifying his cell of extraneous artifacts other than the cross. At the same time, at this very early age, he began his scepticism about the claim that Jesus was the son of God. He had already cast away any belief in the Virgin Mary.

He then entered the College of San Domenico in Naples where he experienced an epiphany. He was not reborn in the spirit of Christ but, rather had a very different revelation when he witnessed a new star, a supernova, appear. If stars could be born, they could not be eternal nor fixed to a sphere that circles earth as in the Ptolemaic model of the universe.

In 1575, he received his license in theology. The following year, informed that he was about to be arrested by the Inquisition, for the other monks had discovered his secret stash of works by St. Chrysostom and St. Jerome annotated by the notes of Erasmus who had been proscribed, Bruno threw off his monk’s robes and went AWOL. He fled Naples and began his peripatetic life not too dissimilar from Erasmus except that he was a fugitive.

In 1577, in Venice, Bruno published The Sign of the Times. In 2017, the 23-year-old English singer, Harry Styles, performed a song by the same name, the chorus of which was: “Just stop your crying, it’s a sign of the times / Welcome to the final show, hope you’re wearing your best clothes / We could meet again somewhere, somewhere far away from here.” Styles could have been providing a weak echo of Giordano Bruno 442 years earlier

In Geneva in 1577, Bruno converted to Protestantism and enrolled in the University of Geneva in 1579, but was forced to flee to Lyon when he was excommunicated by the Calvinists for denouncing the doctrines of another professor. He went to Toulouse where he lectured on Aristotle’s On the Soul; at the University of Toulouse, he dubbed Aristotle as the “the stupidest philosopher.”

In 1581, Bruno moved to the University of Paris, the second oldest university in Europe following the University of Boulogna. Paris had attracted previous reformers like Desiderius Erasmus, John Calvin and John Knox. The latter two became Protestants and Erasmus was a dissident. After a year in Paris, Bruno published his first book on memory, De umbris idearum, On the Shadow of Ideas [Shadows]. This was followed by four others, Circe, Seals, Statues and Images: Cantus Circaeus ad eam memoiriae praxim ordinatus quam ipse iudicianum appelat in the same year (1582) [Circe]; Ars reminiscendi et in phantastico campo e xarandi (1583) [Seals], Lampas triginta statuaram (1586) [Statues]; De imaginum, signorum et idearum compositione, ad omnia inventionum, dispositionum et memoriae genera (1591) [Images]. When he published Shadows, he promised to reveal a Hermetic secret, namely, that his memory was not a product of magic but of science. Of course, in Italy at the time, the rule of interpretation was that if a writer wrote that he was doing A and not B, in all likelihood he was doing B. One only had to see what he actually did. (See Chapter 9, “Giordano Bruno: The Secret of Shadows,” in Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory.)

In 1583, Bruno moved to England where at Oxford he articulated his ideas on the cosmos linking science and magic as he claimed that cosmology and religious ideas were fatefully intertwined. In the book he published in London, The Ash Wednesday Supper (1584), he made the claim that we live in a world very much larger than that envisaged even by Copernicus forty years earlier in his 1543 treatise, De Revolutionibus, a world consisting of many suns and many more planets circling them. Welcome to the universe of billions of solar system. Now, we have gone even further and astrophysicists write of multi-universes.

However, his book, The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast (Spaccio de la bestia trionfante) (1584) eventually seals his fate with the Inquisition as it denounces the Church as well as offering an encyclopedia of knowledge on science and magic, mythology and ancient religions such as that of Egypt, and on ethics and the art of memory. The following year he taught at the University of Wittenberg and then the year after that at the Lutheran University of Helmstedt in Prague. Once again, he was expelled.

It was not his writings that eventually did Bruno in, but his move back to Italy, to Venice in particular, where he lived under the patronage of Giovanni Mocenigo. When he expressed his plans to move back to Germany, Mocenigo locked him in the attic. Whether Mocenigo did so because he came to believe that Bruno was a heretic, as he claimed, or because he was about to be dumped by his gay lover, or because Bruno was such an arrogant and ungrateful person, has been a matter of speculation. The latter may have been the critical factor.

Bruno was “the only known sixteenth-century philosopher to have been excommunicated from all three major [Christian] confessions: Roman Catholic (Naples, 1576), Calvinist (Geneva, 1579) and Lutheran (Helmstedt, 1589).” Bruno was stiff-necked and stubborn, and lived up to the caricature of the Jew more than any Jew did.  In the end, the rationale did not matter. The Venetian authorities forced a confession from him. In 1593 he was transferred to Rome where seven years later he was burned alive.

One of my readers sent me a picture of a plaque unveiled in 2011 that lies on the ground right near Bruno’s statue at the Campo de’fiori. The Italian text in the middle of the plaque reads: “In memory of the burning of the Talmud that took place in this piazza.” The bull of Pope Julius III ordered the confiscation and burning of all copies of the Talmud in 1953. Over nine days, the Roman Inquisitors confiscated every copy of The Talmud they could put their hands on. There were wagon loads. On Rosh Hashana on 9 September, these copies of the Talmud, along with many other Jewish books, were torched. The advisor to the Roman Inquisition opined that once these books are removed, “the more they (the Jews) are without the wisdom of their rabbis, so much more will they be prepared and disposed to receive the Christian faith and the wisdom of the word of God.”

One quote on the plaque in Hebrew is taken from the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 18a) commemorating the martyrdom of R. Hananiah b. Teradyne, his wife and daughter, reputedly Judaism’s most learned woman in studies of the Talmud. Her father and mother were burned and she was repeatedly raped in prison, tortured and then martyred by Rome during the Hadrian persecutions for refusing to stop studying the Talmud. The passage reads: “The scrolls are burned but the letters fly up.”

“That which is altogether just shall you follow.” For this he and his wife were condemned to death, and their daughter to degradation (rape and forced prostitution). His death was terrible. Wrapped in the scroll, he was placed on a pyre of green brush; fire was set to it, and wet wool was placed on his chest to prolong the agonies of death. “Woe is me,” cried his daughter, “that I should see thee under such terrible circumstances!” Haninah serenely replied, “I should indeed despair were I alone burned; but since the scroll of the Torah is burning with me, the Power that will avenge the offense against the law will also avenge the offense against me.” His heartbroken disciples then asked: “Master, what seest thou?” He answered: “I see the parchment burning while the letters of the Law soar upward.” “Open then thy mouth, that the fire may enter and the sooner put an end to thy sufferings,” advised his pupils. But Haninah replied, “It is best that He who hath given the soul should also take it away: no man may hasten his death.”

The other passage in Hebrew is the elegy, Sha’ali Serufah ba-Esh composed by Rabbi Meir ben Baruch of Rothenburg upon seeing the wagons of Talmudic manuscripts and commentaries burnt in a Paris marketplace in 1242. In Ashkenazi synagogues around the world, the elegy is recited on Tisha b’Av.  The sentence translates: “O thou consumed in fire, ask is it well in your mourning?”

Ironically, as a result of the banning and burning of the Talmud, the study of Kabbalah spread like wildfire.  

To be continued.

Jealousy and Magic: Letting Your Hair Down

In this week’s Torah portion in Numbers, Parashat Naso (פרשת נשא), one section of that portion (5:11-31) is about jealousy and its treatment. The treatment involves magic and is a rare if not the only part of the Torah where we find a tale recording the practice of a kind of sorcery.

This short story starts in a customary way with God addressing Moses and telling him, in turn, to address the Israelite people. What does He say? God relays the basic story and then commands a ritual known as the Sotah (to turn aside) ritual.  The topic is stated first. It is about an unfaithful wife. Or so her husband claims: she slept with another man unbeknownst to her husband. There are no witnesses. And she is never caught in the act by the husband. Further, there seems to be no evidence to back up the husband’s claim. Nevertheless, the husband has a fit of jealousy.

Clearly, she cannot be stoned to death if there is no evidence. (Leviticus 20:10 or Deuteronomy 22:21-22) But he could have divorced her even if he had no evidence of adultery. He did not seem to want to do that. Further, if she had committed adultery, was he not defiling himself by continuing to live with her? It would appear that he wanted to stay married. Of course, the latter is all conjecture but is more than plausible given the information we have.

The question is: how should the situation be handled whether the wife committed adultery or not? Further, is the topic of the portion her unfaithfulness or the husband’s reaction when he believes she was unfaithful? Or perhaps both – a trial about truth and a therapeutic session about jealousy. But it is called a jealousy law, not an adultery trial. Further, the term “jealousy” is appropriate since we are dealing with the outcome of the magical ritual whether or not the wife did what she is alleged to have done? Jealousy is not about objective cognitive knowledge but subjective imaginative reasoning.

To figure out how this magic works to free the man of jealousy, we need to understand the ritual in greater detail. Note the following steps:

  1. The woman comes before the altar and her hair is let loose.
  2. The priest offers her a mixture of holy water laced with dust from the floor of the tabernacle.
  3. The priest, in offering this mixture to the woman to drink, warns her that if she is guilty the result will be a sagging thigh and a distended belly.
  4. The woman voluntarily agrees to participate in the ritual and says, “Amen, amen.”

That depiction is clear enough, except for the consequences if she is found guilty of adultery. Does a distended belly mean she was pregnant or is a distended belly the result of her guilt that produces bloating in the belly? Or is she already possibly pregnant and the Torah depicts a miscarriage? Her belly implodes and sags. Or perhaps a relapsed uterus? Or both?

It is interesting to read in the Mishnah the various explanations offered for historically cancelling the ritual:

  1. Adultery of women became so common, the punishment if meted out would destroy the community;
  2. If adultery became so common, the ritual would no longer work;
  3. The ritual depends uniquely on magic for meting out justice and magic is an aberration and has no place in Jewish justice.
  4. The ritual was one imported from the goyim suggesting, thereby, that it was inauthentic.

But there is general agreement that the primary purpose of the ritual was to determine whether or not the wife was guilty of adultery. I suggest that the primary purpose was, in fact, not that, but rather to free the man of his jealousy that threatens to consume him. In other words, it does not matter whether the woman was really guilty or not. Sorcery would not establish that in reality. But if the husband was credulous, and jealousy is a sign of such credulity, then he would believe the magic and this magical ritual would free the man, whatever the outcome. His jealousy would be sublimated. Even if the magic worked and she had a distended belly and sagging thigh?

The jealous man is instructed to bring his wife before the priest as well as a meal-offering of jealousy without any oil or herbs, which the text describes as “a meal-offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance.” What is the gross injustice or iniquity? Is it the alleged adultery or the jealousy? Does bringing a gross injustice to memory of illicit fornication make any sense? How would the wife recalling the illicit incident, if it did occur, be of any help? However, if the gross injustice is, indeed, the husband’s jealousy when he has no evidence to back up his suspicions, then confronting the jealousy with the remembrance of his love for his wife does seem to be understandable.

The priest puts the meal-offering in the wife’s hands. The woman is then asked to swear to reveal what really happened. If she is innocent of the charge, she will be “free of the water of bitterness that causes the curse.” But if she is guilty as charged, she will be cursed, her thigh will sag and her belly will swell. The priest will then record the results. This is the ordeal of the “bitter waters.”

What happens in the Sotah ritual? The woman is made to drink the water of bitterness that caused the curse and it will enter into her and become bitter. It seems like some form of transference is taking place wherein, if the wife seems to have been guilty of cheating, she takes on the bitterness physically that her husband has been feeling emotionally. He becomes free from his bitterness and fit of jealousy, the adulterous wife becomes cursed, her belly swells, her thigh falls away and she is cut off from her people. However, if she is innocent, she will be cleared of the charge and will conceive. That is how the story appears if you are credulous enough to believe it. Or does it mean that as she absorbs the bitterness, he is freed and it would not matter whether she had slept with another and even become pregnant by him?

Sacred water has been made bitter by mixing holy water with dust. What does the bitter water as a metaphor stand for? The wife’s bitterness that she is forced to go through such an ordeal? Or the bitterness that comes out of her husband in his allegations of adultery? I suspect it is latter, for when she drinks the mixture, she will likely discover that, in fact, it does not taste bitter. Then she presumably would clue in that this so-called test is not about her behaviour but about her husband and the bitter water is a placebo. In fact, the miracle is so outlandish, bizarre and non-natural that this alone suggests a tale of misdirection to get through to the real culprit, the jealous husband.

What the test seems to be saying is that the whole ritual is intended to remind the husband of the wife he loved before he tried to destroy that love by his possessiveness. The expectation is that her belly would not become distended nor her thighs sag. If that happened, and I do not see how it could or would just because she slept with another man, then she would be guilty. Except if she slept with another man, became pregnant and the concoction resulted in a miscarriage. Since the husband is so credulous as to jump quickly to conclusions on presumably the slightest excuse, he would believe such magic.

On the other hand, if her thigh sagged and belly blew up, that would be real magic, unless, of course, she had been pregnant and had a miscarriage. Otherwise, the exercise or ritual is a set up or a magic performance to facilitate the husband getting beyond his jealousy. But perhaps he could even get beyond his possessiveness, beyond his bitterness, beyond his jealousy even if she had been pregnant and had a miscarriage. For without the bitterness, he would and could recall his genuine love and her miscarriage would not matter because he would come to the realization that he wanted a child by her. And she is promised that she will conceive. The very fact that she conceived might make him realize how much he wanted a child by her.

Recall that the priest places the woman before the altar with her hair let loose. We will soon read the story of Samson, the Nazirite, who only retained his strength if his hair was long like a woman’s and not cut. Does the requirement that the wife have loose hair allude to the strength she will need to go through this exercise in a magic performance? The association of hair with strength is also suggested in Revelations in the depiction of the monster locusts with hair like that of a woman.

The ritual is intended to “blot them [the curses] out into the water of bitterness.” That is, it is intended to transfer the bitter jealousy of the husband and drown those emotions in the mixture of the holy water of righteousness and the filth of a dirty mind. The case is really only about the husband’s jealousy, “jealous zeal”: רוח קנאה “spirit of jealous zeal,” מנחת קנאות, “zealous offering,” and תורת הקנאות, “instruction of jealousy.” Does a reader really believe a wife’s thigh would sag and her belly become distended by drinking some dirty water? Unless, of course, the reference is to a miscarriage.

As further support for this interpretation, all one has to do is rehearse the various ways men used their wives, even offering them to another to ensure their own safety. Look at the story of the way Judah treated his daughter-in-law, Tamar. And the relationship between Reuben and his father’s concubine, Bilah. Even Esther is used as a high-class prostitute by her uncle, Mordechai, who plants her in the royal palace to secure his own position. The Biblical tales are full of stories of the abuse of women by men.

Finally, let me add two more pieces of evidence to support this interpretation. First, God Himself is often portrayed as a jealous God. God is full of jealous zeal. The jealousy presumably targets true unfaithfulness. God’s punishment – allowing Israel to be destroyed by her former lovers. (Ezekiel 16:38 and, in another variation, Ezekiel 23:25) If the Sotah ritual followed that pattern, the alleged adulterous wife would be destroyed by her lover or lovers. That would be real and not just stage magic. Nothing of the sort happens. Further, the story of God’s jealousy and Israel’s betrayal always ends in reconciliation, not in the destruction of Israel.

My last argument is the frame provided for the story. The frontispiece (Numbers 5:5-10) includes instructions about the required behaviour of a man or woman who wrongs another. In doing so, he or she breaks faith with God. If that individual recognizes his guilt and confesses the wrong that he has done, he pays restitution. A jealous man who wrongs his wife by accusing her falsely of adultery and never recognizes his error or, further, never confesses that the problem is his responsibility, even if she happened to sleep with another, is a sharp contrast with the prefatory tale.

However, what if you had a system of retributive justice for false charges of jealousy? I cannot imagine such a system. It would push the male into greater anger, greater defensiveness, greater bitterness and who knows what the consequences of all that would be. Beating his wife? Killing her? What about obtaining reconciliation indirectly by tricking the man into putting aside his jealousy long enough that he could rediscover his deep love for his wife in contrast to his jealous possessiveness? The consequences would be much better even if the route taken did not go through a process of recognition and taking responsibility.

The story that follows the tale of the Sotah jealousy ritual is about abstinence. More importantly, it is about vows. A man and a wife marry and vow to be faithful. They do not vow not to be jealous. If the husband has a hissy fit of jealousy, however, does he not break his vow of faithfulness when he has absolutely no evidence for his suspicions? Further, as it is written in the Plaut commentary (p. 1057), “Long hair was thus a sign of holiness, a symbolism meaningful in various cultures and ages.” The woman in the Sotah ritual lets her hair down. She is not uptight. She goes along with the magic gag as the real proof of her own faithfulness and her willingness to help her husband get over his irrationality. She abstains from defending herself, from attacking him and from throwing doubt on the effectiveness of the ritual. She is a very strong woman. She thus sets herself “apart for the Lord” by letting her hair grow wild and untrimmed.

For a complementary commentary that also argues that the section is really about jealousy rather than adultery, see Professor Hanna Liss, “The Sotah Ritual: Permitting a Jealous Husband to Remain with His Wife.”

I will end with the poem, “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning that captures so well the irrationality, arrogance and self-ignorance of the jealous male.


That’s my last Duchesspainted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive.I call
That piece a wonder, now:
Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.

Will ‘t please you sit and look at her?I said
‘Frà Pandolf’ by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,

The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned(since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)

And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there;
so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus.
Sir, ‘t was not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say, ‘Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,’ or ‘Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat:’
such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough

For calling up that spot of joy.She had
A heart — how shall I say? — too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ‘t was all one!
My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her,
the white mule
She rode with round the terrace
all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least
She thanked men, — good!but thanked
Somehow — I know not how
 — as if sheranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift.Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling?
Even had you skill
In speech — (which I have not) — to make your will

Quite clearto such an one, and say, ‘Just this
Or that in you disgusts me;
here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark’
andif she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours
forsooth, and made excuse,
— E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop.
Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile?
This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together.
There she stands
As if alive
Will ‘t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below then.
I repeat,
The Countyour master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;

Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object.
Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir.
Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

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. 

Part IV: Martin Luther’s Antisemitic Theology

Promissio is a central Latin concept in Luther’s theology. It is used by contemporary Lutherans who reject Luther’s antisemitism to demarcate that antisemitism from his authentic Christian theology. The concept allows Jews and Christians to be united in hope and offers an appropriate definition of the relationship between the church and Israel, Christians and Jews, and allows the displacement of both anti-Judaism and antisemitism from Christian theology. The theory of substitution and the theology of exclusivity both go down the drain with this revision. Instead, a doctrine of simultaneity is put in its place whereby God establishes a lasting relationship with both Jews and Christians. Does Martin Luther allow for such a change?

Romans 9 read as follows:

I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen. It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”[b] In other words, it is not the children by physical (my italics) descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. For this was how the promise was stated: “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.”

Salvation is supposedly clarified by Paul. But what if Jews do not accept parallelism? What if Jews do not accept the distinction between eschatological Jews and Christians versus the concrete people of Israel? What if such an effort does nothing to diminish antisemitism but merely shifts antisemitism to the political realm thereby allowing religious Christians to escape from their responsibility for antisemitism? In fact, the liberal effort at reconciliation could be read as more an effort to detach Christianity from antisemitism that to really reconcile with Judaism and Jews.

Look at the current context – the rise in antisemitism both in Germany and across Europe with 90% of the incidents linked to far-right groups in contrast to the UK where the issue of antisemitism is roiling the Labour Party. (See the 2019 Fathom Report, Institutionally Antisemitic: Contemporary Left Antisemitism and the Crisis in the British Labour Party.) Was it two weeks ago when Germany’s commissioner on antisemitism warned Jews that it was dangerous for Jews to wear a kippah in public?

A member of my class on Gentile views of Jews asked me whether the Lutheran church had ever renounced Luther’s antisemitism. As I answered in the last blog, Sister Joela who has been so active in campaigning for the removal of the “Jedensau,” certainly recognizes Luther’s failings with the Jewish people, but celebrates his revolutionary role in democratizing the Bible. “We don’t want to distance ourselves from Luther’s wrongs, but to identify, grieve, and ask for forgiveness.”

Initiated by Rev. John Stendahl of Amherst, Mass., and approved overwhelmingly at the church’s annual assembly, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America formally renounced Luther’s antisemitic attacks in 1993. The assembly directed its ecumenical affairs department to prepare a declaration to Jews “repudiating the anti-Judaic rhetoric and violent recommendations” of Luther and grieving at “the tragic effects of such words on subsequent generations.” The declaration expressed “our desire to live out our faith in Jesus Christ in love and respect for the Jewish people by pledging to oppose the deadly workings of anti-Semitism in church and society.”

However, the Norwegian state Lutheran church took until November of 2016 to pass an equivalent motion. But, in contrast to Gregory Baum, Norwegian evangelicals are some of the strongest supporters of Israel, continually visiting even in periods of terrorist attacks. Is Luther’s antisemitism in which he refers to Jews as “alien murderers and bloodthirsty enemies” whose synagogues, homes and prayer books should be destroyed and their property confiscated so easily separated from his theology? Roman Catholics in the 1965 Nostra aetate rejected the view that Jews had been responsible for the death of Jesus. However, this reading by Protestants and Catholics, went back to the disciples of Jesus, particularly Paul.

The Lutheran World Federation [LWF] based in Switzerland published a 200-page edited collection in January of 2003 called, A Shift in Jewish-Lutheran Relations? A Lutheran contribution to Christian-Jewish dialogue with a focus on antisemitism and anti-Judaism today. But two essays, one by León Klenicki and the other by Wolfgang Kraus, took up the issue of the link between Christology and antisemitism. The publication ended with a number of resolutions affirmed by the LWF on the issue:

We encourage the member churches to create and support opportunities for their members to learn about Jews and Judaism, and the heritage we share. Trust and common understanding must be nurtured beginning with the young and through face-to-face encounter.

We encourage the member churches to advocate for adequate legal proscriptions and remedies against racist and antisemitic activities, using the legal tools of human rights in this effort.

We encourage the member churches to raise their voices against antisemitism and anti-Judaism wherever they appear and actively to support Jewish communities in maintaining their traditional observances.

We affirm the cooperation that has grown between Jews and Lutherans in work for peace and justice, social relief and community development, and we encourage all who are engaged in such work to continue.

We encourage the LWF to continue its support of Jewish-Lutheran dialogue in the member churches.

We especially encourage the engagement of younger leadership in the dialogue, to help assure its continuation and its relevance to contemporary culture.

We encourage the LWF and member churches to convene theological consultations to pursue the theological, exegetical, missiological and pastoral issues that have been raised in and by the dialogue and our own plenary sessions.

We express our gratitude to the LWF for its leadership in this consultation and in the promotion of Jewish-Lutheran understanding.

We call for patience and perseverance by all who share this goal, until the long-term process of change on which we have embarked is brought to fruition by the one God of Jews and Christians.

Christian hostility to Jews and Judaism is primarily motivated by religion and in contrast to classical, pagan anti-Judaism and, on the whole, constitutes a continuum ever since the second century CE. Christians defined their own identity in contradistinction to Judaism. At the same time, they attempted to demonstrate their superiority over Judaism.

Throughout Luther’s writings, but more specifically in three of his books, it seems that Luther cannot escape a discussion of Jews and how to deal with them. After all, Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah. Why? Like many of his predecessors and contemporaries, he placed the blame on the Talmud and its teaching, a theme I discussed already. The Talmud, he claimed, provided not simply an incorrect, but a satanic version of the Hebrew Bible. Contrary to some views, antisemitism did not emerge and develop over time for Luther; it remained a constant.

Luther, however, became more rabid and more preoccupied by the subject as he grew older. Early on, he blamed the failure on the bad pedagogy of the Roman Catholic Church. But when Jews resisted conversion with the rise of the Protestant reformation, and particularly the gospel according to Luther, he blamed the stiff-necked Jews. Further, because of their satanic character, their conversions had to be suspect and regarded as likely opportunistic. Luther believed that Jews, even converted ones, were a contaminant and threatened the purity and piety of the church. Therefore, Jews had to be suppressed. Therefore, their living among Christians had to be made impossible. Therefore, they had to be expelled from living among Christians. And, at times, Luther even argued that they should be killed.

The problem is that the Reformation had a great deal to do with three doctrines even more than criticisms of the Catholic Church. As did Paul as I read him, Luther argued for justification of salvation by faith alone; the Church was not needed as an intermediary. Secondly, the Bible, not the Church, was the sole authority in matters of faith. Thirdly, if the doctrine of salvation by faith alone and the Bible as the ultimate authority rather than the Pope were not sufficient, the implication on man’s nature and his relationship to God is enormous. If man does not accept Christ as his saviour, if man does not accept the Gospels as the living word of God, then he is inherently materialistic, self-centred, immoral and no more than a beast indifferent to the common good.

These basic premises impacted not only on Luther’s break with Roman Catholicism but on his views of Jews. As we shall also see it had an enormous impact on his view of education, which I will deal with in my final section.

As I have tried to show, Lutheran Churches have recently worked assiduously to distance themselves from the anti-Judaism and antisemitism of Martin Luther. However, if there is a deep connection between that antisemitism and his Christian theology, this is more difficult to do. Further, if Martin Luther’s doctrines of supersession, that Christianity displaces and replaces Judaism, cannot be divorced from his doctrine of “by faith alone,” if his doctrine of exclusivity cannot be divorced from his doctrine that the Bible alone is the source of all truth, and, finally, if these doctrines are inseparable from both his and Paul’s views of human nature, then it is difficult to see how Lutheranism can be so easily separated from anti-Judaism and antisemitism.

When Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses in Wittenberg, he became a leading figure in the Reformation that transformed Christianity. However, the doctrines he propounded had an intimate interconnection with his anti-Judaic stands and the eventual emergence of the full-blown murderous antisemitism of the Nazis.

It is true that initially Luther was generous towards the Jews – but only in the hope that they would convert. Paul held the same position. Verses in the Tanach on prophecy and messianism were interpreted as prefiguring the arrival of Jesus as the Messiah. In his 1523 volume, That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew, Luther wrote, “We gentiles are relatives by marriage and strangers, while they [the Jews] are of the same blood, cousins and brothers of our Lord.”

But what if most Jews were not open to conversion and those that did were by and large doing so for personal advancement, then Jews turning their backs on Christ was a rejection of his mission to save the Jews as well as everyone else. Doesn’t that failure reflect negatively on the power of the Holy Spirit, on Jesus as a teacher and ultimately on God? Luther joined the chorus that held that Jews had been brainwashed by the Talmud since the message of the Bible was, for him, unequivocal.

In On the Jews and their Lies, Luther wrote: “beware of the Jews…God’s wrath has consigned them to the Devil who has robbed them not only of a proper understanding of the Scriptures, but also of common human reason, modesty and sense.” The Jews were the Devil incarnate. How else could they resist the salvation offered by Jesus?  Further, there was only one reading of the Bible and it was not subject to various competing interpretations as the Talmud presumed. Jesus, Paul and Christians had the only correct interpretations. But what if the Bible could be dissected into two parts, those that were eternally and fundamentally true and those that erred because they were rooted in the particular circumstances of history? Who could make such an interpretation? Was this cop-out not a sell-out to the Talmudists?

Even more fundamentally, if Jews “by their nature” were largely closed off to the teachings of Jesus, they must be stiff-necked for a reason. If you combine the core Lutheran theology with the actual behaviour of Jews with respect to the offering of Christianity to them, there was no help for them. They were indeed the devil’s disciples.

To be continued

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part III: Contemporary Lutheran Rejection of Luther’s Antisemitism

Contemporary Lutherans are now committed to ensuring that all members of civil society clearly and publicly condemn all forms of antisemitism. Public officials are expected to disavow hate mongers, hate speech, and other forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify acts of antisemitism. They favour appropriate anti-discrimination legislation and implementation. Action must be taken against individuals and institutions responsible for discrimination and criminal acts against Jews and the denigration of Jews.

Further, Lutherans must engage in preventive action and promote concrete efforts to counteract and prevent the increase of antisemitic incidents and hostile action against Jews as well as the rise of radical and violent movements which foster racist ideologies and discriminatory practices against the Jewish community. Lutherans now promote Holocaust remembrance through education and the organization of cultural or media events or on the internet, and include the subject of antisemitism in anti-racist education for students and teachers, and in all teaching material as well as eliminating antisemitic propaganda in school curricula, textbooks and the media. They promote public awareness and tolerance through non-formal education and the media and provide youth with an opportunity to take an active role in educating the world about the evil that necessarily results from Jew hatred. Is this not a great deal of effort in repentance?

The United Church of Canada’s statement, Bearing Faithful Witness, makes the following distinction. Anti-Judaism means intellectual dissent from Jewish precepts (in the same sense as “anti-Christian” or “anti-Christianity”). However, the term also has a pejorative connotation, implying not merely an attack on Jewish ideas but on the Jews themselves for other than racial reasons. Anti-Judaism is therefore considered less lethal than antisemitism. However, anti-Jewish elements are present in the Christian Scriptures as I indicated in the previous section. However, the United Church of Canada rejects as false the claim that the Scriptures are antisemitic. Claims that Christians who attend Jewish services, follow Jewish rituals and adopt Jewish custom are the enemy. Why? Not because Christianity is superior to Judaism, as Chrysostom contended in the 4th century, but because Jews claim that their beliefs and rites are superior to Christian ones. I myself consider such a claim to be anti-Jewish for it falsifies Judaism just as the New Testament does.

Anti-Judaism is depicted as a result of the effort of the new Christian church, in this case Lutherans, to detach itself from Judaism in a process of establishing identity by delimitation, a process normally accompanied by polemics, accusations and insinuations, even though Jesus himself had no intention of founding a new religious community and expressed his solidarity with the Jews of his time. This, of course, is not Saul or Paul’s interpretation, but that of contemporary Christians trying to distance themselves from the antisemitic roots within Christianity. For them, Jesus did not challenge the belief that Jews were God’s chosen people. Anti-Jewish statements in the New Testament should be read and understood as reflecting this political process of detachment rather than as an expression of the fundamentals of Christianity.

In this re-reading, the gospels must be read at two different levels, as the story of Jesus and as the presentation Jesus’ story resulting from the politics of the period. Polemics against Jews do not genuinely come from Jesus but are products of a later period. Thus, Matthew interprets the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem during in 70 CE as God’s direct punishment of Judaism because of his fight with the Pharisees, a position projected back into the teachings of Jesus. In Jesus time, Pharisees were allies of Jesus, even if holding different views, in the fight against the Sadducees. However, their rejection of the message of the cross and resurrection turned them from allies with whom they disagreed into enemies later on so that “Pharisee” became a derogatory term among Christians. Christology was not initially anti-Judaic. There was simply a debate over a new definition of Judaism without a temple.

This is an apologetic, an effort to re-write history for the contemporary period in which antisemitism is a “No, No.” After all, after the First Temple was destroyed, there were deep disputes about its meaning, but no claim by one party that the others were apostates. Reducing those differences simply to a process of separation may be a cop out. The differences were not just between two sects of Jews claiming legitimacy, but between one sect which saw the other as traitors to Truth.

Depicting some Jews standing for narrowing Judaism versus others, Christians, for attempting to broaden Judaism, is itself a statement of anti-Judaism which ignores both the fundamental differences and the claims of Christians to possess the only true meaning. Jewish rejection of the Hellenists, such as Josephus who came from a priestly family, is absolutely different from the conflict with Christianity. For the Hellenists assimilated but did not claim to be the true heirs of Judaism. Further, Christians charged Jews with excluding them from synagogue services. However, it is one thing to reject a congregant because his or her beliefs depart fundamentally from the basics of the congregation and another to claim that the congregation has the only path to the Truth.

As I indicated above, the charge against the Jews for murdering their Christ is not John’s alone in the Gospel According to John, but also that of Paul. It is a fundamental and not just a circumstantial belief of the new Christian religion.

For the Christian religion was founded upon faith versus the law, upon either affirming Jesus as the Christ or being godless. Jews who do not accept Christ are depicted as non-believers destined for hell and in service to the devil. Further, the responsibility for the death of Jesus is increasingly blamed on Jews rather than Romans. Christians are guilty of cultural expropriation for they reinterpret traditional Jewish words and phrases as having Christian meaning, and only Christian meaning. In Paul’s diatribe against Jews in I Thessalonians (2:14-16), he calls Jews enemies of all people. Paul certainly seems to advocate the theory of substitution. The question is the following: can there be a Christology without anti-Judaism?

I suggest that the effort to delink Luther’s antisemitism from his theology is part and parcel of the new Christian effort to differentiate between doctrines that are historically rooted (the views of Jews) and doctrines that contain the essence and truth of Christianity as well as positions that are also historically rooted. But what if the latter so-called historical positions are rooted directly in the core Christian gospel? Text or reliefs or music or Luther’s antisemitism cannot be deleted. They can only be demarcated from the essence of Christianity and blamed on historical circumstances. However, I suggest that this is apologetics in the name of a new found respect for Jews and Judaism without getting to the core of the problem. I argue, as some Christian theologians do, that anti-Judaism is both inherent in Christianity and a logical and necessary consequence of the fundamental tenets.

Rosemary Ruether asked, “Is it possible to say ‘Jesus is the Messiah’ without simultaneously saying implicitly ‘and the Jews must be damned’?” If one adopts the position of the continuing election of the Jewish people and rejects the doctrine of substitution, is this not, in the end, a repudiation of Christianity? For how can the other tenets of Christianity be the Truth, but the rejection of Judaism as such be made false? Paul unequivocally differentiated the eschatological people of God from the historical people of God and argued that baptism made those who accepted Jesus as their saviour to be authentic if not historical Jews. But did he reject substitutionism in making this distinction? I suggest not. There is not much Christianity without much of Paul and parts of the Gospel of John even as one tries to distinguish the Paul who wrote I Thessalonians and the one who wrote the Letter to the Romans.

To argue, as pro-Semites now do, that God’s promise to the first chosen people is still valid even if there is also a second promise, is to ignore that the core of Judaism recognizes not only Jews as the only chosen people, but also that to be chosen means something radically different, not a guarantee of a place beside God in heaven, but as carrying a special burden on earth and a unique responsibility.

I am not claiming that the revisionist Christian theologians are people of bad faith. They clearly possess only goodwill towards Jews. And they do not claim, as many Jews believe, that the Jews need only be saved because Israel is needed before the Second Coming, that is, Jews are instrumentally important to the new Christian theology. Instead, there is a genuine new appreciation of the Jewish roots of Christianity. Further, the new theology claims that the relationship between God and the Jews not only persists until today, but is everlasting. Therefore, Christians are no longer viewed as being alone now in belonging to God. Judaism must be made part of Christology and Jews made partners with Christians.

But what if Jews accept the principle of civility in Jewish-Christian relations but reject the idea of partnership in God? For, as stated above, there is a fundamental split over the meaning of “chosen.” The use of Martin Luther’s concept of promise (see the next section) is not sufficient to develop reconciliation, even if it develops respect. In the new theology, Christians and Jews in the new doctrine are saved in hope, in the revelation that is yet to come. Redemption remains conditional. However, I argue that is not only a rejection of Martin Luther’s antisemitism but his Christian theology.

Gregory Baum, an old and dear friend with whom I had a falling out several decades ago, tried a similar tactic in reconciling Judaism and Christianity in his book, Introduction to Faith and Fratricide. But there was a correlate. For Gregory, who was born into a Jewish assimilated family in Germany and became a convert to Roman Catholicism at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, attached to his liberalism was an adoption of the Palestinians as the new victims now needing salvation from European displaced antisemitism and the ruthless Israelis.

The argument took place in my study in my home. Gregory and another friend and colleague, from the United Church rather than a Catholic, had prepared a statement on Israel which they asked me to read and critique. In the document, they insisted that Europe and Christians, because of antisemitism, had transferred the burden of the Jews to Palestine and, thereby, were responsible for creating the Israel-Palestine conflict in the first place. Jews as Zionists were, in the new doctrine of Christian-Jewish sharing, now responsible for a new sin.

I was angry. I insisted that the document had fundamental faults in that it:

  1. failed to attend to the Jewish age-old connection with Israel;
  2. failed to attend to the genuine positive role that Christian Zionists had played out of their love of Judaism rather than their antisemitism;
  3. failed to pay attention to the absolute rejection of Jewish redemption in Zion by the religious and most political leaders of Islam at the time;
  4. ignored the deep roots of antisemitism, though not nearly as virulent, in Islam;
  5. shifted responsibility for the Palestinian cause to a marriage of Zionism and displacement of European antisemitism in the new left anti-Zionist form of antisemitism;
  6. finally, the new apologetic refused to consider whether the creation of Israel was a genuine result of authentic Judaism rather than morphing into an irresponsible political position.  

I tell this tale as a warning. Out of revisionist Christology can emerge not only a respect for Jews and Judaism, but a new form of hatred and distortion. That is why it is important to get beneath the Christian outreach in love towards Jews and wrestle with the underlying theology.

To be continued

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part II: New Testament Accusations Against Jews

Before we get to Martin Luther’s antisemitic ravings, we need to look at the classical roots of antisemitism in both paganism and the roots of Christianity. In the novel And After the Fire on p. 55, there is a reference to the repudiation of Luther’s antisemitism by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1994. (I believe it was 1993.) Recently, Lutheran Churches all over the world have been busy renouncing Luther’s antisemitic ravings, but with very few efforts to link them to Luther’s general theological position. The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) defines “anti-Judaism” as referring to the specifically theological formulations that denigrate Jews and their faith, but also deny that Jews are God’s chosen people. “Jews…had murdered our Lord and Savior, and ever since, Jews had continued to bring down condemnation on themselves by refusing to accept Jesus as the Messiah.” (104AAF)

No one can dispute that criticism of Jews preceded Christian anti-Judaism. Witness the Book of Esther and Haman. The Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, in his book, Of the Antiquity of the Jews Against Apion, attacked the Egyptian priest Manetho portrayed by Tacitus (1:26) for writing fiction in denying the account of the Torah concerning the 400-year Israelite presence in Egypt. Josephus accused him of inventing a King of Egypt, Amenophis, to whom he attributed fabulous stories. (In historical fact, Amenophis II was likely the son of Thutmose III who was possibly the oppressor of the Israelites.) According to Manetho, Amenophis began as an enlightened and wise ruler but one forced by the Israelite behaviour into war and his own flight into Ethiopia, along with that of his army. In his version, the Israelites, in the end, were responsible for their own ethnic cleansing from Egypt.

Amenophis was the name of both the king and a seer. “Amenophis …seemed to partake of a divine nature, both as to wisdom, and the knowledge of futurities.” He told the king, “that he might see the gods, if he would clear the whole country of the lepers, and of the other impure people.” The king did; 80,000 were expelled and “sent to those quarries which are on the east side of the Nile, that they might work in them; and might be separated from the rest of the Egyptians,” including priests polluted with the leprosy. Amenophis then prophesied that, “certain people would come to the assistance of these polluted wretches [as it turned out, the Israelites] and would conquer Egypt; and keep it in their possession thirteen years.” He did not tell the king lest he be rebuked. Then he committed suicide.

The king, knowing nothing of the prophesy, in his generosity and empathy for the lepers working in the quarries, “set apart the city Avaris …for their habitation, and protection.” The ungrateful wretches, however, appointed their own ruler, Osarsiph, a priest suffering from leprosy, to whom they pledged absolute obedience, and planned a revolt. The new ruler provided a set of laws totally at odds with Egyptian law, commended that they not worship the Egyptian gods, that they kill and destroy all the sacred Egyptian animals. The king sent envoys to the shepherds who had been displaced from Avaris and raised an army of 200,000 joined with 300,000 of his own forces to repel the invasion. But the rebels were joined by a very large mercenary army from Jerusalem. The king, instead of joining battle, took flight to Ethiopia,

“The people of Jerusalem, when they came down together with the polluted Egyptians…treated the men in such a barbarous manner, that those who saw how they subdued the…country, and the horrid wickedness they were guilty of, thought it a most dreadful thing. For they did not only set the cities and villages on fire; but were not satisfied till they had been guilty of sacrilege; and destroyed the images of the gods, and used them in roasting those sacred animals, that used to be worshipped; and forced the priests and prophets to be the executioners and murderers of those animals; and then ejected them naked out of the country.” It turned out that the real name of Osarsiph, the Egyptian leprous priest, was Moses.

Look at the portrayal of the Israelites – mercenaries, barbarians, brutal, disrespectful of local laws and religious practices, including the treatment of sacred animals, ruthless in battle and the ones who laid waste villages, towns and cities. And their leader was an ex-Egyptian priest. However, this effort to demonize an enemy is not the same as antisemitism. One can paint a picture of the brutality and amoral character of an enemy, but the actions are not seen as rooted in their religion or natures. They behave simply as barbarians. They may also be treacherous and led by traitors. Demonization, in its ordinary rather than original meaning, is not equivalent to antisemitism.

Juvenal was a member of a rotting Roman aristocratic class whom he pilloried in his satires directed primarily at the corrupt Roman society full of whores, fortune tellers, legal scoundrels and impoverished teachers. Both Jews and Christians were also satirized. He usually inverted Jewish beliefs and practices to look at them from an opposite angle. His writings are neither anti-Jewish and certainly not antisemitic even as they paint a very negative portrait of religious Jews. 

Some whose lot it has been to have Sabbath-fearing fathers, worship nothing but clouds and the numen of the heavens [he presumed Jews were sky-worshippers], and see no difference between the flesh of swine and humans since their fathers abstained from pork. They got themselves circumcised, and are wont to condemn our Roman laws, preferring to learn and honour and fear the Jewish commandments, all that Moses handed down in that arcane tome of his – never to show the way to any but fellow-believers (if they ask where to get water, find out if they’re foreskinless). But their fathers were the culprits; they made every seventh day taboo for all life’s business, dedicated to idleness.” (Satire IV, 96-106)

King Antiochus (Maccabees I) depicted Jews as rooted in superstition. He was hell bent on introducing Hellenistic civilization to Judea and Samaria. He regarded Jews as the vilest of nations. Was he then antisemitic? Perhaps this went beyond demonizing one’s enemies, for the Jews were not enemies but a subject people who perhaps were viewed as a threat to his power.

Nevertheless, classical pagan anti-Judaism was rooted in politics more than religion, even as the religion was portrayed as totally irrational, but it did have a link with what became Christian anti-Judaism since these negative characteristics were rooted in the special character of the Jews. After all, Jews believed in only one God and that was surely an unforgiveable superstition. Jews kept shabbat. Jews rejected Greek and Roman customs. Jews circumcised their sons. They would not eat pigs and kept milk and meat separate. In other words, they were simply socially and culturally strange.

However, Christian hostility to Jews and Judaism was motivated primarily by religion, in the rivalry with Judaism, more in terms of belief than as a threatening nation. Except for the fear of infectious ideas and practices, the rivalry has continued for two millennia. Since the second century CE, Christians were compelled to demonstrate not only the superiority of Christianity to Judaism, but that the new religion had superseded Judaism. To that superiority was added the following in increasing degrees of antipathy: contempt for Judaism and Jews; the need to exclude Jews from contact with Christians; the need to expel Jews and take or destroy their property; the need to exclude Jews from the legitimate nations of the world; the need to exterminate Jews.

The roots of that hostility can be clearly traced to the New Testament. When Barnabas went to find Saul (Paul), in Antioch the followers of Jesus of Nazareth were, for the first time, called “Christians” (Acts 11:26). In Paul’s account, Christians had distinguished themselves from the rest of the Jewish community by the following theological beliefs and political experiences:

  1. Baptism by the Holy Spirit when you allow yourself to be possessed by the Holy Spirit; (Acts 1:4) “Friedemann [Bach] hated to think of Sara condemned to hell because she was a Jew. But who was he to question the ways of the Lord? The Bible was clear on this issue. Like all good Lutherans, Friedemann knew his Gospels. Whoever believes in Him, he will not be condemned; but whoever does not believe, he is already condemned, for he does not believe in the name of the only begotten Son of God, said the Gospel of John.” (85AAF)
  2. Faith versus the law was central. “The name of the piece [by Johann Sebastian Bach] was Wir das Joch nicht tragen könnenWe are unable to bear the yoke. ‘Of the law of Moses’ would be understood to finish the line.”(72AAF)
  3. For salvation, faith versus good works characterizes Lutheranism
  4. The mission was the whole world not just Judea and Samaria.
  5. The resurrection of Jesus; (op. cit.)
  6. Tanach prophesied the coming of Jesus as the Messiah; (Acts 1:15)
  7. Judas as a traitor (prophesied as such), but a true witness; the money received was given to another and caused the other’s land to be made desolate and his body to swell and burst; (op. cit.)
  8. Speaking in tongues on the Pentecost (Shavuot), 50 days after Passover, and the day the church was purportedly born; (2:2)
  9. Devout Christian Jews and proselytes, both amazed and sceptical, from all across the Mediterranean of different dialects and classes, spoke a common language of incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension and the effusion of the divine or Holy Spirit; (2:14)
  10. Apocalyptic visions are universal and not gender or ethnic specific; God poured forth His Spirit upon all flesh so that the children of believers shall all be able to prophecy through seeing visions and having and interpreting dreams so that everyone who accepts “the name of the Lord” shall be saved; (2:14)
  11. Jesus came by God’s predetermined plan and pre-knowledge, thereby favouring a doctrine of predestination; (op. cit.)
  12. Men of Israel are Christ killers who nailed up and murdered Jesus using non-Jews, “men without the Law;” – the Roman persecutors were merely the instruments of the real oppressors, the Jewish establishment; (op. cit.)
  13. Bauer: “These are Jews that Bach is talking about in the cantatas, They’re punished because they refuse to accept Jesus as God’s Messiah. This is the message that Bach is bringing us. Now, surely we agree that murder goes too far.” (235AAF)
  14. Peter declares Jesus as a descendent of David who prophesied the coming of Jesus as both Lord and Christ; (2:37)
  15. Repentance and baptism in the name of Jesus Christ “so that your sins will be forgiven” and so that, amongst “this perverted nation,” you are able to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit; (op. cit.)
  16. Mass conversion, cult communal behaviour – followers sold personal possessions and their wealth was divided according to need; failure to do so results in death; (2:41 – see also 4:32 & 5:12b)
  17. Healing so a cripple could walk again; (3:1)
  18. Sadducees (priestly class) are the enemy who repress and arrest; (4:1)
  19. Blaming Jews who did not believe for the crucifixion; (4:13)

“Jew’s…had murdered our Lord and Savior, and ever since, Jews had continued to bring down condemnation on themselves by refusing to accept Jesus as the Messiah.” (104AAF)

20. Accepting Christ as one’s saviour equals the exclusive route to God; “In no one else can salvation be found;” (op. cit.)

21. Effort at suppression, but in the name of freedom, resisted; (4:13)

22. Guilt of conspirators linked to Herod and Pontius Pilate; (4:23)

23. Revision of the Passover story – Moses was “an excellent speaker;” he killed an Egyptian upon return to Egypt; this suggests that these Christians were ignorant of the text and only knew loose versions of the tale; after all, truth belongs to Christ and not to history; (7:20)

 24. Israel rejects Moses – story of golden calf; (7:35) – selective reading

 25. Israelites were portrayed as obstinate, blind and disobedient and now “betrayers and murderers”; (7:51)

26. Martyrdom and stoning of Stephen; (8:1b)

 27. Baptism in the name of Jesus Christ; (8:14)

28.  Epiphany and conversion of Saul on the way to Damascus. (9:1&19b)

The church then splits between the circumcisers and those who no longer believe circumcision is necessary. (15:1; see also the Letter to Galatia 2:1) For Jewish Christian believers, Judaism is reduced to its essentials – only the laws of not worshipping idols, eating only kosher meat, and avoidance of sexual immorality. (15:22) The gospel denounces the misbehaviour of Jews who supposedly follow the law but break it in practice; they know not Christ and are hypocrites. (Letter to Rome 2:17) For being a true Jew is an inward not an outward matter; (3:1) God’s plan is now righteousness by faith and not through the Law (3:21) and acceptance of Jesus as your Lord and Saviour. 15:1) Christians were clearly and unequivocally out to redefine Judaism.

It is in this context that I now want first to explore the efforts of contemporary Lutherans to repudiate Luther’s antisemitism and then, in a subsequent section, explore the theological connection between Luther’s antisemitism and his theology to indicate that the severance is not quite so easy.

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zsman

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