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Meet the Readers: Richard Radcliffe on Luther and the Jews (Part Two)

June 7th, 2007 | 5 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson


A. Luther’s Attacks Were Personalized and Separate from Acts.

As previewed [below], the historical evidence shows that Luther’s anti-Semitism cannot be excused for several reasons. First, Luther’s attacks were personalized and directed to the Jews’ nature, and not simply condemnations of disagreeable acts or nonbelief.

Perhaps Luther’s most notorious tome, On the Jews And Their Lies (1543), personally attacks Jews. In the introduction to this work Luther wrote:

“I had made up my mind to write no more either about the Jews or against them. But since I learned that these miserable and accursed people do not cease to lure to themselves even us, that is, the Christians, I have published this little book, so that I might be found among those who opposed such poisonous activities of the Jews who warned the Christians to be on their guard against them. I would not have believed that a Christian could be duped by the Jews into taking their exile and wretchedness upon himself. However, the devil is the god of the world, and wherever God’s word is absent he has an easy task, not only with the weak but also with the strong. May God help us. Amen.” (Luther, Jews, 137.)

In this excerpt, the reader can observe that Luther’s attack is not addressed solely to “poisonous activities”, but to Jews’ very nature. He calls them “miserable and accursed people.” In this vein, he also characterizes them, as a group, as “wretched[ ].” (Ibid.)

Elsewhere in On the Jews and Their Lies, Luther argued: “He did not call them Abraham’s children, but a “brood of vipers” [Matt. 3:7]. Oh, that was too insulting for the noble blood and race of Israel, and they declared, “He has a demon’ [Matt 11:18]. Our Lord also calls them a “brood of vipers”; furthermore in John 8 [:39, 44] he states: “If you were Abraham’s children ye would do what Abraham did…. You are of your father the devil. It was intolerable to them to hear that they were not Abraham’s but the devil’s children, nor can they bear to hear this today.” (Luther, Jews, 141.)

Luther continued: “Accordingly, it must and dare not be considered a trifling matter but a most serious one to seek counsel against this and to save our souls from the Jews, that is, from the devil and from eternal death.” (Luther, Jews, 137ff.)

Continuing with this theme of equating Jews with demons, Luther wrote: “Therefore be on your guard against the Jews, knowing that wherever they have their synagogues, nothing is found but a den of devils in which sheer self-glory, conceit, lies, blasphemy, and defaming of God and men are practiced most maliciously and veheming his eyes on them.” (Ibid.)

Luther further stated: “Moreover, they are nothing but thieves and robbers who daily eat no morsel and wear no thread of clothing which they have not stolen and pilfered from us by means of their accursed usury. Thus they live from day to day, together with wife and child, by theft and robbery, as arch-thieves and robbers, in the most impenitent security.” (Ibid.)

In addition to calling them, as a group, criminals, Luther often characterized them as blind. “Learn from this, dear Christian, what you are doing if you permit the blind Jews to mislead you. Then the saying will truly apply, “When a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into the pit” [cf. Luke 6:39]. You cannot learn anything from them except how to misunderstand the divine commandments…” (Ibid. at 172.)

Additionally, Luther indicted them thusly: “Therefore the blind Jews are truly stupid fools…” And, he said: “Now just behold these miserable, blind, and senseless people.” (Ibid. at 141.)

Luther extended his attack with numerous allegations of the Jews intentional deceit. “They have not acquired a perfect mastery of the art of lying; they lie so clumsily and ineptly that anyone who is just a little observant can easily detect it. But for us Christians they stand as a terrifying example of God’s wrath.” (Luther, Jews, 137ff.) In this vein, Luther contended: “Christ and his word can hardly be recognized because of the great vermin of human ordinances. However, let this suffice for the time being on their lies against doctrine or faith.” (Ibid.)

Luther does not particularize his attack merely the Jews of his day. “If I had to refute all the other articles of the Jewish faith, I should be obliged to write against them as much and for as long a time as they have used for inventing their lies– that is, longer than two thousand years.” (Ibid.)

Again, the foregoing statements of Luther do not limit themselves to a generalized indictment of nonbelief, but rather to an alleged endemic flaw.

It should also be observed that, as discussed above, Luther did not reserve his attack on nonbelievers generally, but this particular group of nonbelievers, which further supports a conclusion of anti-Semitism.

In light of this voluminous original source material, there is little room for doubt that Luther personalized his attack. Secondary sources further confirm this conclusion: For example, “In the later anti-Jewish treatises Luther attempted to dissuade fellow Protestants from employing rabbinic exegesis. He attacked the exegesis itself, using historical, scriptural, and theological arguments. But he also employed his rhetorical skills to attack its source: the Jews themselves.” (Edwards, 142.)
Bringing full body to Luther’s attacks on the Jews, he called for severe recriminations or punishments to be visited upon them.

“From [his] list of indictments Luther swung immediately into a series of harsh recommendations to secular authorities on how to deal with the Jews. Their synagogues and schools should be burned ad whatever would not burn should be buried. Their homes should be destroyed. All of their prayer books and Talmudic writing should be taken from them. Their rabbis should be forbidden to teach. Their safe-conducts on the highways should be revoked. Their usury should be forbidden and their money taken from them. [footnote omitted]. They should be put to work in the fields so that they earned their living by the sweat of their brows. Better yet, they should be expelled after a portion of their wealth had been confiscated. Luther angrily rejected the argument that the Jews were an indispensable financial resource to governments.” (Edwards, 131.)

In his prefatory remarks about these staggering suggestions, Luther wrote:

“There is no other explanation for this than the one cited earlier from Moses — namely, that God has struck [the Jews] with ‘madness and blindness and confusion of mind.’ So we are even at fault in not avenging all this innocent blood of our Lord and of the Christians which they shed for three hundred years after the destruction of Jerusalem, and the blood of the children they have shed since then (which still shines forth from their eyes and their skin). We are at fault in not slaying them. Rather we allow them to live freely in our midst despite all their murdering, cursing, blaspheming, lying, and defaming; we protect and shield their synagogues, houses, life, and property. In this way we make them lazy and secure and encourage them to fleece us boldly of our money and goods, as well as to mock and deride us, with a view to finally overcoming us, killing us all for such a great sin, and robbing us of all our property (as they daily pray and hope). Now tell me whether they do not have every reason to be the enemies of us accursed Goyim, to curse us and to strive for our final, complete, and eternal ruin. (Luther, Jews, 267.)

This kind of stunning rhetoric—a call to violence–takes the attack out of the realm of a philosophical or ethereal debate and suggests something far more sinister.

Ritual Disclaimer: the opinions and perspectives presented in this essay are the full responsibility of the author, and in no way represent the opinions or ideas of Mere Orthodoxy or its writers, where “writers” is defined by those who are currently listed on the “Contributors” page.

Read the explanation of “Meet the Readers.”