Luther and his Jewish conversation partners: insights for thinking about conversion, baptism, and saving faith.
Looking for new evidence and tracks
Luthers central theology is worth revisiting with some new evidence from recent scholarship, and for a couple of obvious reasons. 1) In Lutheran sacramental practice and theology, Luther's views continue to shape the life of the church and people's imagination on the channels of God's grace. Contemporary views on the sacrament's effectiveness and necessity, however, can be considerably different from those of the sixteenth century Christians. Is there anything in Luther's own writing that would be helpful for a charitable while distinctively Lutheran teaching of grace today? 2) With the ongoing inter-faith discussions where common ground is explored, Lutherans have a particular call to re-consider the dynamics of Lutheran theology of salvation in respect to Jewish people and faith.
This is especially urgent for Lutherans in the post-Holocaust world where Luther's anti-Jewish teachings and their use in the Nazi terror need to be remembered and examined in raw daylight. It is absolutely clear that Luther's anti-Jewish building blocks of his theology cannot be excused or be kept separate from his much celebrated doctrine of justification or sacramental theology. Is there anything in Luther's own writings that would be helpful in this regard, in either gaining insight into his reasoning or in gleaning pertinent perspectives helpful in our situation? And, is there anything "new" yet to be discovered from Luther?
In the following, after just a few words on the complexity of Luther's relating to the Jews (and complex it is), I will look for insights from two pieces of Luther's lesser known correspondence, as a very limited case study: a letter to a Jewish convert, and Luther's advice on the matter of baptizing a young Jewish girl. (1) Both letters are written for private individuals and both relate to the matter of conversion, baptism and salvation of a Jewish person (one directly, one implicitly). (2) There is about a decade between the writing of the letters and they thus reflect how the historical context and events of the day shaped Luther's argumentation. The letters add to the evidence on what is constant and what is changing in Luther's relating to the Jews. Both letters offer helpful detail for re-examination of Luther's sacramental theology with larger questions in mind.
Not at all attempting a comprehensive treatment on the subjects entailed, I am mostly looking for evidence that pertains to Luther's relating to the Jews and in that context highlight facets relevant for re-assessing his sacramental theology. As a compass for a continued reflection going beyond this article, I would highlight the following kind of questions: What does Luther teach of what baptism does to one's identity in relation to God and in relation to others? What makes baptism "effective"? Can baptism be forced on someone and still be valid? What does baptism effect? What is the role of faith with baptism? How can the sacrament of baptism be practiced with a characteristically Lutheran unflappable certainty of the holy benefits it conveys by God's act only, without considering it the one-way (and the only) traffic sign to salvation (against centuries of Christian preaching on the matter) ? Does it make any difference if the baptized or the potentially to-be-baptized person is a Jew? (3)
Luther's Jewish relations--missed opportunities
Much has been written about Luther's attitudes toward Jewish faith and much speculation has centered on his role in the suffering of the Jewish people in Christians' hands since his times. (4) The notorious explicitly anti-Jewish writings from the end of his life have generated substantial scholarship from generations of scholars. (5) Less convincing exploration has been done on the whole of his writing corpus with this question in mind. Particularly fruitful in this regard would be his exegetical works, an area of increased interest in current Luther scholarship (and duly so, given Luther's "job" and applied methods as a biblical theologian). (6) Also his correspondence offers a layered source, sporadically studied in this regard. Naturally Luther's personal associations with actual Jewish people would be pertinent to explore from all possible angles. The problem is that he did not have that many such relations to speak of. (7)
Luther was not alone in this regard. In Luther's world where the expulsion of Jews was a reality of the past and present, (8) different rules--imperial, local and ecclesial--effectively kept Jewish and Christian communities apart. Most contacts would come from business interactions (when Jewish businesses were allowed, that is, a situation that could change overnight). Of course friendships and forbidden love affairs could develop any time. But as a norm, Jews and Christians lived parallel lives. Different systems of ghettoizing and requirements for identification forms for Jewish people (whether it be a specific hat, a cloak, a badge, bells, etc.), and the different laws pertaining to Jews only, reminded of the division on a daily basis. (9) In addition to plain ignorance and superstition regarding the Hebrew neighbors, Christian writers and artists portrayed a caricature of a Jew that dominated Christian folks' negative imagination of the Jewish people, their tradition and their faith. (10) As Chava Fraenkel-Goldschmidt writes " [t] he entire society believed in the wickedness of the Jews and that they were the children or tools of Satan, just as they believed in the evil and Satanity of witches." (11) It is safe to say that the culture at the time did not condone mutual trust and respect, or friendships between Jews and Christians, quite the contrary. Luther did not "reform" this aspect of Christian life.
Like his contemporaries, Luther had very few encounters with Jews. This was mostly by his choice and because Wittenberg was void of Jewish population in his life-time. Even if Wittenberg had a Judenstrasse originating from the Middle Ages, there was no Jewish community to speak of during Luther's time. Like many places in Europe, Jews had been expelled from Saxony in the previous century, and since the electoral ruling from 1432, Jews were not allowed to reside in the area. (12) In 1536 the ruling was tightened to forbid Jews even from passing through or conducting business in Saxony; this was a devastating decision for the Jewish people and their livelihoods, and most probably made with Luthers impact, given his clout in the elector's counsel. Chances for Luther meeting with a Jew would then need to happen during his travels (which were limited due to his outlaw status), or if Jewish people sought him out, or through correspondence. (13)
Against this reality, it is quite curious that Luther's writings at times suggest that he was constantly surrounded by Jews and knew all about them. (14) (An idiosyncratic evidence of this is Luther's letters to his wife in the last days of his life. (15)) While it was not uncommon for Luther to pontificate as a "know-it-all" on different issues he lacked first-hand experience (such as child birth), in regard to Jewish faith and people, his "little knowledge" proved dangerous. It did not help that his sources were compromised, slandering texts from Jewish converts with a Christian bias, and his own Hebrew skills kept him dependent on others. (16) A factor worth considering is also his fears of a Jewish invasion, which got the worst of him. While it is messy to try to figure out the bearing of Luther's words about the Jews of whom he did not know that much to begin with, we can try a compassionate and critical approach. We can try to figure out the demons of the person Martin Luther and recognize his personal failures and hopes, and we can try to make sense of what his theology is made of with as objective a lens as possible--and see how the pieces of the puzzle match. For starters in this study that promises no easy and pleasing answers, Luther can be held accountable for his words in two ways: First, we can continue to do our very best in deciphering the actual meaning of his words and follow his logic, whether pleasant or unpleasant; that would be fair also toward Luther himself. Second, we can distinguish the different meanings he has for the word "Jew" in his writings and avoid hasty conclusions.
Most of the time Luther appears to be writing about the imaginary Jew he was pathologically afraid of--the one who would not convert but rather threatened to proselytize Christians. He also uses the word "Jew" in a theological sense--as a prototype of a law-burdened believer under the illusion of works righteousness. He writes about the Jewish teachers and rabbis (real or imaginary) whom he unrelentingly refutes for their supposed ignorance. (17) In most positive terms he writes about the biblical Jews who in Luthers mind were the true Christians, his foremothers and fathers in faith. (18) Last but not least, he writes about Jewish converts, with some confliction: those converts whom he distrusted, and those whom he cherished. In all of the cases where Luther talks about Jews and Jewish faith, it is safe to say that it is a rare occasion when he is talking about a contemporary Jew, convert or not, whom he had personally also met. Thus any such evidence is of most importance.
Significant encounters with Jewish individuals
As background for looking at the two letters concerning Jewish conversion, a few words are in order on two particular incidences involving real-life Jewish people, events that would come to shape Luther's imagination, and his reputation: First, the visit with three Jewish men: According to his own recollection in a 1526 sermon, Luther had met with three learned Jewish men--Samaria, Solomon and Leo--to discuss biblical interpretation. To his frustration, Luther had not been able to convince or convert the Jewish men with his christological points on proper Hebrew Bible interpretation. Unlike Luther's many references to the event might suggest, they met only once, sometime before November 1526. (19) Luther was not interested in similar meetings again, deeming them futile. (Could it be that he had clearly met his match and reckoned himself not equipped to debate with people who knew their Talmud? If so, this he could never admit, but we certainly can speculate.) (20) Second, the meeting request from a Jewish peacemaker: Luther had an opportunity to meet with a famous Jewish leader, Josel of Rosheim (1478?-1554). Herefused the request, with a letter. This refusal to meet with Josel was a colossal mistake, with devastating consequences. (21)
Josel, the spokesman for the German Jewish communities, had approached Luther with hopes for Luther's help in securing an audience with the Elector on the matter of restoring traveling rights for Jewish people in electoral Saxony. He was a known peacemaker throughout the imperial German lands and a man of great integrity. He hoped the famous reformer could even indirectly help in the plea for the Jewish peoples rights. Luther wrote to Josel, twisting his name, on June 11, 1537: "My dear Jesel! I would gladly have appealed to my most gracious lord on your behalf, both orally and in writing, for my [previous] publication has served all of Jewry so well; but because your people so shamefully misuse my service and undertake such things, which we Christians cannot accept from them, they themselves have thereby taken from me any influence that I otherwise might have had with dukes and lords.... I f God gives me the space and time, I will write a booklet about this, that I might win several from your paternal stock of the holy patriarchs and prophets, and bring [them] to your promised Messiah Therefore you shouldn't consider us Christians to be fools or [dumb] geese.... For I have also read your Rabbis ... Now, let me be a prophet, ... What you hope for will not happen because the point in time determined by Daniel has long passed ... Take this from me as friendly advice, as an admonition to you. Because I would happily do the best for you Jews for the sake of the crucified Jew--whom no one will take from me--unless you use my favor [as an excuse] for your obstinacy. You know exactly what I mean. Therefore, perhaps you ought to have your letters to the Elector delivered through other orders. God bless." (22)
What is Luther talking about, Jews twisting his words? And why on earth did Josel approach Luther in the first place? This has to do with a particular, much loved treatise from Luther from earlier days: Luther's 1523 publication That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew. This text more than anything was the stimulus for Josel, who seems to have sincerely thought he would find a friend or at least an empathetic ear with Luther. The 1523 text was a very popular text from Luther, widely read. It had raised hopes in the Jewish readers used to slandering and belittling Christian writing about them, and it is easy to see why: this rare Christian text speaks of the Jewish people's lot with empathy and explicitly counsels against violence toward the Jews. It also speaks fondly of Jesus' Jewishness, a bond between Christians and Jews. Even more so, it highlights the importance of the Jewish maiden Mary in Jesus' story. (23) From the surface, the text suggests that Luther is a rare voice of reason and compassion in the highly anti-Jewish climate of his times. The text also suggests Luther's excitement about the Jewish tradition and learnedness in it--and it is true that Luther was among the frontrunners of Christians promoting deeper learning of Jewish texts and Hebrew language. (24) The text could be interpreted as a theological defense of Jewishness, while it was not intended as such.
The occasion for the writing of the text had not been the defense of Jews or Jewish faith but of Luther himself: it had been Luther's desire to defend himself against accusations that he had denied Mary's virginity and thus Jesus' divinity, which would have only added to his reputation as a heretic. After correcting the misunderstanding in no uncertain terms, he proceeds to give a plan for how to relate to the Jews properly and go about converting them. At this point Luther is very optimistic: Kind treatment and teaching the scriptural interpretation were key strategies in successful mission among Jews. In Luther's empathetic view, no force should be used, no violence of any kind. In this treatise Luther considers Jews as victims shamefully deprived of proper Christian education and clearly feels bad for the mistreated folks. He is not, however, a "Jew friend" in a sense of respecting Jewish faith and theology or going on record for defending the Jews as believers. That misunderstanding he would later make blatantly clear, unfortunately. (25)
Luther's contemporaries at the time did not necessarily know to expect all this. In light of the recurring expulsions and rampant persecutions of Jews in the hands of zealous Christians, Luther's words condoning merciful treatment of the Jews aroused different hopes. There is perhaps a parallel here to Luthers preaching of Christian freedom and love and stirring the hearts of peasants who then marched to their death influenced by Luthers radical vision of Christian justice. Very much like in the case of the misguided peasants, also with the Jews who considered him an ally, Luther would take huge steps in a different direction and deny any association. He claimed his words had been misinterpreted and text after text he would make his case that no one should call Luther a Jew friend, or so he bellowed. His own words in this regard prove that his attitudes toward the Jewish faith per se did not change; what changed was the strategies he condoned. (26) What unfolded after the exchange with Josel would make this clear. Imagining what positive could have come from a meeting of Luther hearing out Josel's arguments for compassion over violence, it is a cause of lament that they never sat face to face. (27) In such personal encounters human hearts can change.
Obviously the absence of real interactions with Jewish people is a significant factor to consider when assessing Luther's statements and feelings about the actual Jewish people of his time. The Jews he met or read were converts and he favored those who gave Christians ammunition in their criticism of Jewish traditions. Jewish converts not only provided Christians with information about the ins of Jewish faith; they could also be hired as teachers of the Hebrew language at universities. One of these Hebrew teachers became Luther's friend.
Luther's letter to a Jewish convert, Bernard
We have a rare letter from Luther to a formerly baptized Jew, a letter that sheds light into Luther's thinking about conversion and baptism. The letter comes from 1523 and it is addressed to a Jewish convert with the name Bernard. He was formerly known as Rabbi Jacob Gipher of Goppingen. It is notable that this was the same year of Luther writing his famous treatise That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew. In his own telling, Luther sent a copy of that along for Bernard to read. "Hence it seemed good to send you this little book to reinforce and ensure your faith in Christ," (28) As mentioned above, this treatise was written with hopes to catechize and educate the Jews of the essentials of Christian faith.
Bernard had been baptized sometime before the summer of 1519, as an early follower of Luther. The fact that Luther had been present at the recent baptism of Bernard's son (1523) speaks of the closeness of their relationship. The men knew each other from Fredrick the Wise's University of Wittenberg, where Bernard was hired as a Hebrew instructor. Often challenged to pay his bills, he accumulated some debilitating debts that led him to leave Wittenberg in 1531. His wife--a maid of Andreas Karlstadt--and children remained in Wittenberg under Luthers and Melanchthon's care. (29) Luther seems to have felt personally responsible for Bernard, while taking pride in his new life as a Christian. Bernard may have been Luther's poster child for a successful conversion of a Jew after proper Christian proclamation.
As he writes in That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew (which was written for individuals like Bernard) Luther in 1523 still very much expects Jewish conversions to happen. In his letter to Bernard he reiterates the same critique of Roman Catholic failure in successfully catechizing Jews and leading them to conversion and baptism and thus salvation. In both texts Luther expresses significant optimism that the reformed gospel-centered preaching and teaching will lead to a significant increase in genuine Jewish conversions, because now Jews would have the opportunity to learn about Christianity for real and see it as it was really supposed to be. "But when the golden light of the Gospel rises and glisters, then, there is hope, that many of the Jews will be converted seriously and honestly, and be seized in their soul to Christ, like you have been seized (by Christ); and (this will happen also to) some others, who are the survivors of the Abraham's seed and to be saved by faith. Namely, (God) who has begun the work, will perfect it (Phil 1:6), and will not allow (God's) word to return (to God) empty handed. (Isa 55:11)." (30)
Bernard's path would not be for everyone, though: not every Jew who heard the gospel would experience a conversion of heart, induced by God's own Spirit always. Bernard was an example of a Jew who was chosen to hear, and who had heard. He had been educated about Christ via gospel--and proper Christian education. He was a true Christian who had been born again of God and baptized by God's Spirit ("in spiritu baptizatus et ex Deo natus est."). With his example and works, Bernard was making Christ known among other Jews so that those so preordained, would hear the call and return to their King." (31)
One had to be careful to distinguish between the Jews who truly and genuinely had converted and were thus to be baptized by their own asking, and those Jews who converted only for the appearances' sake. The latter was not unheard of: through Christian centuries, many a Jew had been presented with an option to receive baptism as a sign of Christian identity, or if not, then face imprisonment, exile or death. Repeated papal decrees forbidding forced baptisms and imperial ruling against persecution of Jewish people tell their own tale of how common such practices were. (32) Because of rampant Christian violence, for many Jews the feasible option may indeed have been to receive baptism, while continue in the practice of their Jewish faith in secret, or with hopes to return to Jewish tradition at a later time or in a new location (as was the case with many of the forcibly converted Jews in Spain who migrated to, e.g., Italy). The individuals and families who returned to the Jewish faith afterward were very brave. (33)
A fake conversion and a return to Jewish faith indicated a massive failure, an abomination in Luther's mind. It smelled like squandering the sacraments, or shaming Christ, none of which was allowed. "The conversion of the Jews is in bad odor almost everywhere, not only among Christians but also among the Jews. The latter say that no one goes over from Judaism to Christianity in good faith, but that anyone who attempts it is guilty of some crime and cannot stay among the Jews. The Christians say that experience shows that they either return to their vomit [2 Pet 2:22], or only pretend to have deserted Judaism." (34) Thus, for everyone's protection, and for the protection of the gospel of Christ most of all, it was of utmost importance, that Jewish people were never forced to receive baptism and that their faith and genuine intent be examined first.
Regardless of his harsh words and disposition of mistrust toward Jews, Luther is one of the few sixteenth century Christians who would accept true Jewish converts as fully Christian, with no ifs and buts. Like in Bernard's case, to Luther he was a true Christian with whom he was happy to be in a personal relationship. Bernard was a changed person, through baptism. Even in such a case, however, Luther took a risk of a sort in terms of his reputation. Associating with an even converted Jew was not something that came with ease to Christians chronically skeptical of the Jewish communities amidst them. Could a Jew be trusted, was a common fear. What if one was to become a Judaizer, a friend of the Jews? Such an association would bring danger into the life of the Christian so involved. Ironically, Luther flirted with or "suffered" from such a reputation more than once in his life.
It needs to be said that while imperial and local laws enforced divides between Jewish and Christian communities, real life was always more complicated. As mentioned above, the records show that in reality interaction did happen between Jews and Christians, for business most of all, and for personal friendship or love relations. What was nearly unheard of, however, was a Christian taking a public stand on behalf of a Jewish person, especially if a Jew was accused of any wrong doing (rightly or wrongly so), or if faith matters were at stake. (35) Laws, customs, superstitions and irrational fears went hand in hand with supersessionist Christian theology that considered the ancient Jewish faith as futile, suspect, nuisance and far inferior to the Christian faith. This is in tune with Christians' ongoing desire to missionize and convert the whole world, in following Jesus' command "Go and baptize!"
All this said, in 1523 Luther is still full of optimism that Jewish conversions would be coming. In this context he can afford to be a friend to a Jew converted or about to be converted. There would be more people like Bernard, Luther hopes, once the Jews would be properly illuminated on the truth of the gospel that, he was convinced, gave proper light for interpreting the Hebrew Bible as well. In 1523, Luther is actively writing about the Jews and their upcoming conversion, and also publically in favor of a merciful treatment in ways that indeed earned him the label of a Jew friend. As mentioned earlier, all this infuriated him, and he would do his best to shake off that reputation.
If Luther's 1523 work That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew earned him the label of a Jew friend and has been characterized as evidence of Luther's more positive attitude toward the Jews in the beginning of his career, his later works prove just the opposite. Without getting into this issue in detail here, let it just be said that looking at the evidence throughout his career, there hardly was a change of opinion on the central matter of Jewish faith and the fate of the Jews: over the years Luther consistently expected the Jews' conversion as the "must" for their salvation--as Christians, not as Jews. Without a conversion, a Jew would not be saved or be of no value to him personally but rather an enemy of the gospel to be shunned--or educated. Only a properly catechized, converted, baptized Jew would be a friend of the gospel and thus a friend of Luther. What did change after 1523, however, was Luther's hope for Jewish conversions: by 1543, the time of his most vicious anti-Jewish writings, he had lost any hope of Jewish conversions. In that sad conviction he came in the end of his years to imagine ways to eradicate the Jewish faith for good with an outrageous program: burn the books and synagogues, imprison the teachers and rabbis, that is, effectively stop the teaching of the faith. Luther knew, in teaching and education, there lies the power!
Centuries later, the Nazis would take on these kinds of actions, and then some. The Nazi solution of killing Jewish people has been contributed to Luthers programmatic vision, at least in part. That connecting is not quite appropriate or fair, however, as Luther actually did not condone the killing of Jews; he saw the extinguishing of the sources that supported Jewish faith as the way to deal with the "Jewish issue" in a world where conversions seemed to not be happening and, he assumed, the end was near. In both cases, in promoting conversions of the Jews and in suppressing Jewish sources for faith life, the education piece and working with the faith-aspect of things was of utmost importance to the reformer. (This is in sync with his fundamental catechetical vision that made his reformation take root in the first place.)
Obviously Luther was disappointed that masses of Jews did not run to Christian baptism. One wonders, in light of his criticism of the Catholic Church in failing to teach the gospel properly and thus prompt conversions, how he in the end of his life dealt with his personal disappointment in the matter, fie had failed, hard as he had tried. When taking a stalk at things, he does express frustration of his own part, but most eagerly points to the stubbornness of the Jews themselves in not listening (most explicitly so in the 1543 treatises but also earlier). The Jews who did listen, convert and receive baptism, were special. With their help, the gospel had a chance. In preparing such converts for their role of Christian witness, the sacrament of baptism was of secondary importance: what matters most is their faith and its right foundation. This comes clear from another letter addressing a situation with a Jewish convert, this time a female.
Luther's advice on baptizing a Jewess
From a later date, 1530, comes another letter involving a real-life Jewish person: the letter addressed to a Lutheran pastor Heinrich Gnesius (36) involves a situation of a possible baptism. Luther offers pastoral advice on how to proceed with the request from a young Jewish girl who wishes to be baptized.
This is a relatively rare occasion, for a Jewish person seeking to become Christian voluntarily, and even rarer for a young female to do so apart from her family or husband. The girl's background and exposure to Christian, Lutheran faith remains veiled to us as we are in the dark about the girl's identity, even name and exact age. One can appreciate the hardship this conversion decision must have caused for the girl herself: first of all, in respect to her Jewish family that was not converting with her, and second, just in facing the skeptical Christians who had a hard time accepting a Jew, converted or not.
By 1530, the time of writing the letter, the evangelicals had established routines for performing baptisms and faith examinations. Why then this need to contact the main man on this seemingly routine matter? Because she was Jewish; she was a special case. So much was at stake with the Jewish conversions in general and every (rare) Jewish person's baptism needed extra care. The questions raised were logical, given the context: On what premise should they baptize the girl? How would they know she was genuine in her desire? All things considered, should baptism be offered in the first place and on what basis would it work? What kind of compromises should be had with the actual ritual, out of consideration to the girl's Jewishness and family?
Luther answers: Baptism alone is of no good. Its benefits come to one with faith. Thus, the convert's faith is to be examined. The girl's faith and its authenticity has to be examined not as a pre-requisite for grace but for two reasons: out of respect for the sacrament, and for underscoring what saves--faith, not a ritual. The pastor needs to make sure the girl is not pretending for whatever reason and that her intentions are pure. Otherwise there should be no baptism. This examination of faith and personal intent is more important than the "how" questions regarding the ritual and its form. (37)
Luther's sternness in this is explained from the context he is writing in: he is highly irritated by rumors of Jews who had been baptized without a true intent to live a Christian life and who had, in his opinion, tarnished the holy baptism with their ridicule of it by returning to their Jewish faith. Whether the rumors were true or not, Luther is petrified by even a possibility of anything that would appear as blaspheming Christ. (38) Luther's christological conviction overrides any empathy he might have for the risky positions and hardship individuals would face in a situation where there was no way out.
And here really is Luther's bottom line concern with the conversions and his attitudes toward Jewish faith: refusal to believe the Christian gospel of Christ is not a matter of human disobedience but a theological crime with implications in divine realm. Not believing in God is the primary sin humankind has been punished for. Not believing in Christ would mean losing any chance of remedying the existential damage. This in mind, Luther could not have a charitable attitude toward Jewish faith and could not see any hope for Jews who remained Jews. Unlike with the gravity of this faith issue, he is much more relaxed with practical issues pertaining to baptism and he even shows some respectful understanding of a Jewish person's discomfort with some elements of the, to them, unfamiliar Christian practice.
In the case of the Jewish maiden, when discussing the actual ritual and its parameters, Luther is flexible and shows empathy toward the Jewish parents about to witness their child's baptism, a strange ritual to them. He counsels the pastor to accommodate the Jewish family as to not unnecessarily offend them. He seems compassionate toward the feelings of the girl herself for whom the traditional baptism in the nude might be challenging, especially given her Jewish upbringing. To alleviate any anxieties, Luther advises, the pastor could use linens or drapes to cover the girl's nudity and take care as to avoid the parents witnessing the parts of the ritual that they might find most embarrassing or even offensive. This small detail illuminates Luther's capacity for understanding the "other" as a human being and his relating to real-life Jewish people on a personal level with some integrity and care. His tone is qualitatively different from situations where he is refuting the Jewish faith, the anonymous and faceless enemy of his and ... of Christ.
The brief letter about the Jewish girl's baptism speaks of Luther's principal theological insight of the saving power of faith in Christ alone. Also, it speaks of the care he considers necessary for preserving the integrity of the sacrament of baptism. The meaning of baptism should guide the decisions about the procedure. Respect of the sacrament is essential as it is God's work and not to be taken lightly. It has the power to transform lives, and would do so only with faith. This Jewish girl in question, once baptized, would experience transformation and assume a new, Christian identity, and should be respected as such. In all of this, Luther reminds, it is the faith that makes one a Christian. Thus the faith needs to be carefully examined, first and foremost. In the Jewish girl's case, Luther fully anticipates a happy result and sends the girl his warmest greetings, wishing her grace and perseverance. He pledges in Christ's name for the girl his very personal, loving service.
In light of all the things Luther says about Jews, this quick glimpse into Luther's dealings with a Jewish female, reminds us of Luthers compassionate pastoral mindset, on one hand, and of his stern theological backbone, on the other. Furthermore, it speaks of the complexity of his relating to the Jews, providing food for thought: How else might Luther have seen things had he had more such personal associations with real people? After all, Luther was a man of affection, a part of him that shines in his family relations and in his pastoral encounters. That Luther was as real as the foul mouth "nasty Luther" capable of words of rage and slander; both sides of Luther live on the pages he wrote. It is fair to say that Luther was a tormented soul, in many regards, and particularly in his relating to the Jews. It is also fair to conclude that whereas his human heart and compassion might have condoned merciful and sensible course of action, his theological logic proved uncompromising on the essentials. Such as: by faith in Christ alone is one saved. Luther did not see a way around that. He could not afford to be "compassionate" about that saving principle, but was mercilessly critical of those doubting this, to him, divine, life-altering truth of Christ.
Concluding with questions
As a principal reformer, Luther was often asked for direction in practical matters and when new theology was put in practice. Whereas he was a hard-liner with his central theological convictions, he had much more flexibility with questions relating to traditions and practices. Both with the Lord's Supper and Baptism, Lutheran specific traditions developed gradually, with much leeway with local variety. Luther hardly sees either ritual set in stone; he would rather not make a ceremony and its parameters into a law. That, to him, would strike close to Jewish religiosity and creating religious laws in ways that Luther has no patience for. (Luthers 1522 Invocavit sermons are a most illustrating example of Luther's advice in this regard.)
In respect to baptism, "what/why" is crucial and non-negotiable, whereas "how" is a question to be handled with common sense and illumination from the tradition and scripture. The "why" should be the "salvation concern" with the premise that the person needs the saving work of Christ. What makes baptism effective is Christ's work and person; this happens through the word and through the workings of the Holy Spirit. The only part the baptized person has is that of receiving. For that one needs proper faith, the saving faith that receives God. Baptism as a ritual conveys this gift in an experiential way and even stirs faith but ultimately grace runs through it, not originating from or depending on it. (Luther's Large Catechism from 1529 and his Schmalcald Articles from 1537 stand as the standard sources on Luther's views in these matters.)
That is why in the case of the Jewish maiden, it was crucial that her faith was examined--not that the faith would be a pre-requirement as if a merit or a sign of worth for baptism. Rather, faith is necessary for receiving what baptism gives by God's grace alone. At the same time, Luther does say, baptism is given for the sake of faith--to stir and nurture it, the faith that continues to make the effects of baptism real to the baptized throughout her/his life. This effectiveness rests in the one who is the object and the subject of the saving faith, and the reason for the baptism--Christ.
With his strong theology of baptism, Luther is careful about to whom baptism is to be offered. Never by force, never blindly, but in the context of proper Christian education. Examination of faith is an important step in this, and a sign of respect of the sacrament. (Luther himself was on several occasions asked to examine people's faith.) Addressing the importance of faith Luther takes a slightly different stance from the Catholic teaching of the effectiveness of the sacraments: they do not work ex opere operato without faith, while their effectiveness is not caused by faith either but by God's word. Faith is the channel that plugs one to the source, so to speak; without that, the source is dead for the person.
In conclusion, in his explanation of the meaning of conversion and baptism of Jewish people, Luther seems to suggest that while baptism is a key step toward Christian identity and a wash that transforms a person for his or her new life as a Christian, baptism is not necessary for salvation per se; only faith is! The saving faith works primarily with and on the basis of the word; the ritual of sacrament comes secondary, and then as a sure deliverer of what the word promises. This is Luther's basic argument, repeated in different contexts, and also when addressing the issue of baptism of the Jewish converts.
In light of the questions posed in the beginning of this study, I hope I have demonstrated how perusing Luther's arguments about conversion and baptism of Jewish people--and his complex relating to Jews and Jewish faith--can add to our critical and compassionate comprehension of Luther's reasoning. There are more roads like this to be taken and more questions to be asked. With Luther's baggage, and with our baggage, it seems pertinent to continue to re-assess the point of Christian identity, the meaning and parameters of conversion, and the possibilities for charitable celebration of the sacraments. (39)
Professor of Reformation Church History, Director for the Institute of Luther Studies, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg
(1.) This article is an expansion of a short presentation I gave at the International Luther Congress in Helsinki, in August 2013.
(2.) WA, Br 3:101-102 (Nr. 629); WA, Br 5:452 (no. 1632). See Brooks Schramm and Kirsi Stjerna, Martin Luther, the Bible, and the Jewish People (Fortress Press, 2012), 84-86 for an introduction and a text sample with the English translation from Smith and Charles M. Jacobs, eds., Luther's Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, vol. 2: 1521-1530 (Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, 1918), 2:185-187.
(3.) Regarding the last question mentioned, on baptism and salvation, I have argued elsewhere that while Luther stands in the tradition of honoring baptism as the certain heavenly wash that effects a rebirth and includes one in God's kingdom, his view of grace is much more expansive than to be limited to any ritual, even one instituted by God's own child Jesus with a firm promise that should not be doubted. This argumentation comes clear, for example, from Luther's pastoral counsel to women who worried for the salvation of the unbaptized deceased infants. Salvation is not, ultimately, tied exclusively to the sacrament of baptism, while one should trust firmly the salvation reality it brings to the person baptized. Faith is the saving agent that brings the benefits, also with the ritual that rests on God's word, which is the sacrament of the sacraments, so to speak. For more on this, see Kirsi Stjerna, No Greater Jewel. Thinking of Baptism with Luther (Augsburg Press, 2009), passim, and especially Conclusions and chapters 4, 5, 6.
(4.) See, e.g., Christopher J. Probst, Demonizing the Jews: Luther and the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany [Paperback] (Indiana University Press, 2012). Eric Gritsch, "Luther and the Jews: Toward a Judgment of History" in Stepping-Stones to Further Jewish-Lutheran Relationships: Key Lutheran Statements, ed. Harold H. Ditmanson (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1990), 104-119. Johannes Brosseder, Luthers Stellung zu den Juden im Spiegel seiner Interpreten: Interpretation und Rezeption von Luthers Schriften und Ausserungen zum Judentum im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert vor allem im deutschsprachigen Raum. BOT 8. (Munich: Max Hueber, 1972). Carter Lindberg, "Tainted Greatness: Luthers Attitudes toward Judaism and Their Historical Reception" in Tainted Greatness: Anti-Semitism and Cultural Heroes, ed. Nancy A. Harrowitz (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), 15-35. Heiko A. Oberman, "Luthers Stellung zu den Juden: Ahnen und Geahndete," in Leben und Werk Martin Luthers von 1526 bis 1546: Festgabe zu seinem 500 Geburtstag. 2 vols. ed. Helmar Junghans (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1983), 1:519-530, 2:894-904.
(5.) The most notoriously known works are (here with their English titles):
"On the Jews and their Lies," 1543, in WA 53:417-552; LW 47:137-306; "On the Ineffable Name and Christ's Lineage, 1543," in WA 53:579-648; in partial translation
in Schramm and Stjerna 2012, 177-180; "On the Last Words of David, 1543," WA 54:28-100; LW 15:265-352; and "Admonition against the Jews, 1 546," in WA 51:195-96; LW 58:458-59.
(6.) In this area, Brooks Schramm's original work on Luther's exegetical works (and identifying there the key to his anti-Jewish polemics) is notable and leading Luther research into areas in need of detailed examination. See Brooks Schramm, "Populus Dei: Luther on Jacob and the Election of Israel (Gen 25)," in The Call of Abraham: Essays on the Election of Israel in Honor of Jon D. Levenson, eds. Gary A. Anderson and Joel S. Kaminsky (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012). See also an important piece from Bernhard Erling, "Martin Luther and the Jews, in Light of his Lectures on Genesis," in Israel, the Church and the World Religions Face the Future, eds. John Todd, Franipois Refoule, and Landrum Rymer Bolling (Jerusalem: Ecumenical Institute for Theological Research, 1984), 129-147. Also, see Schramm and Stjerna 2012, for a book-length treatment of the topic with selections from Luther's own texts.
(7.) For a comprehensive bibliography on the topic, see Schramm and Stjerna, 2012. Works to be highlighted are Eric W. Gritsch, Martin Luther's Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011). Hans J. Hillerbrand, "Martin Luther and the Jews," in Jews and Christians: Exploring the Past, Present, and Future, ed. James H. Charlesworth (New York: Crossroad, 1990), 127-150. Thomas Kaufmann, "Luther and the Jews," in Jews, Judaism, and the Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Germany, eds. Dean Phillip Bell and Stephen G. Burnett. SCEH 37 (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 69-104. Idem, Luthers Judenschriften: Ein Beitrag zu ihrer historischen Kontextualisierung (Tubingen: Mohr, 2011). Peter von der Osten-Sacken, Martin Luther und die Juden: Neu untersucht anhand von Anton Margarithas "Der gantz Judisch glaub" (1530/31) (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2002).
(8.) On the recurrent expulsions of Jews in different European countries and in German-speaking territories, those preceding Luther's era and those in correlation to Luther's history, see Stjerna in Schramm and Stjerna 2012, 206-210.
(9.) While some of these ordinances originate from thirteenth century rulings, roots of these practices go deeper in history. For excellent studies, comprehensive and detailed, see e.g., David B. Ruderman, Early Modern Jewry: A New Cultural History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010). Also Mark R. Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994). Benjamin J. Kaplan, Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007). Debra Kaplan, Beyond Expulsion: Jews, Christians, and Reformation Strasbourg (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011).
(10.) See e.g., Edith Wenzel, "The Representation of Jews and Judaism in Sixteenth-Century German Literature," in Jews, Judaism, and the Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Germany eds. Dean Phillip Bell and Stephen G. Burnett. SCEH 37 (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 393-417. Petra Schoner, "Visual Representations of Jews and Judaism in Sixteenth-Century Germany" in Jews, Judaism, and the Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Germany, eds. Dean Phillip Bell and Stephen G. Burnett. SCEH 37 (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 357-391. Bell and Burnett's book is an outstanding and comprehensive assessment of the situation.
(11.) Chava Fraenkel-Goldschmidt, The Historical Writings of Joseph of Rosheim: Leader of Jewry in Early Modern Germany, ed. Adam Shear. Trans. Naomi Schendowich. SEJ 12 (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 30.
(12.) See note 8 above.
(13.) "For Luther the Jews were never at any point in his lifetime 'conversation-partners' in the sense that they had something to say that might have influenced either Christian theologians in their conversations with Jews or their theological judgments about them. There is no evidence Luther ever took the initiative to make contact with learned Jews to learn from them as some of his contemporaries did.... His own narrowly bounded world was located far even from the few remnants of formerly flourishing urban centers of Jewish life and Jewish learning in the Empire, and the few personal contacts which Luther had had with Jews during the course of his life occurred because others sought him out and asked for his support." Thomas Kaufmann. "Luther and the Jews," in Jews, Judaism, and the Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Germany, eds. Dean Phillip Bell and Stephen G. Burnett. SCEH 37 (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 73-74. Quoted in Schramm and Stjerna 2012, 105.
(14.) See Schramm in Schramm and Stjerna 2012, 5-10 on "What Luther knew and thought about Judaism."
(15.) Illuminating in this regard are, e.g., Luther's last letters to his wife Katharina from February 1546 (WA Br 11:275-276; LW 50:290-292 [from February 1, 1546] and WA Br 11:286-287; LW 50:301-304 [from February 7, 1546]: In a letter dated February 1, 1546, Luther writes that on his trip to Eisleben to mediate in a dispute he passed through an area where about fifty Jews lived in one house. He tried to play on his wife's fears on his wellbeing by implying that this exposure to Jews might have aggravated his physical ailments. In another letter, dated February 7, 1546, he talks about his efforts to contribute to the expulsion of the approximately 400 Jews living in a nearby area. He writes "Today I made my opinion known in a sufficiently blunt way if anyone wishes to pay attention to it. Otherwise it might not do any good at all. You people pray, pray, pray, and help us that we do all things properly, for today in my anger I had made up my mind to grease the carriage." Curiously enough, he then writes "But the misery of my fatherland, which came to my mind, has stopped me." He goes on commiserating why he had to play a jurist, while he had been better off as a theologian. Here we have evidence of the torment Luther felt over many things, including the "Jewish issue," that is, their unfulfilled conversion in his life time, deeply frustrating to Luther who thought he had done his share and then some. (See LW 50:301-304; WA Br 11:286-287.)
(16.) See e.g., Stephen G. Burnett, "Distorted Mirrors: Antonius Margarita, Johann Buxtorf and Christian Ethnographies of the Jews." SCJ25 (1994): 275-287. Also Maria Diemling, "Anthonius Margaritha on the 'Whole Jewish Faith': A Sixteenth-Century Convert from Judaism and his Depiction of the Jewish Religion," in Jews, Judaism, and the Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Germany, eds. Dean Phillip Bell and Stephen G. Burnett. SCEH 37 (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 303-333.
(17.) See Schramm in Schramm and Stjerna 2012, 14-16.
(18.) See Stjerna in Schramm and Stjerna 2012, 33-35.
(19.) See Schramm and Stjerna 2012, 105; Peter von der Osten-Sacken, Martin Luther und die Juden: Neu untersucht anhand von Anton Margarithas "Dergantz Judisch glaub" (1530/31) (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2002), 103-110. The other times Luther refers to the meeting are found in: Lectures on Isaiah, LW 16:227 [1527-1530]/ WA 31/2:162, 28-29; Table Talk, WATr 3:370, 9-21 (#3512) [ 1536]; Against the Sabbatarians, LW 47:65-66 /WA 50:313, 1-6 (5-6); Table Talk, WATr 4:619, 20-620,15 (#5026) ; Table Talk, WA Tr 4: 517,4-20 (#4795) [1541/2]; On the Jews and Their Lies, LW 47:191-192 / WA 53:461,28-462,5; On the Ineffable Name, Falk, 173 /WA 53:589,12-19 (16-19).
(20.) According to Table Talk, Luther had given the men letters for safe travel, but because he had used the wording "for the sake of the name Jesus Christ," the men had opted to pay travel fees [set for Jews] instead of using his letters. WA Tr 4:619, 20--620, 15 (#5026). The sermon on Jeremiah 23:5-8 with a reference to the meeting, WA 20:569, 25-570, 12; LW 47:191, no 63. See Schramm and Stjerna 2012, 104-106.
(21.) On Josel, see Schramm and Stjerna 2012, 181-187; Chava Fraenkel-Goldschmidt, The Historical Writings of Joseph of Rosheim: Leader of Jewry in Early Modern Germany, ed. Adam Shear, trans. Naomi Schendowich. SEJ 12 (Leiden: Brill, 2006).
(22.) See Luther's letter to Josel, from 1537, in WA Br 889-891 (no. 3157) and in English in Schramm and Stjerna 2012, 126-128. Luther also refers to Josel in his Table Talk, WATR 3:441 (no. 3597): LW 54:239 (#3597).
(23.) See Magnificat, from 1521, in WA 7:544; LW 21, 295-358, with very similar points to the ones Luther makes in That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew.
(24.) On Luther's and other Witten berg theologians' use of Hebrew texts, see Stephen Burnett, "Reassessing the 'Basel-Wittenberg Conflict': Dimensions of the Reformation-Era Discussion of Hebrew Scholarship," in Hebraica Veritas? Christian Hebraists and the Study of Judaism in Early Modern Europe, eds. Allison P. Coudert and Jeffrey S. Shoulson, JCC (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 181-201.
(25.) WA 11:314-36; LW 45:119-229. See Schramm and Stjerna 2012, 76-83.
(26.) These arguments are more developed and proven with samples from Luthers own texts in Schramm and Stjerna 2012, passim.
(27.) Josel, who believed God condones compassion rather than violence, would become so disappointed with Luther--whose impact he suspected in the renewed expulsion edict for Jews from Saxony in 1543, at the time of Luther's most scathing anti-Jewish texts--that he sent letters to the people in Strasbourg asking them to prevent further circulation of Luther's dangerous writings. Josel's letters reveal that Luther had lost his respect in the eyes of the Jewish people.
See Schramm and Stjerna 2012, 181-187; Chava Fraenkel-Goldschmidt. The Historical Writings of Joseph of Rosheim: Leader of Jewry in Early Modern Germany, ed. Adam Shear, trans. Naomi Schendowich. SEJ 12 (Leiden: Brill, 2006).
(28.) "Letter to the Baptized Jew, Bernard": WA, Br 3:102 (Nr. 629). Schramm and Stjerna 2012, 86. See also Smith/Jacobs, 2:187. Translation here Stjerna.
(29.) See Brecht 2:112-113; 3:335; LW 50:144-145.
(30.) WA, Br 3:102 (Nr. 629); Schramm and Stjerna 2012, 86. See also Smith/Jacobs, 2:187. Translation here Stjerna.
(31.) WA, Br 3:101 (Nr. 629). Schramm and Stjerna 2012, 85. See also Smith/Jacobs, 2:185.
(32.) Stjerna in Schramm and Stjerna 2012, 28-30.
(33.) "Everybody knows the story of what is said to have occurred at the court of the Emperor Sigismund. When a Jew at the Emperor's court desired, with many prayers, to become a Christian, he was at last admitted to baptism, and afterward was tested, but prematurely and beyond his strength. For immediately after his baptism the Emperor had two fires built, calling the one the fire of the Christians, the other the fire of the Jews, and bade the baptized Jew choose in which of them he preferred to be burned. "For," said he, "you are now baptized and holy, and it is hardly likely that you will ever become a better man than you now are." The miserable man showed that his faith was either pretended or weak by choosing the fire of the Jews; as a Jew he leaped into it, and as a Jew he burned. The story of the will of the baptized Jew of Cologne is also well known and there are many others." Br 3:101-102 (Nr. 629); Schramm and Stjerna 2012, 85-86. See also Smith/Jacobs, 2:185-186.
(34.) WA, Br 3:101-102 (Nr. 629) English Translation: Smith/Jacobs, 2:185-187.
(35.) Andreas Osiander (1498-1552), Luther's associate, was one of the few Christians at the time even trying. See Joy Kammerling, "Andreas Osiander, the Jews, and Judaism," in Jews, Judaism, and the Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Germany, eds. Dean Phillip Bell and Stephen G. Burnett. SCEH 37 (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 219-247.
(36.) WA, Br 5:452 (no. 1632).
(37.) e.g., Luther examining the faith of Michael the Jew from Posen in 1540. See Brecht 3:339; WA, Tr 5:83 (no. 5354.)
(38.) Frustrated Luther warns his friend (Amsdorf) of Jewish converts as "rogues" who should be dunked rather than baptized. See Brecht 3:335, 437.
(39.) In this piece, I have frequently alluded to Luther's sacramental theology as the larger question behind this study. To a reader's disappointment, but for the reasons of focus and space, I have left out detailed discussion on this with references to Luther's works on the matter.
Luther's Works: WA D. Martin Luthers Werke; kritische Gesamtausgabe (Weimar, Germany: H. Bohlau, 1883-) WA Br Briefwechsel WA TR Tischreden WA DB Deutsche Bibel AWA Archiv zur Weimarer Ausgabe (Cologne, Germany: Bohlau, 1981-) LW Luthers Works, 55 vols., ed. Jaroslav J. Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T Lehman (St. Louis: Concordia; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1955-). Other: ADLIF Anti-Defamation League, Interfaith Focus AHR The American Historical Review ARG Archiv fur Reformationsgeschichte BBG Basler Beitrage zur Geschichtswissenschaft BCCT Brills Companions to the Christian Tradition BET Beitrage zur evangelischen Theologie BHR Bibliotheque d'Humanisme et Renaissance BHT Beitrage zur historischen Theologie BoT Beitrage zur okumenischen Theologie BibSym Biblia et Symbiotica BibSac Biblia Sacra CJ Concordia Journal Cross Curr. Cross Currents CurTM Currents in Theology and Mission CTM Concordia Theological Monthly EvTh Evangelische Theologie FF Face to Face FKG Forschungen zur Kirchen- und Geistesgeschichte HCMR History of Christian-Muslim Relations HTR Harvard Theological Review HUS Harvard Ukrainian Studies Int Interpretation JA Jahrbuch fur Antisemitismusforschung JAAR Journal of the American Academy of Religion JBL Journal of Biblical Literature JC Judentum und Christentum JCC Jewish Culture and Contexts JSS Jewish Social Studies JQR Jewish Quarterly Review KZ Kirchliche Zeitschrift LCC Library of Christian Classics LTJ Lutheran Theological Journal EXTRA: Abbreviations LQ Lutheran Quarterly MT Modern Theology MTZ Munchener theologische Zeitschrift NAWG Nachrichten der Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Gottingen Philologisch-Historische Klasse NSGTK Neue Studien zur Geschichte der Theologie und der Kirche NTT Nederlands Theologisch Tijdschrift PAAJR Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research PIASH Proceedings of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities PMS Patristic Monograph Series PTS Patristische Texte und Studien PT Political Theology RBS Resources for Biblical Study SCEH Studies in Central European Histories SCES Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies SCJ Sixteenth Century Journal SEJ Studies in European Judaism SFSHJ South Florida Studies in the History of Judaism SHCT Studies in the History of Christian Thought SJC Studies in Judaism and Christianity SKI Studien zu Kirche und Israel SMRT Studies in Medieval and Reformation Thought SRR Seminary Ridge Review TSMEMJ Texts and Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Judaism VCSS Variorum Collected Studies Series VTSup Supplements to Vetus Testamentum TZ Theologische Zeitschrift ZBK Zeitschrift fur bayerische Kirchengeschichte ZGL Zeitschrift fur germanistische Linguistik ZTK Zeitschrift fur Theologie und Kirche
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|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2013|
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