The Protestant Reformation at 500: Good for the Jews? Bad for the Jews?

Exactly 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, a feisty German monk, Martin Luther nailed 95 debate propositions on the door of the cathedral in Wittenberg, the university town where he taught. At the time, no one would have said that a new era was beginning, but in retrospect, it is common to date the beginning of the Protestant Reformation from that moment. Luther’s hoped for debate never happened, in the narrow sense, but in the broader sense, it broke apart the medieval world of Christendom and paved the way for the world we, as modern Westerners, call home.

As Jews, we see events from the angle of an often persecuted minority, and that gives us the standing to offer some judgments that the mainstream sometimes overlooks or prefers to ignore. We have a particular history in connection with the Protestant Reformation.

In the short run, it was bad. In the intermediate term, it was still bad. But in the long term, it paved the way for something good.

We ought to remember that even before the Reformation, times were hard for Jews in the western half of the Christian world. Jews had already been expelled from England, France, Spain and Portugal. In states where our ancestors still resided, it was not a matter of principled toleration, but of pragmatic calculation. Often, continued Jewish presence in a given state was a matter of the ruler overriding the objections of his anti-Jewish town councils and peasantry to keep Jews on hand as a convenient source of tax revenues. Jews were taxed at far higher rates than Christians. Horrendous blood accusations and periodic outbreaks of mob violence against Jews were sporadic, but always dreaded.

The Reformation made a bad situation worse. Luther himself, initially mild in his writings about Jews, turned into the harshest and most vulgar of anti-Jewish polemicists when his reforms failed to produce the wave of Jewish conversions he had envisioned. During the last decade of his life, he wrote about Jews in vile and hateful terms, comparing Jews to apes, pigs, animal excrement, and—worst of all, for him—the Devil. The low point was his 1543 pamphlet, “Concerning the Jews and their Lies.” (Readers may recall that this was one of the anti-Semitic pamphlets that I discovered in the volunteer book cart at Leigh Memorial hospital last winter—I wrote a column about that. Thankfully, I have never seen any other such pamphlets at any of the hospitals in our area—and I check often.)

Luther was, unfortunately, an influence in the growing association of incipient German nationalism with anti-Judaism. His German translation of the Bible helped to unify the Protestant portion of the German-speaking states of Central Europe and to kindle a sense of nationhood among them. Unfortunately, the toxin of Luther’s anti-Judaism was mixed into the recipe of nationalism, and it continued to poison it into the Nazi period.

Roman Catholic rulers during the Reformation Era spanned a gamut, some less harsh to Jews than others. As part of their counterattack against the Protestants, the Popes, initially relatively tolerant of their Jewish subjects, became much more intolerant after 1555. Catholic, Bavarian dukes were intolerant, enforcing the expulsion of Jews, but at the same time, Catholic kings of Poland were quite tolerant, inviting Jews to settle in their country. The Catholic Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, tried to assert the medieval protection of the Jews of the Empire (in exchange for the prerogative of taxing them, apart from local authorities), and issued a pro-Jewish constitution in 1544. But with a coalition of French enemies, states-rights German Protestant princes and jihadist Ottoman Turks pressing the Empire from all sides, Charles V lost his fight to reassert the authority of the medieval emperors. Charles V abdicated, and in 1555, his brother and successor, Ferdinand,
made peace with the rebellious Protestants, in order to line them up to defend against the Turks. That peace treaty gave each local ruler the authority over the religious life in his state, and so, for the next two and a half centuries, German Jews were at the mercy of the changing whims of a host of local rulers.

The other leading light of the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin, had no love for Jews, but he wrote about them in terms no harsher than the (non-Lutheran) standard of that zealous and bigoted age. (I know, this is faint praise…) His essential criticism of Jews was that they resisted the correct interpretation (his interpretation, of course) of Scripture, because “God had struck them with a special blindness.”

But while Calvin had no program of ameliorating the condition of the Jews, the ultimate effect of Calvinism was to create the conditions for a major reevaluation of the position of the Jew as a minority within Christian society. That is because Calvinism defended the right of the individual Christian to interpret Scripture differently from the State Church… not surprising, given that Calvinists fought a lengthy civil war in France, a predominantly Catholic country throughout that era. Eventually, what was “sauce for the goose became sauce for the gander”. Freedom of conscience extended to Christians was ultimately extended to non-Christians as well, first—in the 17^th century– in the Dutch Republic and in Roger William’s colony of Rhode Island, and ultimately—by the end of the 18^th century– in the new United States of America and in Revolutionary France.

This is not the whole story, of course. We would need to add the effects of the Commercial and Scientific Revolutions of the 17^th and 18^th centuries, of the Enlightenment, an intellectual revolution with social and political consequences, and of the secularization of society over the past two centuries, to tell a fuller story of how Jews came to feel, finally, at home in the West (maybe too much at home, to judge by the assimilation rates we struggle with today!)

But whereas Luther’s anti-Jewish thinking resurfaced in Germany again and again, most explosively in 1933, Calvin’s personal anti-Judaism was submerged in the general development of Protestant, Calvinist thought. The latter could lead to the intolerance of the Salem Witch hunt, but it could, and did, also lead to the idea that the State has no business interfering in matters of private religious conscience. That initially helped only fellow Christians, but eventually, it paved the road for the acceptance of the Jew in Western society. And—let it be acknowledged—after the trauma of Nazism, contemporary Lutherans have been forthright in rejecting the bigoted invective of Martin Luther. In 1983, on the 500^th anniversary of Luther’s birth, a Scandinavian conclave of Lutheran bishops specifically repudiated their founder’s anti-Judaism, even as they celebrated those of his writings that they regard as constitutional for their movement.

As Jews, we dare not forget—history matters.


Rabbi Michael Panitz

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