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    Martin Luther & the Jews

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 2 November, 2018.

    Martin Luther, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1529

    I was with a bus load of Queensland Jews one Sunday in the 1980s on the way to the reconsecration of the Jewish cemetery in Toowoomba.

    The bus passed the building that once was the Toowoomba synagogue. The edifice originally served a significant Jewish congregation but eventually the Jewish community declined and the synagogue became a Lutheran church.

    Our group asked for permission to explore the grounds but were refused, and we ended up saying Tehillim (Psalms) in the street outside.

    I don’t think the Lutherans were being deliberately antisemitic. Maybe we were just a nuisance. Maybe they weren’t certain how to handle Jews in the light of Martin Luther’s antagonism to Jews and Judaism. In Luther’s day we would have made sure no-one knew we were in the vicinity.

    When I was senior rabbi to the Australian Defence Force I never had a problem with Lutheran chaplains, who were the soul of tolerance and amity. In South Australia with its many Lutheran groups I was received with the greatest of courtesy. Lutheranism had learnt a degree of respect towards Judaism. Whether this could have been said in Nazi Germany is a different matter.

    In 1966 the National Council of Presidents of the Lutheran Church in Australia admitted that especially in World War II, Lutheran papers “naively and uncritically published German propaganda against the Jews”.

    Luther, though he began as an admirer of Jews and wrote a book on the Jewish origin of Jesus, was no friend of Judaism or Jewry. He said that synagogues should be burnt down, Jewish houses should be destroyed and Jewish books confiscated. Jews should not be allowed safe conduct on the roads and rabbis should not be allowed to preach.

    Strangely, he was a serious student of the Old Testament and knew some Hebrew. What he had against us was our rejection of Jesus, whom he saw prefigured throughout Hebrew scripture. His language was vituperative, his feelings fierce, his attitudes uncompromising. It is no comfort that he also used hateful language against the Pope.

    He rejected calls to soften his words and be tolerant towards Jews. He advocated hard labour for Jews as penance for their alleged blasphemy of Christ and their effrontery in converting Christians to Judaism.

    His writings reached their antisemitic height in his On the Jews and Their Lies. He even blamed God, who must have abetted the supposed theological crimes of the Jews: who else would have hardened Jewish hearts?

    That Luther was an antisemite is obvious. Some Jews called him Lo Tahor, “the impure one”. Yet this was not modern racist antisemitism, which claimed that Jews were genetically evil and tainted. In the eyes of this kind of antisemite the Jews could change their exegesis but that would not be enough to cleanse them. To Luther, for all the nastiness and ferocity of his anti-Jewish feeling, the problem was inherently theological.

    Whichever way it was, Jews suffered. The centuries from Luther’s time have seen new theological attitudes (the 1966 document was respectful towards Judaism and rejected “religious bigotry of whatever form”), but it’s still not easy to be a Jew, apparently even in Toowoomba.

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