Thursday, May 5, 2011

Luther and the Jews, Part 1, "Anthony Margaritha"

We will be looking at Luther and the Jews because this topic comes up all over the internet.  This is very sad to me personally in regard to Luther-studies because Luther is really about the Gospel and not  about vitriol against Jews--but yet wrote what he wrote.  It is apparently undeniable.  I have myself wondered how he could say such horrible things.  And based on my own interest in the subject this investigation is justified though some might ask me why I don't occupy myself with more enjoyable subjects.

I think getting Luther's words into some kind of context, helps us know more about anti-Semitism through the centuries.  Also, while understanding the context will not mean condoning his words and their impact or possibility of impact, it will make things make more sense.  Just the idea, that "anti-Semitism" could in any way shape or form make any sense at all will be offensive to some.  I have no intention of offending anyone and I will take your commentary.  However, opening one's eyes to more of history and more of human thoughts and trying to understand is always useful, even with such a subject.  Personally, I am not an anti-Semite nor a holocaust denier or anything in this vein.

I will be relying mostly on Martin Brecht and on Ruth Gay, whose books I have in front of me.

I will be using the word "Jew" freely instead of going to words such as "Israelite", "Hebrew", etc., mostly because the books I am reading are not avoiding it and because I do not see it negatively myself.

In Ruth Gay's book we are introduced to Gabriel Risser, a Jewish political thinker active during the first half of the19th century in Germany.  He had this to say about the word "Jew":

"Risser's boldness in political thinking showed itself as early as 1832, when he founded a magazine with the daring title 'Der Jude' .  At a point when Jews were attempting to substitute less pejorative terms such as 'israelisisch' or 'mosaisch', Riesser's title elicited a flood of letters to the editor.  He acknowledged the hatred that was bound up with the use of the name, but it was the anti-Semite, not the Jew, who needed to change.  'Is it not the responsibility of those who hate,' he asked, 'to fight against the hatred and cast it off, if it is ever to end?  Should we [Jews] deny this ancient and honorable name in order to please those who hate it?" (The Jews of Germany, Ruth Gay, p. 148.)
This makes sense to me.  I will use the word "Jew" and I will use it with all love and respect.  My Luther professor says "Hebrews".  But this seems stilted to me.

I will not go here into any mea culpas about the holocaust, as a German by birth and a Lutheran by faith.  Anti-Semitism is a nasty product of human sinfulness and fear resulting in told, untold and profound suffering.  I condone none of it none of which I have read about.  It is simply not justified or justifiable.   I am sorry about it the way we are all sorry about human suffering and injustice.

In real life, I have not known many Jews because neither where I grew up in Germany nor in Edmonton simply have I met many.  During my University years I had one Jewish girl friend.  She was from Russia, but non-observant.  The only other connection I have is the synagogue in the town where I was born.  There are no more Jews there and my Aunt Christa belongs to a society which takes care of the synagogue.  Here is a picture of it from my last trip to Germany.

It is unspeakably sad that only the building is there in and the people are gone.  At the very least it is being kept in good repair.

So much by way of introduction.  Only, one more thing:  it is the words of Jesus Christ which stick in my head, that "this generation" will not pass away until the end of the days.  This is most certainly true.  Against all kind of odds this community has continued to exist and to thrive.

I do not wish to offend anyone, but no doubt some will take offense.  I am sorry about it in advance.

For a start lets have a look at the "convert" Anthony Margaritha, who influenced Luther's views significantly.  From the Christian perspective he is called a "convert", from the Jewish perspective an "apostate".   There have been such individuals all through history, and often these individuals have contributed to a negative view of Jewry.  As former "insiders" of a close-knit community they have their own point of view and have written books to inform others about Judaism.  Whether these views are fair or not are not easy for others to assess.  In a way it is understandable that the group to which they have moved would be eager to read and digest any criticisms. Anthony Margaritha wrote a book, which I would not mind reading, if I came across it, to just see what exactly he wrote.  In any case, Luther read him several times and before he wrote "On Jews and Their Lies"  and "Against the Sabbatarians"  (we already read about the Sabbatarians in the last post).

"The task of Christians, therefore, was to lead Jews out of their errors and show them the right way.  Jonas believed that Luther's work did this, and it had even impressed duke George of Saxony.  Jonas therefore wanted the work to be regarded as serving a missionary purpose, not an apologetic one.  Nevertheless, Luther fails to demonstrate the positive interest in the Jews that Jonas expressed in his preface.
Sentiments of this sort were not unknown to Luther at that time, but he emphasized in this context that the Jews had condemned themselves by rejecting the Messiah.  For him, Jesus 'prophecy of the destruction of the Temple was proof that the worship of the Jews and their reign had come to an end, but the Jews would not accept this.  In 1539 Luther read a book published in 1530 by the Jewish Christian, Anthony Margaritha, The Whole Jewish Faith, Together with a Thorough and Truthful Account of All the Regulations, Ceremonies, and Prayers Both for Family and Public Worship, as Observed by the Jews throughout the Year, with excellent and Well-founded arguments against their Faith, out of which in part he drew his critical arguments against the Jews.  Reading it confirmed for him their blindness, which wanted nothing to do with faith and justification through faith, thus making them like the papists.  He thought it dangerous for Christians to have Jewish doctors treat them."  (Brecht, p. 339)

Ruth Gay has this about Anthony Margaritha, which makes me wonder about the man and his motivations:

"During the 16th century a rather more indirect form of attack--staged disputations between learned Christians and Jews --was at the height of its popularity.  Entertainment and trial rolled into one, these disputations had begun in the fourth century, in the time of Constantine, and were often a ceremonial prelude to expulsions and the destruction of Jewish life and property.  In 1530 a learned apostate, Antonius Margaritha, published a book describing Jewish belief and practices in which he claimed, among other strange distortions, that the Jews of the German lands prayed three times a day, and especially on the Day of Atonement, for the destruction of the Holy Roman Empire and the letting of Christian blood.  Charles V ordered a disputation to be held in June of the same year, on the occasion of an assembly of the court in Augsburg, and Josel was bidden to appear to defend his fellow Jews and Jewish practices against the slanders of Margaritha.  Unlike most disputations, this one ended with Margaritha, rather than the Jewish community,l banished from Augsburg at the behest of Charles V."

Josel is someone else we may need to talk about sometime.  Anyhow, Margaritha seems to have promulgated the blood libel accusations against the Jews, which has been a favorite throughout the centuries and to which I don't give any credence for a moment.  This does make one wonder about Margaritha.

The convert/apostate has always found himself in a strange position belonging not to either camp completely meaningfully.  Famous literary converts of the 19th century gave expression to this.

"Boerne who committed his life to political polemics, is now largerly forgotten, as are his essays.  But he represents many Jews who believed that the adoption of Christianity erased memory.  Baptized Jews soon found themselves in a no-man's land, outside the Jewish community and yet never entirely members of the larger world.  They remained Jewish Christians to the end of their days, forming almost a caste as they socialized and married among themselves.  Heinrich Heine was no less matter-of-fact than Boerne when he underwent baptism, also secretly, in June 1825, a month before his final examination for his degree in law at the University of Goettingen.  In many Jewish families in the early nineteenth century, it was understood that sooner or later their sons would accept baptism.  Yet Heine agonized most publicly over the step, and his description of conversion as the equivalent of buying an entry ticket to European culture transformed it from a religious into a secular act.
As Heine discovered, however, although the conversion might have made a difference in a university appointment (which he never seriously sought), to the world at large he remained a Jew.  Six months after his baptism, he wrote to his friend the Berlin banker Moses Moser:  I am now hated by Christian and Jew alike.  I much regret that I have had myself baptized;  I don't perceive that things have gone better fror me.  On the congtrary, I have since had mothing but misfortune.  As with Boperne, his enemies continued to taunt him with his origins, and he could not divorced himself from his profound sense of connection with Judaism.  When his friend Eduard Gans converted several months after he did, he responded to the news with a violent poem, "To an apostate."  It was not published in his lifetime, but its passion suggests the turbulent emotion this even elicited in him: 
As for that holy youthful spirit:
How quickly you've been suppressed
And in cold blood
You have reached an understanding with the good lords
And you have crawled to the cross,
The cross that you despised
That only a few weeks ago
You had thought of treading into the dust.

His prose and poetry alike are sprinkled with Jewish allusions and Jewish characters...  Conversion, even for the illustrious and even for the true believers, did not bring rest but doubt.  Rahel Varnhagen wrestled with is meaning even on her deathbed.  And Boerne and Heine found in it neither relief nor honor.  Yet these were the great and visible figures in the world who could give expression to what the less articulate might feel.  Ordinary people who converted, married, had children, and lived in communities did not engage in public debate.  it took a journalist and a poet to declaim in public what others were experiencing in private, to shout out loud what the ordinary only whispered...
The group of converts who turned on their former brothers and sisters did less damage in the nineteenth century than earlier, but when they were powerfully placed they could sow needless discord and set back the cause of Jewish emancipation.  One such was Friedrich Julius Stahl, who converted to Lutheranism in 1819.  He not only embraced Christianity but allied himself with that mythical entity, the German folk, and denounced the Jews as morally inferior to the Germans.  Succeeding Gans as professor of law at the university in Berlin in 1840, he expounded his ideas in a book published in 1847 which argued against the possibility of the emancipation of the Jews in a Christian State.  Although Stahl refrained from the call for physical violence that marked the work of earlier apostates, his position in the university and later in politics gave him the ear of policy makers and lawgivers, to the detriment of the Jews. ( The Jews of Germany, Ruth Gay,  p. 141.)

This gives us some insight into the complexity of the situation in spiritual, emotional, economic, social and political terms. We also see how much damage a "convert/apostate" could afflict on the Jewish community.

This will do for today.


Michael Snow said...

Do you know if the treatise by Anthony Margaritha is extant?

I read a bit of Brecht online and found that very helpful.

Without knowing much about the context, in the past, I have tried to understand Luther's comments in the light of his many maladies. We probably all know some folks who, as they grew old in tough conditions, became more crotchety.

Brigitte said...

Hello Michael Snow! Nice to make your acquaintance.

I don't know at this point if Margaritha's book is available or not but we might try asking James Swan of this blog who comments here sometimes.

Luther in the light of his maladies and becoming crotchety... The way I read him, he became harder as time went on. His hope for some was spent. He prayed and argued and wrote for decades with unparalleled fervor and devotion and at some point he said: that's it. They are unmovable. They are hardened. I will no longer pray for them (such as the pope).

But this does not just come from old age; a series of events just topped things off. He was neither invalid nor suffered from dementia. To his last day he was trying to mediate the dispute between the Dukes of Mansfeld. So there have to be some other things that need looking at.

Brigitte said...

There is a book on Amazon about converts from Judaism which looks interesting. "Divided Souls."

Brigitte said...

There is also a German book, which seems promising but there is no further discription:

"Martin Luther und die Juden - neu untersucht anhand von Anton Margarithas 'Der gantz Jüdisch glaub' (1530/31)."