Yesterday I wrote about the 500th anniversary of what may be the phantom event of Martin's Luther's posting of 95 Theses on the door of a Wittenberg church. A scholarly monk became the lightning rod for reform in the Christian world. While it is indisputable that Luther is a key figure in history he was far from saintly. The darkest aspect of his legacy is the fierce anti-Judaism which developed in his writing over the course of his lifetime. Once generous in his perception of Jews (Jesus was one, after all) he became so vicious that his statements and outlook were used as fuel for the Nazi murder of six million Jews in Europe more than four hundred years later.
A number of thoughtful books and articles have explored this sad reality, but the one which surprised me is written by a Jew. Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin begins Mazel tov to my Protestant friends! with this intriguing description:
This past week, I met a Lutheran minister at a clergy meeting. I wished him a mazal tov – on the upcoming celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which will happen on October 31st. He appreciated my good wishes. And then, I added: “…and really – no hard feelings.” The minister knew exactly what I was talking about. A Jew is allowed to have mixed feelings about the Protestant Reformation.
With remarkable grace Salkin reminds us that there were Protestant pastors and theologians in Nazi Germany who courageously opposed the persecution of Jews. He goes on to say:
So, is there anything good that we can say about the Reformation?
Only that it completely changed human history.
People began to realize that the Church was not the only source of authority in the world. That gave birth to ideas that we take so much for granted – that those ideas are like the air that we breathe.
- You are allowed to be skeptical about the truths that you have inherited.
- People should use their reason to figure things out, and not simply rely on tradition and faith.
- You can read a text critically, and not only piously.
From the Enlightenment, we get the Emancipation of the Jews from the ghettos of Europe.
That leads directly to the beginnings of Reform Judaism – which happens in the same Germany that gave birth to Martin Luther. A choir; beautiful organ music in the synagogue; families sitting together; a sermon given in German; rabbis and cantors wearing black robes; even confirmation – all of these were the gifts of German Lutheranism to Judaism.
Had there been no Reformation, there would have been no Reform Judaism.
And no Conservative or Reconstructionist Judaism, either.
Despite Salkin's understandable mixed feelings about Luther he is grateful for what the Reformation brought about. I'm immensely grateful for Salkin's perspective.
Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin