Luther the Anti-Semite

A Contemporary Jewish Perspective

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Alon Goshen-Gottstein
  • Minneapolis, MN: 
    Fortress Press
    , May
     2018.
     98 pages.
     $14.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781506445823.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute, and he has written Luther the Anti-Semite: A Contemporary Jewish Perspective as a Jewish scholar involved in interfaith activity. Hence the book is not an examination of whether Luther should be considered truly anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic, since Goshen-Gottstein accepts the conclusions of Thomas Kaufmann and others that he truly is both. Rather, he asks what members of all faith communities, especially the Orthodox Jewish communities in Israel, can learn from Luther regarding where and how their religious commitments can go wrong. Given this orientation, the book could rather have been titled, Luther the Mirror: How We Might All Learn from Luther’s Mistakes. Goshen-Gottstein thinks that Luther is especially helpful for interfaith thought, given that he has two radically different positions on the relation of Christians to Jews, representing the best and the worst of what the Christian tradition has to offer. Luther’s position in That Christ Was Born a Jew (1523) argues that Christians should treat their Jewish contemporaries with love, as opposed to the brutality they faced at the hands of the papacy and Christian rulers, which Goshen-Gottstein thinks is unique in the Christian tradition until Nostra Aetatein 1965. However, as is well known, by the end of his life Luther was using the full arsenal of traditional Christian slander against the Jews to justify all manner of mistreatment of the rabbis and the Jews short of genocide. What happened to lead Luther to change his mind so drastically? And what might be learned from Luther about the ways our own faith might go wrong?

After looking at how Luther was viewed by past and present Jews, and placing him in his historical context, Goshen-Gottstein develops a “Luther model” in which he seeks to analyze all of the elements that contributed to Luther’s anti-Jewish attitude. He identifies seven elements that make up the Luther model: the lack of Jewish friends, wrong or misleading information about the Jews, personal hurt or offense, personal trauma or fears, the theological interpretation of Scripture, protecting Christian identity, and the apocalyptic orientation of Luther’s faith. Goshen-Gottstein sees all seven as contributing to Luther’s anti-Judaism, but he especially focuses on the first one, claiming, “Had he had Jewish friends, it is likely that his entire view would have been different” (27). This is a hard case to make for Luther, not only because most Jews had already been expelled from German-speaking lands by Luther’s day, but also because Luther could turn quite viciously against those who had initially been his friends, as one sees in his relationships with Thomas Muntzer and Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt. However, Goshen-Gottstein sees the development of friendships with people of other faiths as being the most important way to avoid the mistakes that Luther made: “The only way forward ... is to transform othering through real encounters with the other. This, and this alone” will undermine the hatred and negativity that can arise between members of different faith traditions (65). This is how Luther’s love for the Jews could turn to hatred so easily, for without knowledge and friendship with the other there can be no commitment to the other, which is essential to a loving relationship (59). Since Luther lacked a loving relationship with real Jews, he was actually loving the Jews of his own imagination, which made it possible to demonize them later with tragic results.

The most provocative part of the book is when Goshen-Gottstein uses the Luther model as a mirror in which Jews, especially the Orthodox Jewish communities in Israel, might see their own attitudes towards Christians. The danger that they might develop the same attitudes towards Christians and others that Luther developed towards the Jews is not an abstract possibility but is very real, as the burning of the Church of the Loaves and Fishes makes clear. Jewish attitudes toward Christians have been fundamentally shaped by the law of Avoda Zara, the prohibition of idolatry rooted in Deuteronomy, and now that Jews are in power in Israel it is not entirely surprising to see them use that power against Christian idolatry (though other Jewish scholars have argued for centuries that Christians are not idolaters). The key again is friendship, according to Goshen-Gottstein. Many Orthodox Jews in Israel lack any kind of friendship with Christians, Muslims, or members of other traditions, and he asks his fellow Jews to see if the very things they see and condemn in Luther to also be in them (63). “Only by making relationships real, understanding individuals in their settings and realities, and advancing a relationship of friendship across difference can the various harmful consequences of isolation, projection, and othering be overcome” (67).

In order to accentuate the centrality of love of the other, Goshen-Gottstein asks whether each religious tradition might not seek to develop a “hermeneutic of love,” over and above the “hermeneutic of truth” that tends to dominate the maintenance of religious identity (84). This could allow each of us to transcend the differences in our theological positions so that we can see the depth of faith in others, a faith which is independent of the theological arguments others might make. Goshen-Gottstein challenges both Christians and Jews to see these traces of divine life in each other as the goal of their mutual friendship and love (86). Indeed, Goshen-Gottstein challenges Christians to come to a deeper and more authentic understanding of the faith and life of their Jewish global neighbors, for to date Christians have sought to understand Jews on Christian terms. “The challenge of getting to know Judaism on its own terms remains an educational and pastoral challenge on the Christian side” (68). However, the purpose of the book seems ultimately to be for Goshen-Gottstein to challenge his fellow Orthodox Jews to come to a better understanding of Christians by means of genuine personal encounters. “It seems that Luther could not see the Jews, even as many contemporary Jews cannot see Christians” (98).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Randall C. Zachman is Professor Emeritus of Reformation Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Date of Review: 
October 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alon Goshen-Gottstein is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue. He is founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute since 1997. A noted scholar of Jewish studies, he has held academic posts at Tel Aviv University and has served as director of the Center for the Study of Rabbinic Thought, Beit Morasha College, Jerusalem. His most recent publications are The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism: Wisdom, Spirituality, Identity (2015) and Same God, Other God: Judaism, Hinduism and the Problem of Idolatry (2015). 

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