On Passover, the charge of antisemitism, and Martin Luther

A couple months ago, I shared the following picture on Facebook:

If you’re Facebook friends with me, you know that I share a fair amount of this stuff, though usually the target is Christianity. In fact, I posted it in large part because it resonated with me as someone who was raised in a Christian church that did a pretty good job of talking about Christianity’s Jewish roots.

In Sunday school, we learned about Moses and the 10 Plagues of Egypt. How the Jews were instructed to mark their doors with lamb’s blood so that God wouldn’t kill their children, and how that’s the source of the holiday Passover. How Jews eat unleavened on Passover bread because the ancient Israelites didn’t have time to wait for their bread to rise upon fleeing Egypt.

Contrary to the childhood memories of some Christians, there was never any confusion about the fact that Jesus was Jewish. Among other things, Sunday school lessons included learning about how the whole crucifixion and resurrection story took place during the Jewish Passover celebration, making Easter, in a sense, a development out of the Jewish holiday.

And never in all those years of Sunday school and eventually confirmation classes was there any hint of anything problematic about God punishing all of Egypt, including the children, for Pharaoh’s sins. Nor did that thought ever occur to me until long after I had stopped thinking of myself as a Christian. That neither I, nor, as far as I knew anyone else, was able to see the problem still creeps me out a bit to this day.

(Note that this was in spite of the fact that I grew up in a liberal church that never went in for the hellfire or vengeful God or anything like that. The awfulness of the Exodus story was never spun as something actually good, it was just there, unremarked on. Which in a way is more unsettling, that a group of otherwise liberal believers would fail to see the problem.)

Of course I’d worked all that out long before seeing that image on Facebook, but it still never quite hit me how completely messed up it is that the name of the freaking holiday is a reference to God supposedly killing a bunch of children. That sudden realization is why I posted the image.

But from the title of this post, you know what’s coming:

I didn’t bother engaging in the Facebook thread at the time, but if I had here’s what I would have said: first of all, the freaking name of the holiday directly refers to the baby killing part of the story. Second of all, yes, Judaism, like other religions, has found ways of reinterpreting its ugly bits. But these reinterpretations tend to be highly implausible as claims about the original or “true” (whatever that means) meaning of the text or tradition.

But there’s still the charge of antisemitism, which I’ve also run into more recently in the thread on Joseph Levine’s rejection of cultural Judaism. (In fact, it was that thread that reminded me of the incident on Facebook two months ago, and was one of the things that prompted me to write this post–the other being the coming of Passover.)

In a way, we’ve seen this show before, with attempts to label all criticisms of Islam “racist.” But of course, accusations of antisemitism are so much more potent because of the long history of persecution that Jews have suffered and especially the Holocaust.

This history of persecution cannot, however, mean that Judaism gets a pass on the kind of scrutiny that is rightly directed at Christianity and Islam, insofar as the criticisms are applicable. Judaism is blessedly free of some of the other two religions’ flaws–notably, there is no doctrine that unbelievers will suffer eternal torment–but it is also the source of their extreme religious intolerance, and general portrait of God as a superpowered tyrant. Those are things that have to be pointed out.

Some have used the term “anti-Judaism” to refer to criticism of Judaism as a religion, which is contrasted (in this usage) with race-based antisemitism. This is problematic, though, if the goal is to draw a line between “good” and “bad” criticism of Judaism, because much of what Christians have historically said about Jews was clearly vile but also had a clear religious rationale.

This is something I’ve pointed out before, in my post “Blaise Pascal was an antisemite”:

It’s worth emphasizing that this sort of antisemitism–as opposed to the loony racial theories of the Nazis–makes a great deal of sense in the context of orthodox Christianity. One point should be relatively obvious (but maybe isn’t, given how uncomfortable even “conservative” Christians have gotten about these doctrines): that Christians like Pascal thought all non-Christians were damned, Jews included. That’s the point of the Wager, after all.

The less-obvious point is that in the Bible, God often punishes the people of Israel or the people of Judah collectively for the misdeeds of a few individuals, like their king or whoever. Against that background, it makes a lot of sense to think that once some Jews killed Jesus, God would respond by punishing all of them (except the minority who converted to Christianity). Similar points, by the way, can be made about Martin Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies.

The example of On the Jews and Their Lies is well-known, but it’s worth looking at in detail because Christian apologists so often try to dismiss Luther as an aberration, when in fact he at best represented an extreme form of what was common among Christians at the time.

Before looking at the book itself, it’s a commonplace in the biography of Luther that early in his life he hope for the mass conversion of the Jews, and only turned against them when the mass conversion failed to materialize. Some apologists tout this fact as if it somehow exculpated Luther.

I’ve always thought the opposite was true: that he would hate a huge group of people because they failed to adopt his religious views is a sign of just how vile Luther’s underlying religious ideology was. That many modern evangelicals seem to sympathize, even while officially rejecting Luther’s antisemitism, says a lot about modern evangelicalism.

Turning to the book itself, let’s start with the title: if you read any of the text at all, it’s clear that the “lies” referred to in the title means nothing more than Jewish rejection of Christian religious doctrines. Luther hammers this again and again and again throughout the text.

Luther has scripture to back his position up, and it goes beyond the couple passages that explicitly say those who do not believe are condemned:

Thus our Lord Jesus Christ says in Matthew 10:40, “He who receives me receives him who sent me.” And in Luke 10:16, “He who rejects you rejects me. And he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” And in John 15:23, “He who hates me hates my father also.” In John 5:23, “That all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him,” etc.

These are, God be praised, clear and plain words, declaring that all that is done to the honor or to the dishonor of the Son is surely also done to the honor or to the dishonor of God the Father himself. We Christians cannot have or countenance any doubt of this. Whoever denies, defames, and curses Jesus of Nazareth, the Virgin Mary’s Son, also denies, defames, and curses God the Father himself, who created heaven and earth. But that is what the Jews do, etc.

Because of this “blasphemy,” Luther says that Jewish houses and synagogues are to be burned, prayer books and copies of the Talmud confiscated, rabbis forbidden from teaching on pain of death, and ordinary Jews put into forced labor. Worse, “that they be forbidden on pain of death to praise God, to give thanks, to pray, and to teach publicly among us and in our country” Why? Because due to their rejection of Jesus, “their praise, thanks, prayer, and doctrine are sheer blasphemy, cursing, and idolatry.”

Like Pascal, Luther saw the plight of Jews in his own day as God’s punishment on them:

If there were but a spark of reason or understanding in them, they would surely say to themselves: “O Lord God, something has gone wrong with us. Our misery is too great, too long, too severe; God has forgotten us!”

Luther seems willing to admit that if a Jew converted to Chrsitainity, what he says about Jews would not apply to them, but he does not have much hope for this. At one point he says it is “impossible” to convert the Jews. At another point, he acknowledges one case of a Jewish convert to Christianity, but says such cases are “very rare” (which in fact he was probably right about).

Some of Luther’s book was in fact based on the kind of vicious stereotypes and libels we more commonly associate with the word “antisemitism”: he apparently thought that no Jews ever did useful work and that all their money was “stolen” through “usury.” He also believed them guilty of poisoning wells and murdering children. But even these libels had a religious rationale: “Their cursing alone convicts them, so that we are indeed compelled to believe all the evil things written about them.”

Luther’s hatred of Jews went beyond his hatred of other non-Christians. He said that “next to the devil, a Christian has no more bitter and galling foe than a Jew.” Yet if Luther’s position on other non-Christians (indeed, other non-Protestants) wasn’t as bad as his position on Jews, it was close. According to Leonard W. Levy’s book Blasphemy: Verbal Offense Against the Sacred, from Moses to Salman Rushdie:

Impartially, if promiscuously, Luther condemned Anabaptism, Arianism, and Catholicism as blasphemies, Judaism and Islam too. Any denial of an article of Christian faith as he understood it was blasphemy, as was speaking against the faith; also, sin was blasphemy, opposing Luther was blasphemy, questioning God’s judgments was blasphemy, persecution of Protestants by Catholics was blasphemy, Zwinglian dissent from Lutheranism was blasphemy, missing church was blasphem, and the peasantry’s political opinions were blasphemy (p. 61).

According to Levy, by the time Luther wrote On the Jews and Their Lies, he had already been advocating execution for Catholic and Anabaptist “blasphemers” for years.

Ultimately, I don’t know what to do about the terminology, though I guess it’s not much of a worry for me since I don’t often find the occasion to self-describe as “anti-Christian” or “anti-Islam.” Not that I’d have any problem being described that way; it just doesn’t come up.

What I do know is this: religious doctrines that say God has a chosen people and slaughter other people freely on their behalf, religious doctrines which say anyone with the wrong religious beliefs will be eternally tormented, religious doctrines that demand death for “blasphemers” (which in practice usually means anyone who rejects the reigning orthodoxy)–these are all profoundly messed up doctrines. And they are profoundly messed up doctrines even if the targets of religiously motivated hatreds themselves have profoundly messed-up doctrines.

That shouldn’t be that hard to understand, but as I get ready to post this, part of me just knows that there’s going be at least one commenter who can’t wrap their head around it, who will attempt sarcasm by saying, “If Judaism is so bad then Martin Luther must have been right” or something. That may be a data point in favor of our brains having evolved for tribal politics rather than logic. But it’s what I signed up to deal with when I became an atheist blogger.

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