Martin Luther: Anti-Semite and Hebraist

November 3, 2017 | Harry Freedman
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On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses to a church door, thus setting off the Protestant Reformation. While Luther’s anti-Semitism is well known—he urged his followers “to set fire to their synagogues or schools,” urged “that their houses also be razed and destroyed,” and called the synagogue “a defiled bride, . . . an incorrigible whore, and an evil slut”—less well known is his debt to Christian Hebraism. Harry Freedman traces this connection to the Italian Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola, who had made a thorough study of Judaism and especially Kabbalah:

Hebrew was to play a central role in [Luther’s] Reformation, largely due to the work of Johannes Reuchlin, a German lawyer. Reuchlin had met Pico della Mirandola in 1490 and come away inspired by his infectious enthusiasm for Kabbalah. Reuchlin began to study Hebrew, to better his understanding of Kabbalah. He engaged Jewish teachers, including the great Bible commentator Obadiah Sforno, to help him.

In 1506 Reuchlin published his Rudiments of Hebrew, the first Hebrew grammar and dictionary written for Christians. He then wrote two books on Kabbalah. The study of Hebrew became so fashionable in German humanist circles that Reuchlin proposed that every German university engage two professors dedicated to the language. This sudden turn to Hebrew opened up new ways of thinking for the emerging Protestant Reformers.

One of Luther’s main complaints was that the Roman church had misrepresented the Bible, . . . which it claimed could be understood only through [ecclesiastical] interpretation. . . . Luther disagreed. He argued that even popes could make mistakes, but the only authority that could be relied upon was the unmediated word of the Bible. . . .

Understanding the Bible in accordance with its plain Hebrew meaning became a defining principle of the Reformation. Rather than being told what the Bible said, people were encouraged to study it themselves, from a translation faithful to the original Hebrew text. In 1532, Luther published his German translation of the Tanakh directly from Hebrew.

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