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  • Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment by Eric W. Gritsch
  • Thomas Kaufmann
Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment. By Eric W. Gritsch. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing. 2012. Pp. xiv, 158. $25.00 paperback. ISBN 978-0-8028-6676-9.)

The title and introduction of the book reveal the author’s approach to a topic that has been addressed frequently. On the one hand, Eric W. Gritsch sees [End Page 929] Martin Luther as a representative of an eliminatory antisemitism; on the other hand, he is a Christian theologian “who should have known better.” Serving as proof are one of Luther’s table-talks (pp. 12, 94ff, 140), in which he talked himself into a rage and reacted positively to the question as to whether a Christian was allowed to punish a Jew physically when caught blaspheming, as well as Luther’s utterances in connection with punishment for Jewish usury (p. 84). The study is organized into three chapters: in the first, Gritsch outlines the concept and history of antisemitism and Christianity’s contribution to it; in the second, he discusses Luther’s animosity against Jews; and in the third, he deals with reception history.

Gritsch’s conception of antisemitism is decidedly wide, and it is focused on contemporary political semantics. Similarly, the statements on the concept of race (which in the biologist interpretation tradition on which Gritsch draws cannot be proven in Luther’s writings), and on the role of Jews as scapegoats in Christian societies are delineated broadly. Above all, Gritsch underscores the vitality, longevity, and danger of antisemitic concepts to the present. He also treats as antisemitism the tradition of anti-Jewish polemics that began in the New Testament. Most of the topics appearing here (such as the crusades, the legal situation, and “Jewish Pig”) are relevant neither in connection with Luther nor in regard to Germany of the late-seventeenth century. Some very short references on the attitudes toward the Jewish question of humanists (Johann Reuchlin, Desiderius Erasmus), Luther’s co-reformers, and contemporary journalists are more helpful to a historical understanding. Gritsch’s suggestion to speak of antisemitism in regard to Luther while leaving behind the research tradition of historical differentiation inaugurated by Heiko A. Oberman is based on the conviction that Luther’s and Hitler’s murderous demonizations of the Jews are correspondent. Consequently, the authoritative judgment on Luther and the Jews lies in Nazi propaganda and the history of its reception.

In the second part of his book, Gritsch introduces Luther’s hermeneutic of the scriptures: different from the historical-critical exegesis of the humanists, Luther is, in his opinion, more concerned with the consistency of the scripture than with the Word of God as centered in Christ. Important to Luther’s antisemitism, he claims, was the differentiation between a pious Jewry of the Old Testament and an anti-Christian Jewry of the Rabbinic—respectively Talmudic—tradition. The reader obtains the impression that this disjunction genuinely goes back to Luther—which is not the case. On the basis of Luther’s exegesis of the Psalms, Gritsch elaborates that Luther—in contrast to St. Paul (Rom. 11)—sees the Jewry definitively condemned by God (Rom. 11: 25–27)—that is, detached from the olive tree of God’s community and knowledge. Luther did not share Paul’s hope for salvation. That is, indeed, an observation that applies to all phases of his theology. To Gritsch, the Jewish rejection of a Christological interpretation of the Old Testament is the decisive precondition to Luther’s antisemitism (p. 47). In a chronological overview of his early exegetical lectures, Gritsch shows that the Jewish rejection of Jesus as the Messiah and the self-justification through “good deeds” formed the pivotal point [End Page 930] of Luther’s judgment on Jewry. In the second lecture on the Psalms, Luther’s criticism of contemporary mission practices toward Jews becomes tangible, as in his opinion they would only lead to deeper animosity toward the Church. Already at that time, Luther doubted that a noteworthy number of Jews could be converted to Christianity. Between 1521 and 1537, Gritsch assumes an “interlude...


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