Martin Luther's unacknowledged debt to the Jews

The role of Hebrew should not be overlooked in the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation


This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The story of Martin Luther nailing his theses to a church door, said to have taken place on October 31, 1517 , is well known. What is far less known is the role of Hebrew, and particularly Kabbalah, in the events leading up to the Reformation.

When the Reformation began, the Italian Renaissance was in full swing. One of its main themes was humanism, a revived interest in the literature and philosophy of the ancient world. Old Greek and Latin texts, which had lain undisturbed for centuries, were suddenly the focus of renewed attention. As were many other literary works, some of which were believed to be far more ancient than they actually were.

In 1486 a young, wealthy and erudite Italian Count, Pico della Mirandola, announced he had researched all the ancient wisdoms of the world and reduced them to a set of 900 principles, all of which would prove the teachings of Christianity. 

Among his principles were 72 which he had derived from Kabbalah. Seventy-two was not a random number; in Kabbalah the most intricate of the divine names comprises 72 letters. 

Pico was the first Christian scholar to take an interest in Kabbalah. He asserted that of all the sources he used, Kabbalah was the one that most clearly offered an indisputable proof of Christianity. The discipline he founded, known unsurprisingly as Christian Kabbalah, became an object of serious study. Newton, Milton, Liebnitz and Shakespeare were all familiar with its principles. As was Martin Luther.

But Luther was less interested in Kabbalah than in the language that lay behind it. Hebrew was to play a central role in his 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, Ovadiah 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 should 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. Superstition was rife and corruption was everywhere. Ordinary people were weighed down with the fear of things not mentioned in the Bible, notably the punishments of hell and purgatory. Sins could be remitted in exchange for indulgences; payments were often used to build fabulously endowed churches and to support the privileged lifestyle of the bishops. 

The Church justified their practices on the basis of the Bible, which they claimed could only be understood through interpretation. Only the Pope could explain Scripture’s meaning correctly. Luther disagreed. He argued that even Popes could make mistakes. The only authority which could be relied upon was the unmediated word of the Bible. 

This idea, of inexorable faith in the word of the Bible, became known as sola scriptura, “only by scripture”. 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 Tanach, made directly from Hebrew.

Sadly, this did nothing to ameliorate the position of the Jews in Christian Europe. Indeed, Luther ensured it made things worse. For he had a serious methodological problem. 

Jews had been analysing and interpreting the Hebrew Bible for centuries, based on a thorough understanding of the language and its grammar. Luther feared that if he encouraged people to read the Bible in the way that Jews read it, they may end up believing what Jews believed.

To overcome this, Luther created an artificial distinction between grammatical and spiritual Hebrew. Grammatical Hebrew was what Jews used; but in relying on it, he claimed, they missed the spiritual connotations of the language. In Luther’s eyes Hebrew could only be a tool for understanding the original sense of the Bible if one transcended the simple grammatical meaning of the language and understood the spiritual context, which he believed to be its Christian message.

It was this need to detach himself from the Jewish understanding of the Bible which led Luther to the virulent antisemitism for which Jews remember him today, an antisemitism which, it has been argued, foreshadowed the Shoah. Unable to acknowledge any element of truth in Judaism, he turned against the religion with a viciousness of language that has rarely been recorded, even in the utterings of the most unpleasant antisemites.

Hebrew was one of several essential ingredients of the reformation. Sadly, in using the language for his own ends, Martin Luther was unwilling to acknowledge his debt to the Jews.

Harry Freedman’s history of Kabbalah will be published by Bloomsbury next year

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