Tag Archive: Judaism


I was baptized an ALC Lutheran, but was raised in an LCMS church as my mother’s family was LCMS. Discovered there was much more out there that I aligned with when I attended Valparaiso University. Though it still had/has a strong LCMS influence, it was there were I really started to embrace the ELCA as my home church.  It’s no secret that the other Lutheran colleges refer to it as That Liberal Lutheran School.

Valpo reallystrived to promote tolerance and acceptance. It welcomed its first GLBTQ student support group when many other relgious-based schools shunned such groups. Thought provoking seminars during the Week of Challenge and Martin Luther King, Jr Day really did bring cultural diversity to the fore.  And it was through student and faculty envolvement where women were finally allowed not to be just silent ministers in the Chapel of the Resurrection but were finally allowed to preach and lead worship as the ordained pastors that they were.

This is what helped mold my views of Lutheranism.

What I didn’t sign up for was Martin Luther’s anti-semitism. Yes, I knew it existed but chose to ignore it forever. It wasn’t until recently that I really explored what it was all about.

There is no doubt that Luther carried much of the old school Catholic Church animosity toward the Jews as Christ killers (sigh) into the Reformation.  Gordon Rupp, a Methodist Luther scholar writes in Martin Luther: Hitler Cause or Cure:

Luther’s antagonism to the Jews was poles apart from the Nazi doctrine of “Race”. It was based on medieval Catholic anti-semitism towards the people who crucified the Redeemer, turned their back on the way of Life, and whose very existence in the midst of a Christian society was considered a reproach and blasphemy. Luther is a small chapter in the large volume of Christian inhumanities toward the Jewish people.

It is no suprise that Luther wanted the Jews to convert to Christianity. There was a simmering animosity that cannot be ignored, but at first Luther seemed much more benign, hoping that it would be God’s will that cause Jewish faith tradition would erode away and yield to Christianity. In his 1514 letter to Rev. Georg Spalatin (Burkhart), Luther writes:

But what am I doing? My heart is fuller of these thoughts than my tongue can tell. I have come to the conclusion that the Jews will always curse and blaspheme God and his King Christ, as all the prophets have predicted. He who neither reads nor understands this, as yet knows no theology, in my opinion. And so I presume the men of Cologne cannot understand the Scripture, because it is necessary that such things take place to fulfill prophecy. If they are trying to stop the Jews blaspheming, they are working to prove the Bible and God liars.

But trust God to be true, even if a million men of Cologne sweat to make him false. Conversion of the Jews will be the work of God alone operating from within, and not of man working-or rather playing-from without. If these offences be taken away, worse will follow. For they are thus given over by the wrath of God to reprobation, that they may become incorrigible, as Ecclesiastes says, for every one who is incorrigible is rendered worse rather than better by correction.

Yet somewhere along the line, the tone became more vicious.  While many a confirmand is familiar with Luther’s Small Catechism, many do not realize that he also wrote the 1543 treatise Von den Juden und Ihren Lügen (On the Jews and Their Lies.) His tone takes a distinctively hateful tone, reducing the entire race of people to something subhuman:

They must assuredly be the base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth…

… For they are full of malice, greed, envy, hatred toward one another, pride, usury, conceit, and curses against us Gentiles. Therefore, a Jew would have to have very sharp eyes to recognize a pious Jew, to say nothing of the fact that they all should be God’s people as they claim…

…So it became apparent that they were a defiled bride, yes, an incorrigible whore and an evil slut with whom God ever had to wrangle, scuffle, and fight. If he chastised and struck them with his word through the prophets, they contradicted him, killed his prophets, or, like a mad dog, bit the stick with which they were struck.

It’ is not bad enough that he views them as subhuman, he goes one step farther to actively encourage Christians to take action against the Jewish people. He promotes the destruction of not only their prayer books, but advocates “to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them.” 

Yet he did not stop there, Luther had an eight point plan to eliminate the Jewish faith tradition either by conversion to Christianity or by forced expulsion. His plan also included the prohibition of owning money, forced labor and forced expulsion from the country. (“In my opinion the problem must be resolved thus: If we wish to wash our hands of the Jews’ blasphemy and not share in their guilt, we have to part company with them. They must be driven from our country.”)

Quite frankly this sounds terrifyingly similar to the Russian pogroms or Hitler’s Endlösung der jüdischen Frage (Final Solution for the Jewish Question) which led to the Holocaust/Shoah. In fact scholars Berger and Rose both point to Luther’s influence on forging a truly Germanic hatred of Judiasm and its people that may have been a building block in the Shoah. Professor Rose goes on to assert that without Luther’s antisemitic treatises, the German mindset leading up to the Shoah may have been absent.

Not exactly the faith tradition I signed on to when I was confirmed, married and baptized my daughters.

Fortunately mainstream modern Lutheranism has distanced itself and denounced Luther’s hateful rhetoric. Without that, I doubt that I would be raising my daughters in the Lutheran faith tradition and would be embracing a different Church.

It was not until 1982 when the Lutheran World Federation finally encouraged the Lutheran body to move beyond Luther’s hatred and define ourselves as something that is set apart from his anti-semitism and move actively forward in the name of Judeochristian reconciliation by stating, “We Christians must purge ourselves of any hatred of the Jews and any sort of teaching of contempt for Judaism.”

The Missouri Synod was next in its denouncements. In 1983 the LCMS issued a statement denoucing Luther’s “hostile attitude” toward the Jews:

That while, on the one hand, we are deeply indebted to Luther for his rediscovery and enunciation of the Gospel, on the other hand, we deplore and disassociate ourselves from Luther’s negative statements about the Jewish people, and, by the same token, we deplore the use today of such sentiments by Luther to incite anti-Christian and/or anti-Lutheran sentiment.

In 1994, the ELCA followed suit by issuing the following Declaration of ELCA to  Jewish Community:

We who bear his name and heritage must acknowledge with pain the anti-Judaic diatribes contained in Luther’s later writings. We reject this violent invective as did many of his companions in the sixteenth century, and we are moved to deep and abiding sorrow at its tragic effects on later generations of Jews. (Entire text in link above.)

It is clear that the mainstream Lutheran church bodies have denounced Luther’s Antisemitism, and the ELCA has gone one step further (see my previous post) by acknowledging Judiasm in a Judeochristian continuum as seperate and equally worthy facet of worshipping the same God. So why am I posting a history lesson about the ugly underbelly of Martin Luther?

While the recent visit from Jews for Jesus was still fresh in my mind, the choices of scripture translation for Easter Sunday really have stuck in my mind.  There was nothing controversial about the choices of passages, though our pastors in a push to distance themselves in every way from the ELCA refuse to utilize the ELCA’s choices of scripture each week. Each told the story of the Resurrection. The New Living Translation was used for the second lesson and the Gospel. No big deal. It was the Resurrection in modern English. Not my first choice for translation as I am more familiar with the RSV or NIV from my confirmation and college days. The psalm was in that nice cadence of the New King James Version.  (I think everyone would agree that the psalms lose a lot of their lyrical quality if a truly modern translation is used. So again, nothing controversial.

But what really stood out was New Century Version of the first lesson.  A revision of the International Children’s Bible, the NCV is a good choice for bringing the Bible to those with lower literacy skills. But it also known for its conservative and evangelical tone.  Not a surprising choice since my pastors have declared themselves “orthodox” Lutherans are rather involved in the World Alone network and the LCMC. I normally don’t have a problem with NCV, though I don’t prefer the writing style. But what really grabbed my attention and made me wince was the following exerpt from the passage in Acts 10:34-43, in particular verse 39 (bold emphasis mine):

We saw what Jesus did in Judea and in Jerusalem, but the Jews in Jerusalem killed him by hanging him on a cross.

Ouch. And with one translation we are back to blaming the entire Jewish people for killing Christ.

So I did a comparative search of the passage, looking at the  alphabet soup of English Bible translations includng the NLT, NIV, NRSV as well the RSV, NKJV and finally the first English translation the KJV. Each of the other translations makes the one to blame for killing him more vague. They killed him, or they put him to death, etc. Perhaps this is me being too overly sensitive, but the NCV is only one that spells out the Jews killed Christ.

So why did they use this specific translation where the other lesson and Gospel were in the New Living Translation? I certainly don’t want to bear false witness against those chosing the passages (for the record, the ELCA did not include the passage from Acts as part of suggested readings for Easter.) Nevertheless the choice of passages and translations was rather jarring? Why was the passage blaming the Jews picked to be the lesson? And why was the one translation that clearly spells it out the one that was picked instead of the other translations the dull the blame? These are questions I do not have the answers for.

That said, is this return to a more orthordox interpretation of Lutheranism also embracing Luther’s other opinions?  I certainly hope not. The pollyanna optimist in me would like to think this is merely a coincidence. I certainly hope that subtle anti-semitism is not a biproduct of such conservative evangelism and that I am seeing problems where they don’t exist.

Hebrew
Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam
Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe

This is the opening sequence of the Kadeish, the first element of the Seder commemorating the  Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Many families recited this blessing last night as part of the second night of Pesach (Passover.)

This is one of those years where Pesach and the Christian Holy Week coincide, and with it the two two faith traditions often intersect.

Many churches will include something called a  Christian Passover as part of the Holy Week observances. When I was about ten, I attended a one of these Passovers at my grandparents’ church (then an ALC congregation) in Madison, Wisconsin. I had been the dutiful little girl that attended enough Sunday School and knew some of the “bible stories” to understand on, at least a kid’s level, what the Exodus about.  To me it was about  bunch of plagues–boils, frogs, a bunch of creepy-crawlies, blood, etc and the Charleston Hestonesque Let My People Go. It seemed like an extension of Christianity.

Only it wasn’t.

Pesach is a uniquely Jewish experience.  There is no such thing as a Christian Passover. And I mean that in the most positive sense. When we were in junior high, my friend E was preparing for her Bat Mitzvah. It was in the spring of 1985, and was either right before or right after Pesach.  And it was through E that I realized that Pesach was more about her relationship with God, not mine. And I was okay with that. Where she had Pesach and her Bat Mitzvah to affirm that she is a child of God, I had that with my Baptism and Confirmation.

Now I don’t have a problem of attending a Seder to undertand Jewish expressions of faith. It is a great way to understand how our faith tradition evolved from the Jewish tradition as long as you respect the boundaries.

But what I do have problems with is when Christianity tries co-opt the Seder and make it its own. The Seder is not the Last Supper. There is no Gospel in the Seder. The broken piece of matzoh is not a symbol of Christ. Each element of the Seder has a specific meaning in retelling the history of the Exodus.

To give it a Christian spin to the Jewish Seder really diminishes its significance and ignores what the Seder really is about.

The article this week in the Houston Chronicle really emphasized how I feel about this:

The Christianized Seder initially became popular about 30 years ago and seems to be experiencing a resurgence across denominations. About 20 churches in the Houston area will host Passover celebrations this week.

Some in the local Jewish community, however, fear their traditions are being used out of context.

“They take our symbols, our holiday, our ritual and start investing them in Christian meaning,” said Rabbi Stuart Federow, who leads Congregation Shaar Hashalom and speaks out against the evangelization of Jews on his Web site, WhatJewsBelieve.org. “It’s spreading out through the more liberal Christian churches. The Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians are doing this without understanding the hurt it causes to their Jewish friends.”

Fortunately the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America does not push for evanglizing to Jews. It is comforting, at least to me, to know that ELCA has reached out in Christian-Jewish dialog to embrace the similarities and respect the differences.

We as Christians share deep and common roots with Jews, not least books of Scripture revered by both communities. There is much to be gained in exploring those common roots, as well as the reasons for the “parting of the ways” during the first generations of the followers of Jesus. New Testament texts reflect at many points the hostility between the two communities, but also point to ways in which a new spirit of mutual respect and understanding can be achieved.

We as Christians also need to learn of the rich and varied history of Judaism since New Testament times, and of the Jewish people as a diverse, living community of faith today. Such an encounter with living and faithful Judaism can be profoundly enriching for Christian self-understanding. It is to nurture this blessing that we offer these guidelines for honest and faithful conversation and cooperation between Lutherans and Jews.

Furthermore, the ELCA cautions against the practice of a Christian Seder:

Although attendance at Seders in Jewish homes or synagogues is to be preferred, “demonstration Seders” have been held rather widely in Christian churches and can serve a useful educational purpose, in which both common roots and significant differences can be learned. This should be approached with caution, however, and with the awareness that this might be considered “trampling on the other’s holy ground. ” If such demonstrations are done, they should be done carefully, preferably in consultation with, or hosted by, a local rabbi.

Enter Jews for Jesus. Much to my displeasure, as part our pastors’ enthusiatic edict to evangelize and make disciples of all blah blah blah, Jews for Jesus is putting on a Christ in the Passover version of a Christian Seder at my congregation this Good Friday.

So much for not trampling on faith traditions or respecting the true meaning of a ritual.

Don’t let the can’t we just get along sweet name that the organization has. Jews for Jesus isn’t about Jews embracing both Judaism, their heritage and Christianity. It’s strictly about evangelizing to Jews and attempt to convert them to the right team. While the “missionaries” that present this form of a Passover claim to embracing their Jewish herritage, they are preaching right from the playbook of evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity.

There is no respect for the Jewish faith tradition. It is all about converting. And getting money for putting on these bogus Seders. Needless to say, the won’t be getting a dime from me. I have no intentions of attending their performance (because worship service seems to give them more credit than they’re worth.)

From What Jews Believe:

The “Jews for Jesus” are not Jews. Originally founded by a very old organization known as The American Board Of Missions To The Jews, as their San Francisco office, they changed their name to “Jews” for Jesus, as the newest technique in missionizing the Jews to Christianity. Were you to compare the theology of the “Jews” for Jesus with the theology of the Southern Baptist Convention, you would see no difference. Compare the statements of faith of the Messianic “Jewish” Alliance of America (whose original name was the Hebrew Christian Alliance of America), with the statement of faith from the Southern Baptist Convention. Both the MJAA and the SBC have web sites.

Christian missionaries (and this includes the “Jews” for Jesus, the Messianic “Jews,” and the “Hebrew” Christians) claim that this deceptive technique originates with Paul, in I Corinthians 9:20, where he says that it is okay to pretend to be anything, so long as it gets converts to Christianity. One can also see this in Phillipians 1:18. Furthermore, it is expanded in the idea of Indigenous Cultural Evangelism. This is the name to the missionary technique which says so long as you make the targets think that they can be both a Christian and whatever they were before their conversion, then missionizing will be easier. See Understanding Church Growth, by Donald A. McGavran, the chapter on The Sociological Foundation.

So, the “Jews for Jesus” are merely another Christian Missionary organization, which make converts to Christianity by dressing up the Christian theology in Jewish clothing.

The ELCA seems to be on to the scam and warns in its guidelines for Lutheran/Jewish dialog:

Groups such as “Jews for Jesus” or “Messianic Jews” consist of persons from a Jewish background who have converted to Christianity and who wish to retain their Jewish heritage and identity. Lutherans should be aware that most Jews regard such persons as having forsaken Judaism, and consider efforts to maintain otherwise to be deceptive.

My concerns about Jews for Jesus coming to celebrate Christ in the Passover not only continues to trample the Jewish faith traditions, but also sends the message that my church endorses such deceptive behavior.

Jews for Jesus’ mission is a 180° turn from the ELCA’s goal to embrace the differences yet affirm both Christianity and Judiasm as different yet  equally worthy faith traditions:

Our relationship to contemporary Judaism requires both sensitivity to what we have in common and a respect for the independent right of Jews to define themselves as a community. A mature Christian respect for the work of God in Judaism thus affirms the faith and practice of Jews as more than a foil, a footnote, or a problem for our own identity.

So as Pesach and Holy Week converge once again, I challenge those who want to evangelize at any expense to take a step back and realize we are all on the same team.

Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’

Acts 10:34

Let’s not trample one faith tradition in order to raise up another. Let us not dimish the meaning of rite that is millenia old and replace its symbolism with something else. Let us remember the story of the Exodus and how it set God’s people free from slavery, and let us remember how Resurrection set us free as well. But I challenge us all to respect each as unique and blessed gifts from God.

Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam, indeed!