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Like most revolutions the Reformation within the Christian Church in 16th-century Europe combined ultraconservative trends with a drive for change. In his attitude toward the Jews, Martin *Luther moved from a conscious attempt at a form of reconciliation, through a missionary effort, to a most extreme, abusive outlook aimed at putting an end to their very existence in Christian states. His more benevolent approach finds expression in his Das Jesus Christus eyn geborner Jude sey (1523), while his Von den Jueden und jren Luegen (1543) exemplifies his most vehement attitude. This vacillation between extremes was typical of Luther's personal approach to many problems (e.g., toward the peasant revolt and toward toleration in general); more than that, however, it was also an expression of, on the one hand, the reform movement's feeling that their revolutionary return to a "pure" biblical Christianity would make a greater appeal to the Jews – the earlier missionary attempts having failed because they were made in the name of corrupt Christianity – and, on the other, the deeply ingrained fear and hatred of the Jews which characterized most of the Reformation leaders. As their mission to the Jews failed too, they felt deeply insulted; the deep layers of their baleful image of the Jew came to the fore in Luther's scurrilous attacks. His work is described by Joseph b. Gershon of *Rosheim as "such a boorish and inhuman book, containing curses and vilification hurled at us, hapless Jews, such as by the will of God can truly never be found in our beliefs and Judaism generally" (ZGJD, 5 (1892), 331). Of the legal and social measures vis-à-vis the Jews proposed by Luther toward the end of his life, Joseph b. Gershom said that the like "never has… been contended by any scholar, that we Jews ought to be treated with violence and great tyranny, that none was bound to honor any obligation toward us" (ibid., 332).

Less abuse and violence but a similar mixture of innovation and hatred marked the attitude to the Jews of John *Calvin – in his "Ad quaestiones et obiecta Judaei cuiusdam Responsio" (Opera quae supersunt omnia, 9 (1900), 653–74), of Martin *Bucer – in many of his writings and public appearances, and especially in the Ratschlag ob die Christliche Oberkait gebueren muege, dass sye die Juden undter den Christen zu wonen gedulden, und wa sye zu gedulden welche gestalt und mass of 1539 (in his Deutsche Schriften, 7 (1964), 319–94), and of many of their followers and imitators. Exceptions to the rule were Wolfgang Fabricius *Capito of Strasbourg and the Bavarian Andreas *Osiander, who dared to give the lie to one of the basic elements of popular hatred of the Jews, the blood *libel, in: Ob es war vn-glaublich sey dass die Juden der Christen kinder heymlich erwuergen, und jr blut gebrauchen, ein treffenlich schrifft, auff eines yeden urteyl gestelt. Wer menschen blut vergeusst, des blut sol auch vergossen werde (written in 1529; published in 1893). Here is an eloquent and well-reasoned treatise against this appalling accusation.

For the Jews, the Reformation brought humiliation and suffering and an additional burden because of Catholic Counter-Reformation claims that they were responsible for its "Judaizing" tendencies. There is also the impression that, at a far later date, Luther's teaching of the submission of the individual to his rulers, combined with his latter-day virulent antisemitism, were one of the root causes of racist Nazism, preparing the soil for the acceptance of the Holocaust in the German mind and society. Yet in spite of all these elements (some certain and some arguable), in Jewish history the Reformation was not only, nor even largely, negative and harmful. Not only were many elements of Catholic faith changed in a way that removed the grounds for anti-Jewish accusations – e.g., charges of desecration of the *Host disappeared in Protestant circles because of the change in beliefs about transubstantiation – but many of the reformers' innovations removed some differences between Jews and Christians in the Reformation environment. About 1524, Jews coming from Europe described with joy to the kabbalist Abraham b. Eliezer *ha-Levi in Jerusalem the iconoclastic and anti-clerical tendencies of the reformers. On the basis of this much exaggerated report the kabbalists regarded Luther as a kind of *Crypto-Jew who was trying gradually to educate Christians away from the bad elements of their faith (Abraham's letter of 1525; see KS, 7 (1930/31), 444–5).

Of more importance and real impact for the future relationship with Christians – and for that matter for the relationship with Christians of other denominations in the post-Reformation period – was the great weight the Reformation gave to the Bible in Hebrew and to Hebrew in general. Although it had originated with the Renaissance, this tendency was given major religious sanction in the Reformation. According to Abraham b. Eliezer ha-Levi, this was one of the mysteries of "God's mind, who decreed this beforehand… when He turned the hearts of many nations in the lands of the uncircumcised toward the study of the Hebrew language and writing. And they delve into these, each according to his powers of attainment" (ibid., 445). Later, in many Protestant groups and sects, this was combined with the appreciation of the law and values of ancient Jewish society which were seen as the proper basis for the life of a model sectarian society. Away from the individualistic spiritual path of the evangelists, they looked to the Hebrew Bible for the modes of justice and moral way of life appropriate to a closely knit group. Many of them – both before and after him – would have agreed with Samuel Langdon, president of Harvard, when he declared in his election sermon delivered in 1775 that "the Jewish government, according to the original constitution which was divinely established, if considered merely in a civil view was a perfect republic" (in J. Wingate Thornton, Pulpit of the American Revolution (1860), 239). This sums up the attitude of many settlers in New England from the time it was first expressed by John Cotton in his Moses, His Judicials (1641). The great debate in Reformation countries, in Cromwellian and Restoration England in particular, about the divine right of kings and regicide was conducted to a large degree on the basis of texts and ideas from the Old Testament, which were taken as valid paradigms for actual Christian society. In many such circles, from the Netherlands to the eastern boundaries of Reformation Europe, Jews and Judaic ways came to be considered respectable and exemplary. Gradually this appreciation of the Jewish past developed into an appreciation of the Jews of the day, as abundantly shown by the paintings of *Rembrandt and a great deal of literary and social evidence.

Yet the main importance of the Reformation for Jewish history lies more in what it failed to achieve than in its direct attitudes and achievements. No less fervently than the pope, its leaders wanted to have one Christian, all-embracing, orthodox Church. In the clash between the various strands of the Reformation and between all of them and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, this concept of an all-inclusive orthodoxy had perforce gradually to be abandoned. Through the fire and blood of the wars of religion (at least up to 1648), toleration reluctantly dawned in European culture. The centuries-old reality of a fixed religious, legal, and social attitude toward the Jews vanished; many established attitudes were now reexamined. Toleration embraced only very reluctantly the notion of including a non-Christian, let alone a Jew, within its permissive outlook. An anonymous Jew began to urge this change in Luther's lifetime. To the demand for apostasy he advised that the Jew reply with a polite refusal based on historical continuity and loyalty. Jews will not listen: "now, in our [the Jewish] old age, after we have suffered the servitude to the kingdoms and the hand of our enemies… God forbid that we should relinquish what our fathers left to us, a tradition in our hands, with proof, more than the other nations of the world." This refusal is addressed to the "very few men of reason who ply their words mildly" (published from Ms. by H.H. Ben-Sasson, in HTR, 59 (1966), 388). Yet by implication, and through forces inherent in the very logic of its birth, toleration had to relate to the Jews. This move was first made only by small splinter groups like some Puritan sectarians in the Netherlands and England. But the attitude of the eminent lawyer and theologian Hugo *Grotius in his memorandum of 1616 (as member of a committee of two appointed by the municipality of Amsterdam to regulate the status of the newly admitted Jews) shows the considerable change in the thought of the Calvinist Netherlands. He assumes the right of the Jews to basic equality, while advocating many specific legal disabilities; thus, much of medieval practice was to remain without the medieval frame of mind. Oliver Cromwell's readmission of Jews into England was intended to be on a similar basis; in the end popular opposition resulted in factual readmission without explicit legal formulation. The pro-Jewish trend continued both in England and the Netherlands, widening to embrace more and more sectors of the population. By 1697 the city of London had demanded that Jews be admitted as members of the London Stock Exchange. The writings of men like John *Toland and Roger Williams give an explicit edge to the reform attitude of toleration toward Jews, providing a weapon for its advocates. Thus the fluid situation following on the Reformation offered the chance of a change (both for better and worse) in the status and image of the Jews in Europe.

As noted, Jewish reaction to the Reformation was related from the beginning to the actions and expressions of the movement, but from the very first moment the Jews appreciated the element of revolutionary breakthrough, as they had done much earlier in relation to other heretical and revolutionary movements in Christianity, as evident in their disputations and in their attitude toward the *Hussites. Old traditions and ideas looked to a change in Christianity that would bring back its beliefs to the right Jewish way that they had erroneously departed from. Some made an extreme evaluation of the reports of the new leader and his acts. In a "prophecy" ascribed to "the sage and astronomer R. Abraham *Zacuto," Abraham b. Eliezer includes "what a great astrologer in Spain, named R. Joseph, wrote in a forecast on the significance of the sun's eclipse in the year 1478. He states: 'Having no desire to favor any particular religion or mores I say that a man will arise who will be great, valiant, and mighty. He will pursue justice and loathe butchery. He will marshal vast armies, originate a religion, and destroy the houses of worship and clergy. In his days Jerusalem shall be rebuilt.'" Abraham b. Eliezer adds that "at first glance we believed that the man foreshadowed by the stars was Messiah b. Joseph [see *Messiah]. But now it is evident that he is none other than the man mentioned [by all; i.e., Luther, according to the general trend of Abraham b. Eliezer's thought at this time], who is exceedingly noble in all his undertakings and all these forecasts are realized in his person" (in H.H. Ben-Sasson, Yehudim mul ha-Reformaẓyah (1969/70), Eng. translation in bibl.).

Admiration for Luther vanished in many Jewish circles, in particular in Germany, in view of his later enmity and cruelty. To Joseph b. Gershon of Rosheim, Luther is the archenemy of the Jews, a second Haman. But some still retained their sympathy for the Reformation movement if not for Luther himself. The growing diversity within the Reformation camp encouraged the rationalist Abraham ibn Migash, physician to the sultan in the 16th century, to think that "their faith has reverted to a state of primeval flux. Where there are a thousand of them one cannot find 10 men willing to rely upon a single doctrine or consent to a given line of reasoning. Thus they are in a state of formlessness, ready to take shape, since faith has departed and no longer finds expression in their utterances. But they have been made ready to assume form when they will find favor with God, after being scourged for their sins and the sins of their fathers, for all that they and their fathers have perpetrated against Israel. And when they find favor with God they will be ready to accept the faith" (Kevod Elohim (Constantinople, 1586), essay no. 3, ch. 3, fols. 127v.–128r.). Even from afar, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Ibn Migash recognized that the Protestant camp was splintered because it was ardently striving for true faith; they had lost their form in the Aristotelian sense of the term. He could not understand their remaining outside of the true Jewish form except through accepting that this is a temporary withholding of grace to enable them to expiate their sins in persecuting Jews in former generations. To Samuel *Usque the Reformation was a revolt of descendants of Jewish *anusim who had naturally taken the opportunity to avenge their forced conversion: "For since throughout Christendom Christians have forced Jews to change their religion, it seems to be divine retribution that the Jews should strike back with the weapons that were put into their hands; to punish those who compelled them to change their faith, and as a judgment upon the new faith, the Jews break out of the circle of Christian unity, and by such actions seek to reenter the road to their faith, which they abandoned so long ago" (Consolation for the Tribulations of Israel, trans. by M.A. Cohen (1965), 193). Another Jewish chronicler, Joseph *ha-Kohen – born in Avignon but living and writing in Italy – wholeheartedly supported the Reformation camp and described events and personalities consistently from this point of view. To him Luther was the sage among the Christians; the Council of Trent failed because the Lutherans did not come and, left to themselves, the Catholics could only do foolish things. His sympathy goes out to the Reformation fighters of southern France in particular. He describes their plight in a way that shows that he made use of their information and sources. The death of the heads of the population of a Protestant city in the province is described as true kiddush ha-Shem: "the leaders of the populace they [the Catholic forces] took along with them, torturing them and burning them alive… But they [the Reformation martyrs] exclaimed: 'This indeed is the day we have hoped for – our souls shall return to God while our bodily clods return to dust'" (Divrei ha-Yamim (Sabbioneta, 1554), pt. 2, fol. 289v.). Joseph ha-Kohen was happy to witness and describe the sack of Rome in 1527, but when a Protestant church in Metz was destroyed by the Catholics and some of the people killed, he commented that the Catholics had "polluted the land with blood" (in H.H. Ben-Sasson, op. cit., 284). Perceiving the hope of toleration emerging from the wars of religion, he felt that the essential factor to emerge from a peace pact between reformers and Catholics in France was "that each man could worship his God according to his wish without fear. So all the people were exceedingly pleased" (ibid.). This is quite in the spirit of the middle-of-the-road party in France.

With sectarian existence under Catholic rule in Bohemia and Moravia, Hungary, and Poland-Lithuania, ties between Protestants and Jews became closer, for there was a growing similarity between their modes of existence. In the 1530s there were complaints in Poland that Jews exploited the Reformation disquiet for proselytizing. Much more clear are the contacts – both through disputations and through direct influence – between anti-trinitarians and Jews, as, e.g., in Poland between Isaac b. Abraham of *Troki and Szymon *Budny, and between Marcin Czechowic and Jacob of *Belżyce. In the thought of Judah Loew b. *Bezalel of Prague and his circle, there is much evidence of contacts with sectarians. Judah Loew's plea against censorship on books – antedating *Milton's Areopagitica by about 50 years (Judah Loew's plea was printed in 1598) – has the marks of sectarian pleading for tolerance. Yet his brother *Ḥayyim felt constrained to warn "the Jews that… when they slacken in their regard for the Torah and its commandments, God bestows His bounty upon the unclean cattle. So that even if Israel subsequently repents, it is difficult for God to reject that nation on their account. This is all due to the fact that we, in our manifold sinfulness, are daily drawing farther away from the truth, whereas they, on the contrary, realize day by day that they are in the grip of falsehood. A different spirit is manifesting itself to some extent in their midst, bringing them nearer to truth, since they, too, for the most part are descended from the true seed" (Sefer ha-Ḥayyim, Sefer Ge'ullah vi-Yshu'ah, ch. 7, fol. 46v.). Ḥayyim feared that the new and eager spirit of the Reformation was endangering the covenant between the Jewish people and the Torah.

In modern times some Reformation patterns of worship and behavior and modes of thought influenced not only the *Reform trend in Judaism but also some of the *Orthodox communities, in particular in Anglo-Saxon countries. The ideology of religious pluralism accepted in the U.S., and welcomed by Jews, is a direct result of Reformation development. On the other hand, Nazism reawakened in Europe all the scars and problems of the Reformation's antisemitic inclination. In modern Jewish *historiography and thought, the 19th century may be described mainly as the pro-Reformation period, while in the 20th century some pro-Catholic and anti-Reformation historiography and ideas emerged and developed.


H.H. Ben-Sasson, "The Reformation in Contemporary Jewish Eyes," in: PIASH, 4 (1970); S.W. Baron, in: Diogenes, 16, no. 61 (1968), 32–51.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.