How the Protestant Reformation Affected Jews

While 16th-century Europe was bursting with innovation, life for the Jews had remained unstable, marked with violence perpetrated by a corrupt Catholic Church. Inspired by an era of innovation and disgusted by the malfeasance of the Church, a monk named Martin Luther sparked one of the largest revolutions in the history of Christianity and permanently altered the course of Judaism.

  • Review
  • Discussion
  • Activities
  • Reflection
  • Further Learning
  1. What was the sale of indulgences?
    • A policy which allowed money to be exchanged for forgiveness
    • When people purchased Martin Luther’s pamphlet expressing his proposed reformations
    • An option in the Catholic Church to purchase the ability to directly communicate with God
    • An offer made to Jews so that Protestant leaders would not persecute them
  2. What was The 95 Theses’ core theological principle?
    • To spread the love and belief in Jesus
    • To stop the sale of indulgences
    • To reject the leadership of the pope
    • To teach that the Bible, as opposed to priests or the pope, is the highest authority
  3. Who said this quote, “If I had been a Jew and had seen such dolts and blockheads govern and teach the Christian faith, I would sooner have become a hog than a Christian”?
    • Pope Urban II
    • Martin Luther
    • The President of Harvard
    • Martin Sasse
  4. Why did Martin Luther’s attitude towards the Jews drastically shift?
    • He was angry that the Jews would not convert to Christianity
    • He was inspired by Mohammad’s treatment of the Jews
    • He now believed that the Jews had killed Jesus
    • He learned new ideas about antisemitism from other Christian leaders
  5. What was Martin Luther’s book about the Jews called?
    • Martin Luther and the Jews: Away with Them!
    • The 95 Theses
    • On the Jews and Their Lies
    • The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
  1. The Catholic Church responded to Martin Luther’s The 95 Theses by trying Martin Luther for heresy. Traditional Jewish law has a similar concept called cherem, or excommunication. Rambam lists 24 acts which are punishable by cherem in his Mishneh Torah. Examples include: a person who was ordered to appear in a court at a specific time and did not arrive or a person who causes many to desecrate God’s name. After reading Rambam’s list, do you agree with the 24 acts he identifies, do you think others should be included, or do you think some should be removed?
  2. There are many examples of communities or groups breaking apart because of disagreements over one or two issues. Politically, Israel’s political system is constantly changing as new political parties are formed. Religiously, some communities fear the concept of a breakaway minyan, when individuals create an alternative prayer group or synagogue from the one in which they were formally attached. Culturally, there are also multiple examples of bands breaking up and new musical groups being formed. When these divisions happen, supporters generally assert that their values no longer align with the previous group, while opponents’ arguments generally center around the importance of unity. As mentioned in the video, Martin Luther’s break from the Catholic Church was highly polarizing and resisted by many members of the Church. Do you think there are ever justifications for breaking away from an original group, or do you think the group should do everything it can to discourage breakways from transpiring?
  3. The Catholic Church’s corrupt practices, according to Luther, ultimately disillusioned him and provoked what would later be called the Protestant movement. These practices included the sale of indulgences in exchange for forgiveness of sin and access to heaven, and the right of Christians to directly interpret the Bible without relying on the interpretations of the priests and popes. Think about how Catholic leaders would have explained these choices. Do you think that Luther’s reaction was justified, or do you amends could have been made? Also, consider if there are any parallels within the Jewish community. For example, why and how is Reform Judaism breaking away from Orthodox Judaism similar or different to this situation?
  4. One of Martin Luther’s challenges against the Catholic Church was that the Bible should be the highest authority to Christians, and not popes or priests. In Judaism, the Bible is the highest authority but there is also the idea that people should listen to the rulings of the rabbis. The Bible talks about following the rulings of the sages. There is also a famous Talmudic story in which 71 rabbis are arguing about a specific matter; 70 agree and 1 dissents. The dissenter demands of God, “If I am right, the walls will buckle,” and then the walls buckle. He then says, “If I am right, the river should flow upstream,” and the river then flows upstream. The voice of God then announces, “He’s right!” One of the 70 rabbis then stands up and says, “The Bible is no longer in heaven,” meaning that we should now listen to the authority of the rabbis. Judaism has sought a balance between encouraging individual engagement with the Bible and also relying on community leadership. In which situations should individuals turn to rabbis for advice, and when should they look for answers independently?
  5. Martin Luther invigorated a movement which would influence the religious lives of hundreds of millions of people. His legacy is celebrated among many. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s father even changed his own name and then his son’s name from Michael to Martin Luther in celebration of the Protestant leader. There are other historical figures who have created great change or published great works but who have antisemitic backgrounds, including Willy Wonka author, Roald Dahl, and wedding march composer, Richard Wagner. Should society celebrate their contributions, or do their antisemitic histories disqualify them from being remembered positively?
  1. Use a ready made lesson plan about “How the Protest Reformation Affected Jews” HERE.
  2. The video talks about how Martin Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies was often quoted by Hitler and Nazi leaders to justify their actions against the Jews. Read this article about The German Churches and the Nazi State to expand your knoweldge about the intersection of Christian leaders and Nazi leadership. The article ends by explaining that Christian leaders felt compelled to address Christian complicity and guilt because of their active and passive involvement to the events of the Holocaust, a process which occurs today. Write a letter to Christian leaders on what you think that process of reflection should entail.
  3. According to Oxford Languages, the word proselytize means to “to attempt to convert someone from one religion to another.” It is a common theme in Jewish history that other religious groups proselytized Jews to follow their practices. However, Jews rarely are seen trying to proselytize in return. Some including Rabbi Shmuely Boteach have suggested that we should reevaluate these practices because Jewish values can enhance the world. In Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s biographical book on Hillel, he argued that Hillel was actually much more welcoming to conversions that many Jews are today. Learners should participate in a Walking Debate and respond to the statement: Jews should proselytize.
  4. One place where Jews communicate directly with God is at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Learners can even see what is happening at the Kotel by looking at the live cameras that are available online through the Western Wall Heritage website. Personal prayers are often communicated by individuals writing and leaving paper notes in the crevices between the stones. Learners can have a note left at the Western Wall through an organization called “Window on the Wall.” Learners should type in their personal prayers to God on this website and the notes will be printed and brought to the Western Wall.
  5. Play our Kahoot about how the Protest Reformation affected Jews!
  1. One of Martin Luther’s revolutionary beliefs was that people should be able to directly communicate with God, as opposed to only having communication through the pope or priests. Judaism also encourages direct communication with God. In one central prayer, the Amida, people are even encouraged to add in their personal requests and thoughts when they receive the 16th blessing, or Shma Koleinu. How do you directly communicate with God?
  2. Hearing that someone wrote antisemitic remarks is not the same as reading the remarks firsthand. Read a few excerpts from Martin Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies. Were you surprised by Martin Luther’s allegations and claims? How did reading this make you feel? What would you want to respond to Martin Luther?
  3. The founding of America is directly tied to Protestantism and well documented in academic research and literature. American principles of democracy and freedom were directly linked to the Protestant belief that humans are capable of directly communicating with God. The ties to Protestantism are so deep, that it was considered controversial when President John F. Kennedy was elected because he was a Catholic! If you are American, is your connection to American history altered after learning about Protestant leader Martin Luther’s antisemitic beliefs and the Protestant persecution of Jews? If you are not American, in what ways does this alter your perception of America?
  4. Martin Luther became disillusioned with the Catholic Church after identifying their leaders and practices as corrupt. Disillusioned means to be disappointed after concluding that something is not as great as you first imagined? According to Psychology Today, disillusionment is a very common feeling that most people will experience. Think of a time you felt disillusioned, either with an institution, a job, a person or a political party. How did you react to that feeling of disillusionment?
  5. The Catholic Church’s collection and usage of money was considered corrupt by Martin Luther. He specifically opposed their practice of indulgences, in which they collected constituents’ money in exchange for forgiveness from sin and access to heaven. Today, there are many efforts to ensure that non-profit organizations do not use corrupt practices in their transactions and also to increase transparency about how organizations use their funding. Websites like Charity Navigator allow you to input a charity’s name and learn what percentage of donations goes towards the cause and what percentage goes towards needs like administrative oversight. What type of research do you do before giving to a charity or a GoFundMe to check if you are comfortable with how the donations are being used?

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