On October 31st, we will mark the 500th anniversary of the posting of Martin Luther’s “95 Theses”, a list of questions and propositions for debate which he nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. It sparked the Protestant Reformation by arguing against the corrupt practice of selling “indulgences” to absolve sin. He argued that salvation could only be achieved through faith, not deeds.
At first, Luther was willing to welcome Jews into his congregation, reasoning that with the corrupt practices of Catholicism removed, they would have little reason not to accept Christ. He wrote in 1523 that Catholics had treated Jews “like dogs”, making it difficult for them to convert. He said,
“I would request and advise that one deal gently with them …If we really want to help them, we must be guided in our dealings with them not by papal law but by the law of Christian love. We must receive them cordially, and permit them to trade and work with us, hear our Christian teaching, and witness our Christian life. If some of them should prove stiff-necked, what of it? After all, we ourselves are not all good Christians either.”
But when few Jews proved willing to abandon their view that a man could not be God, Luther gave up on them and had plenty to say against them in his famous book, “On the Jews and Their Lies. “
In the treatise, he argues that Jewish synagogues and schools be set on fire, their prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes burned, and property and money confiscated. They should be shown no mercy or kindness, afforded no legal protection, and “these poisonous envenomed worms” should be drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time. He also seems to advocate their murder, writing “[W]e are at fault in not slaying them”.
The Wittenberg Castle church had been a Catholic church before Luther, and has remained a Lutheran church through today. Like many Catholic churches across Germany, it had a Judensau, a Jew-Pig, carved on its facade in 1305.
The Judensau iconography taunts and vilifies Jews. It’s often located on the outside of the building where all can see it, but it can also be present inside on choir chairs, on wall paintings, woodcuts, and so on.
The Wittenberg Judensau includes a nonsense inscription, “Rabini Shem hamphoras,” which seems to be a version of “shem ha-meforasch”, the full-form name of God regarded by Jews as too holy to be spoken.
Luther talks about the sculpture in his 1543 Vom Schem Hamphoras, in which he equates the Jews with the devil, and indicates their Talmud is located in the sow’s bowels:
“Here on our church in Wittenberg a sow is sculpted in stone. Young pigs and Jews lie suckling under her. Behind the sow a rabbi is bent over the sow, lifting up her right leg, holding her tail high and looking intensely under her tail and into her Talmud, as though he were reading something acute or extraordinary, which is certainly where they get their Shemhamphoras.”
Last year, an online petition was started to finally take the Wittenberg Judensau down. The thinking is that 700 years of this kind of thing is enough, particularly given modern regional history which is very much present in the memories of many still alive. But the petition has only got about 7500 or so signatures so far.
If the people of South Carolina can finally be persuaded to lower their confederate flags, maybe some of those open-minded, progressive Germans we keep hearing so much about could think about taking a similar baby-step here.
If you ever get the urge to see some other Judensau examples still in place today, here’s where you can find them:
And here are some pictures showing some variations on the theme: