A Truth That Set Us Free

Hadar begins with a proclamation of a Jew’s own self-worth and dignity…an affirmation of self-respect and a demand for respect from others.  It means the burial [a Jew’s] neurotic need to be loved …  Before one can even hope to win love he must first gain respect…and it begins with self-respect.

–Rabbi Meir Kahane, Never Again!

Four thousand years ago a man named Abram left his home, as G-d had commanded.  G-d made a covenant with Abram, promising him that if he followed His commandments, things would go well and G-d would give him a Holy Land. If Abram or his people failed to follow the commandments, G-d would throw his people out of the Land, but would never totally break His Covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, with Jacob, and with the Land.  It has been a four thousand-year-old love story; and while over the last two thousand years G-d watched as our people went on an often bloody journey, living for short periods in a variety of host countries, in 1948 our people reestablished our special covenant and returned to our promised land.

During the 2000-year exile, a new religion evolved, claiming to supersede Judaism. This new religion posited that the Jews had sinned and therefore G-d had broken His Covenant with them, replacing it with a new covenant called Christianity. This theology was based on “His blood be on [the Jews’] heads and the heads of [Jewish] children” (Matthew 27:25), which culminated in the murder of six million Jews.  After the war, with the doors of almost every country closed, the future of our people looked bleak.

Many believed our people down for the count; but from the ashes of the Shoah, our people – fewer in number and weakened from years of persecutions – won a war against seven British-equipped Arab armies led by well-trained British commanders.  Our Jewish brothers and sisters had dusted themselves off, and to the amazement of nations both great and small, heroically reentered history, back in the Land given to us in that same 4000-year-old eternal Covenant.  The non-Jews of the world had witnessed a miracle of Divine intervention – How else could it be explained? – and the Christian world was perplexed.  But one Christian group was particularly culpable in the Holocaust, and that was the German Lutherans.

During the First and Second World War, German Protestant leaders used the writings of Luther to support the cause of German nationalism.  At the 450th anniversary of Luther’s birth, which took place only a few months after the Nazi Party began its seizure of power in 1933, there were celebrations conducted on a large scale both by the Protestant Churches and the Nazi Party.  At the celebration at Konigsberg, Erich Koch, at that time Gauleiter of East Prussia, made a speech which, among other things, compared Adolf Hitler and Martin Luther and claimed that the Nazis fought with Luther’s spirit. … On October 5, 1933, Pastor Wilhelm Rehm from Reutlingen declared publicly that “Hitler would not have been possible without Martin Luther…” (Steigmann-Gall, “Christianity and the Nazi Movement,” Journal of Contemporary History, p. 187).

For seventeen years, from 1948 to 1965, Christians/Lutherans struggled with how to adjust to this new reality of the Jews “miraculously” returning to their Promised Land. Finally in 1965, convening a council in Rome, they codified a document called Nostra Aetate (In Our Time).  Modifying their replacement theology, the new relationship was to be called “dual covenant” theology, which embraced the concept of sharing G-d’s love with the Jews and acknowledged that “both religious expressions were valid and holy.”  But G-d had only just begun to show the world His commitment to His “treasured” people.

In 1967, the Muslim Arabs, backed by the Russian superpower, again threatened Israel with annihilation; and again the world sat silent, its eulogies for Israel in hand. The United States, having entered into a defense agreement with Israel in 1957 prior to the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Sinai, said, “Sorry, Charlie…or Shlomo, you’re on your own.”  So much for signed agreements with the U.S.   But six days later the world was again stunned when it saw the word of G-d come to life yet again“Fear not, Abram, I am a shield for you; your reward is very great.” (Gen. 15:1)  And the bewildered Christians took their dual covenant theology back to the drawing board – to the melody of “Jerusalem of Gold.” Israel had united all of Jerusalem as well as the Biblical lands of Judea/Samaria …A glorious moment for our Jewish people – and a perplexing moment for Christians murmuring, “Look what their G-d did for them!”  After 1967, even “dual covenant theology” was looking like a stretch.

In the early 1990s, on a bet with a friend, I joined the very liberal American Jewish Committee, whose mission statement focuses on tolerance and dialogue.  As fate would have it, I signed onto their Lutheran-Jewish dialogue, a group of thirty people – fifteen Lutherans and fifteen Jews, both lay and religious, who would get together to discuss commonalities over kosher dinners.

The Lutherans seemed like a nice enough group, but the Germans did regard Luther with affection, as did many Nazis.  Nonetheless, after several months we began to feel comfortable enough with one another to take a leap of faith and discuss the religious topic of revelation.  As the dialogue evolved, I became most interested in the thoughts of one Lutheran participant named Del Leppke, who seemed uncomfortable about the whole get-together with “the Jews.”

In the course of our discussion, I couldn’t help but ask Del directly if he wanted Jesus to come back.  When he curtly answered yes, I knew I was on to something and continued, “What do you think would happen if Jesus did come back?”  He replied, “The lion would lay down with the lamb and our spears would be beaten into plowshares.” Seemed reasonable.  Yet, determined to emphasize this “teachable moment,” I asked, “Are you sure you really want Jesus to come back?”  And with no hesitation he responded that he did.  “Well,” I replied, “there’s something we agree on!”  And the whole room went silent as Del was then forced to ask,  “Why do you want Jesus to come back?”  I explained that I wanted to know which shul he would go to since he obviously didn’t know from churches.  After all, I continued, he never changed his name from Yehoshua ben Yosef; he never read the New Testament but he certainly knew the Old Testament; and he never ate pork which he would have considered traif.  In fact, I imagine he’d be pretty surprised that a whole new religion – with its center in Rome, of all places – had sprung up from his crucifixion by the Romans!  I noted that even in Renaissance paintings fifteen hundred years after his crucifixion, there was often a plaque painted atop the cross, identifying Jesus as king of the Jews – not of the Christians.  And then I proposed the following:  “If these get-togethers are to be meaningful, your group has to disavow the anti-Semitic teachings of Luther.  It’s been long enough!”  You could have heard a pin drop.  After an uncomfortable silence, the pastor of Grace Lutheran Church asked if his group could leave the room and, although I was technically not in charge, I agreed—and out they filed.

To put it mildly, the Reform Movement’s rabbinic representative of our group was not happy with my remarks. Rabbi Herman Schaalman glared at me.  Actually, not only was he not happy, but when he finally spoke, he accused me of insulting the entire group, Lutherans and Jews alike, and suggested I no longer participate.  I had “embarrassed” him and “disparaged” the Lutherans.  After about twenty minutes, the Lutherans marched back in, and several of them were actually smiling. But Del was clearly not a happy fellow.

Sitting down at the table opposite us, the pastor spoke directly. They had discussed my proposal, had taken a vote, and the majority were in favor.  With that announcement, several of the Lutherans broke out in big smiles.  In fact, at the end of the evening, a reverend, Carol Vassalo, actually came up to me, gave me a hug, and thanked me for a terrific birthday present, and I returned the favor since we share the same October 15th birthday. Up until that get-together, the Lutherans sat on one side of the table and the Jews on the other.  After that meeting, we all sat interspersed.  I later learned that Del was the only one to vote against the resolution.  Neither Del nor Rabbi Schaalman ever showed up at another working meeting.  After months of drafts and revisions, on July 18, 1994 the group finally agreed on the language, and the text was then sent to all the synods throughout the United States.

Interestingly, the next time Rabbi Schaalman surfaced was on November 13, 1994, when the Evangelical Lutherans of America publicly presented their apology, and the rabbi, cloaked in his camera-ready pious and humble smile, shook hands with honorees he had never met.  Del was never seen again, but he did continue to make his feelings known through articles deriding Israel as a “rogue nation” (Chicago Jewish Star, 12/19/03), and continuing his crusade as a Palestinian-Arab sympathizer.



    In the long history of Christianity there exists no more tragic development than the treatment accorded the Jewish people on the part of Christian believers.  Very few Christian communities of faith were able to escape the contagion of anti-Judaism and its modern successor, anti-Semitism.  Lutherans belonging to the Lutheran World Federation and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America feel a special burden…because of certain elements in the legacy of the reformer Martin Luther and the catastrophes, including the Holocaust of the twentieth century, suffered by Jews in places where the Lutheran churches were strongly represented.

    The Lutheran communion of faith is linked by name and heritage to the memory of Martin Luther, teacher and reformer, bidding us to trust a grace sufficient to reach our deepest shames and address the most tragic truths.

    In the spirit of that truth-telling, we who bear his name and heritage must with pain acknowledge also Luther’s anti-Judaic diatribes and violent recommendations of his later writings against the Jews. …  [W]e reject this violent invective, and yet more do we express our deep and abiding sorrow over its tragic effects on subsequent generations. … [W]e particularly deplore the appropriation of Luther’s words by modern anti-Semites for the teaching of hatred toward Judaism or toward the Jewish people in our day.

    Grieving the complicity of our own tradition within this history of hatred, moreover, we express our urgent desire to live out our faith…with love and respect for the Jewish people. … Finally, we pray for the continued blessing of the Blessed One upon the increasing cooperation and understanding between Lutheran Christians and the Jewish community.

 xTruth can set you free. “Hadar begins with a proclamation of a Jew’s own self-worth and dignity. …Before one can even hope to win love he must first gain respect…and it begins with self-respect.”

Shabbat Shalom,                                                                  

Jack “Yehoshua” Berger

About the Author
Educated as an architect with a Masters in Architectural History, Jack Yehoshua Berger became a practicing architect and real estate developer. In his late 30's he met a Rabbi who turned him on to the miracle of Israel and he began learning how the amazing country, against all odds, came to be the miracle of the modern world.