Luther on Circumcision, Jews and Freedom
In recent debates on male circumcision, among discussions of religious freedom and children’s rights, anti-Semitic stereotypes about blood and knives – familiar from centuries of prejudice – crop up almost inevitably. Analysis of anti-Semitism in Europe cannot ignore the legacy of Martin Luther, whose vitriolic attacks on sixteenth-century Jews were an undeniable influence. We can therefore ask: do we find these particular tropes – accusations of Jewish blood-thirst and cruelty – in Luther’s discussions of circumcision?
Perhaps not, or at least not directly. Luther shows a range of attitudes toward circumcision, from grudging admiration, to indifference, to distaste. Yet he doesn’t condemn the practice outright nor portray it as characteristic of the ‘hatefulness’ of Jews.
The freedom to circumcise
On the most positive end of the spectrum stands Luther’s defense of circumcision, that to insist on NOT circumcising is unchristian. Someone who believes it is necessary to have a foreskin, has ‘lost Christ’. In Luther’s sermons, circumcision frequently functions as an illustration for the importance of freedom to proper faith, drawing on Paul’s statement that ‘neither circumcision nor uncircumcision are anything’ (1 Corinthians 7:18). Just as Paul did not compel anyone to circumcise, so believers should act out of free volition when they give up mass, or other ‘papist’ customs.
Yet in his final years, an increasingly hostile and aggressive Luther came closest to stereotypes of the bloodthirsty, cruel Jew:
‘In addition to cutting off the foreskin of a male child, the Jews force the skin back on the little penis and tear it open with sharp fingernails…. Thus they cause extra ordinary pain to the child, without and against the command of God, so that the father, who should really be happy over the circumcision…weeps as his child's cries pierce his heart.’
Luther is careful to criticize what he believes to have been added later, rather than circumcision as such, which should make the father happy. The caricatures of the bloodthirsty Jew are applied here specifically to the ceremony’s ‘changes’.
Luther and European anti-Semitism
So although Luther and European anti-Semitism are bound together in many ways, they do not seem to be here. Is there no connection then between Luther and the anti-Jewish tropes of the contemporary circumcision debate?
The complex answer to that question may be found outside the town church in Wittenberg. High up on the church wall is a medieval carving depicting a Judensau, an obscene ‘Jewish Pig’ showing a rabbi at the ass of a sow, and Jewish children sucking among piglets. Immediately below sits a memorial to the Holocaust; four steel slabs placed into the earth. But something bubbles between them, threatening to burst out. Anti-Semitism seems capable of finding any crack to ooze its way into the world. Luther may not have connected his hatred of Jews to their act of circumcision. But virulent anti-Semitism – expressed in both Luther’s writings and his actions – is a poison that continues to infect a European society with roots in so much of his Reformation.