Heinrich Graetz, and “Influence of Judaism on the Protestant Reformation”

In the aftermath of the American Civil War, Simon Tuska, rabbi of a Reformed synagogue in Memphis, Tennessee, translated a series of works from prominent Jewish thinkers of his era. Few if any Jewish intellectuals outshone Heinrich Graetz, a Prussian Jewish historian best known for his eleven volume History of Jews and his commentaries on Josephus’ The Jewish War. Graetz’ interests extended further than merely Jewish subjects. The experience of being reared in the Protestant Kingdom of Prussia, attending the university of Breslau, and observing the rise of German nationalism in the middle of the nineteenth century made him curious about the relationship between the German language and Protestantism. In his capacity as a historian at the Jewish seminary in Breslau he researched the relationship between Judaism and Protestantism. The result was chapters in his opus on Jewish history that dealt with Jewish influences on the Protestant Reformation. Shepherding a Jewish congregation in overwhelmingly Protestant West Tennessee, Rabbi Tuska assembled selections from Graetz’s work into a volume entitled Influence of Judaism on the Protestant Reformation, which he published at Christmas, 1866.

Graetz’ argument for Jewish origins of the Reformation stemmed from a conviction, like that of Machiavelli and later Luther, that the Roman See and its bureaucracy, particularly in Italy, had been become so corrupt that they no longer cared for the Christian faith. “In the cultivated circles of Rome and Italy,” argued Graetz, “particularly at the papal court, the dogma of Christianity were derided; the political power alone, resulting from the ladder, was easily grasped.” In Germany “where the people were little disposed to merriment, except when in drinking saloons, they did not think lightly of Christianity, but revered it as an ideal from which, once a living reality, was bound to be revived again.”

It was in Germany, Graetz argued, that the Reformation, and a Jewish-influenced Reformation, gave the world Luther and modern Protestantism. The “moral gems” of German piety “were so deeply hidden and buried in the bosom of the German people, that, but for the age of favorable circumstances, they would not have been brought to light to exercise their great historical influence.” The Talmud, “though the Germans themselves will not acknowledge,” indirectly contributed “much to rousing these slumbering forces.” Graetz therefore could “boldly assert that the controversy to which the town gave rise, arouse the consciousness, the Germans, and created a public opinion, without which the reformation, like many similar at, would’ve died at its birth—nay, more, it would’ve never been born.”

To a sympathetic treatment of Early Modern Germany, Graetz coupled an adulatory account of Martin Luther. Luther’s “ardent zeal in the cause of religion or a strong resemblance to that of the apostle Paul. For this two accounts, his special fondness for the apostolic epistles of the latter.” Luther and his comrades rejected the assertion “that the salvation of man depends on religious works, nor on, virtue and morality.” Instead, salvation for Luther depended “solely and the entirely, on the conditional belief in the messianic character of Jesus, this doctrine.” It was this doctrine, according to Graetz, that “Luther made peculiarly his own,” and which he “cherished silently in his bosom, and, without suspending, it found himself at once, in direct opposition to the entire system of the church, with her sacraments indulgences the mass, and the store of people, dispensation and grace.” Lest there be any ambiguity to any potential Protestant readers of what was nonetheless a history written largely for a Jewish audience, Graetz stated unambiguously that Luther “was unquestionably, the most pious and faithful man of his age within the pale of Christianity. He was also distinguished for spotless conduct in true humility.”[1]

[1] Simon Tuska ed., Heinrich Graetz, Influence of Judaism on the Protestant Reformation (Cincinnati, OH: Bloch & Co., 1867), 1-2, 41.


Other Articles by

Join our Community
Subscribe to receive access to our members-only articles as well as 4 annual print publications.
Share This