The people who put on the Holocaust educators’ seminar I attended last summer were some of the smartest, kindest people I’ve ever met. The studies themselves were a nightmare. I mean a nightmare, like the worst ones, where everyone you know is dead, and you tell yourself, this is awfully weird. Maybe it’s a dream. Some people don’t wake up.
I was dumb enough to proclaim my admiration for Martin Luther, without any qualifications, in the same room where we were about to study the Holocaust. Luther, I said, revived the western passion for argument. We argue, we argue, and it sharpens us and softens us. The church had veered far from that tradition. I’m grateful he steered us back.
Well, someone gently pointed out, Luther was a raging anti-Semite. She was much kinder about this than I had any right to expect. She didn’t say, Please try to avoid praising notorious anti-Semites during our sessions, at least not while you are still digesting our bagels. Which would have been quite reasonable.
I was horrified. Surely she thought I was foolish and insensitive! I can be foolish and insensitive, so it wasn’t the worst introduction. We later had some honest, fruitful conversations in spite of (or perhaps because of) that.
I did know that Luther was famously anti-Semitic. I just didn’t think about it. There are a lot of people I admire who have a dark side. To me, Luther’s anti-Semitism was an obvious deflection of his self hatred. He was a guy who obsessed with his sins. He was terrified he could never be good enough. He eventually stopped beating himself up. What he couldn’t do was stop the violence entirely. He directed his violent tendencies toward Jews.
I find delicate parts of myself and I rage at them. I’m drawn to ideas that feel foreign, and I dismiss them and repress them. I try to bureaucratize my violent tendencies– as if that will help… I will be this cruel, and no crueller. I will be cruel to myself about being late, and accidentally hurting people’s feelings. But otherwise, I will be kind and gentle. I am worried about my inner Herr Schultz. He wants to believe in kindness. And I don’t want to let him down.