Leo Baeck (May 23, 1873 – November 2, 1956) was a twentieth-century German-Polish-Jewish Rabbi, theologian, historian of religion and a leader of Progressive Judaism. His book Essence of Judaism (1905), written in response to Adolf von Harnack's The Essence of Christianity, established Jesus as a historical Jewish figure, and the Gospels as part of Jewish rabbinical literature. By exploring the Jewish foundations of Christianity, Baeck hoped that Christians and Jews would understand each other better. Baeck emphasized the dynamic nature of religion as an ongoing response to the divine imperative, and presented Judaism as a “religion of polarity,” encompassing a dialectical movement between the “mystery” of the divine presence in human life, and “commandment,” the ethical imperative which God gave to man.
During World War I, Baeck served as an army chaplain in the German Imperial Army. In 1933, after the Nazis seized power, he became a leader of the representative Jewish body in Germany, Reichsvertretung der Deutschen Juden, and worked tirelessly to protect the Jewish community from the Nazi government. He refused numerous opportunities to escape, and was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943. After World War II, he moved to London and eventually became Chairman of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. His second major work, This People Israel, was partially written during his imprisonment by the Nazis.
Leo Baeck was born May 23, 1873, in Lissa (Lezno, then in the Posen province of Germany, now in Poland), the son of a rabbi. He began his education near Breslau (Wrocław) at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in 1894. He also studied philosophy at the liberal Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums (Higher Institute for Jewish Studies) in Berlin with Wilhelm Dilthey. At the same time he simultaneously enrolled in philosophy courses at the University of Breslau and at the University of Berlin. He received a Doctorate in philosophy from the University of Berlin in 1895, and was ordained a rabbi by the Hochschule in 1897. That same year, he demonstrated his independence by becoming one of only two rabbis in the German Rabbinical Association who refused to condemn the Zionist leader Theodor Herzl (1860 – 1904) and the First Zionist Congress, which met in Basel on August 29, 1897 to elaborate a proposal for a Jewish homeland in Israel.
From 1897 to 1912, Baeck served as a rabbi in Oppeln, Düsseldorf, and Berlin, and taught midrashic literature and homiletics at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums. In 1905 Baeck published The Essence of Judaism, in response to Adolf von Harnack's The Essence of Christianity. This book, which interpreted and valorized Judaism through a prism of Neo-Kantianism tempered with religious existentialism, made him a famous proponent for the Jewish people and their faith. Baeck also published numerous articles and essays in the major German Jewish journals, such as Der Morgen and Jüdische Rundschau.
During World War I, Baeck served as an army chaplain in the German Imperial Army. In 1933, after the Nazis seized power, the German Jewish organizations combined to form the Reichsvertretung der Deutschen Juden, under the leadership of Baeck and Otto Hirsch (1885 – 1941). Under constant attack, the group organized education, emigration, financial assistance, and culture for the Jewish community, planning to survive the Nazi domination. As president, Baeck worked tirelessly to protect the Jewish community by negotiating with the Nazis. He was offered numerous opportunities to escape and immigrate to the United States or work as a rabbi or scholar abroad, but he declined all offers, saying that he would stay as long as there was a “minyan” in Germany. In 1939, he escorted a train full of Jewish children to England, then returned to Germany.
After five arrests, in 1943 he was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp (less than 9,000 of 140,000 Jews sent to Theresienstadt survived.) There, he was named honorary president of the Ältestenrat or Council of Elders. He survived by helping others, counseling and teaching, and refusing to lose his sense of self or dignity. More than seven hundred people would crowd into a small barracks to hear him lecture on Plato and Kant. At Theresienstadt, Baeck’s life was spared at first because the camp authorities confused him with another man of the same name who had already died. On May 8, 1945, one day before Baeck’s scheduled execution, Theresienstadt was liberated by the Russians. Baeck prevented his fellow inmates from killing their guards. His experience of the Holocaust did not alter his philosophical stance; he maintained that evil was the result of humans using their free will to not do the ethical.
After the war, Baeck moved to London, and eventually became Chairman of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Between 1948 and 1956 he taught intermittently at Hebrew Union College in America. In 1948, he published his second major work, This People Israel, which he had partially penned during his imprisonment by the Nazis. He maintained a rigorous teaching schedule until his death.
In 1955, the Leo Baeck Institute for the study of the history and culture of German-speaking Jewry was established, and Baeck became the first international president.
The asteroid 100047 Leobaeck is named in his honor.
Leo Baeck was a philosopher and a historian of religion, as well as a religious reformer and a progressive Jewish rabbi. Baeck’s teachings represent what is probably the clearest systematic exposition of liberal Jewish religious thought in the twentieth century. His most important work, The Essence of Judaism (1905), established his reputation as a leading liberal Jewish theologian. His final writings, Individuum Ineffabile (1948) and This People Israel, continued to present man and the human situation as the arena in which God makes Himself known.
Baeck’s works in English translation include The Essence of Judaism (1905, tr. 1936), The Pharisees and Other Essays (1947), Judaism and Christianity (1958), and This People Israel (1955, tr. 1965). In 1938, Baeck published a volume of essays Aus drei Jahrtausende (From Three Millenia) which was burned by the Nazis. It contained two essays on the mystical Jewish text, Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation), in which Baeck suggested that it was written around the sixth century under the Neoplatonic influence of Proclus. His essay “Romantic Religion” (1922), represented Judaism as a “classic” rational faith, in comparison with a “romantic” Christianity of emotion. Christianity, he said, employed mystical sacramental rites in an attempt to bring heaven down to earth, while Judaism attempted to raise human conduct to the level of the divine and therefore emphasized commandments and social obligations.
Leo Baeck demonstrated his beliefs in his personal actions as a teacher and as a leader of the Jewish community. His position as leader of the Reichsvertretung der Deutschen Juden during the Nazi persecution of the Jews placed him in many compromising situations, and he has come under criticism for not evacuating more Jews from Germany while it was still possible, and for not revealing that the “resettlement trains” were actually going to the concentration camps. However, he did not take advantage of his position, nor abandon his responsibilities.
Wesen des Judentums (Essence of Judaism), first published in 1905, went through many editions in different languages. In 1901 Baeck presented a challenge to the Protestant theologian and historian Adolf von Harnack (1851 – 1930), whose series of lectures on The Essence of Christianity represented Christianity as an original, liberal faith that had appeared at a unique historical moment and was unconnected to Jewish cultural tradition or religion. In an effort to prove the originality of Jesus’ teachings, Harnack disparaged the Pharisees and Judaism. Baeck pointed out that Harnack had ignored the religious and cultural circumstances of early Christianity by dismissing Judaism, and claimed that, in fact, Jesus was a profoundly Jewish historical figure. The “Christ” of Christianity was a creation of the Roman culture, and of Paul and other later disciples. These ideas were unpopular with both conservative Jews and conservative Christians, but Baeck hoped that exploring the Jewish foundations of Christianity would help Christians and Jews to understand and respect each other.
...whatever is completely different from the tendencies and purposes of the generations which came after the first generation of disciples; whatever contradicts the tenets which later became part of the faith; whatever is different from, or even opposed to, the intellectual, psychic, and political climate in which these later generations gradually found themselves; whatever, in other words, exemplifies the way of life and the social structure, the climate of thought and feeling, the way of speaking and the style of Jesus' own environment and time. In all this we are confronted with the words and deeds of Jesus. (The Gospel as a Document of the History of the Jewish Faith, p. 99f)
Essence of Judaism, published in 1905, emphasized the dynamic nature of religion as an ongoing response to the divine imperative. Baeck argued that Judaism represented the best of classical religion, a monotheistic ethical system which guides people to live moral everyday lives. His ideas resembled Hermann Cohen’s concept of Judaism, and demonstrated the influence of Neo-Kantianism. The second edition of Essence of Judaism (1922) was expanded to include a new element of “mystery” as part of the essence of Judaism. Baeck presented Judaism as a “religion of polarity” involving a dialectical movement between the “mystery” of the divine presence in human life, and “commandment,” the ethical imperative which God gave to man. This duality was expressed in the concept of “toladot” (“generations”), the chain of generations of Jewish people who taught the revelations by living according to Jewish teachings. The “commands” of which Baeck spoke were not a system of laws which imposed a fixed way of life, but appeared from time to time through history, like flashes of truth.
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