Leo Baeck

(1873–1956)


BAECK, LEO (1873–1956), German rabbi and religious thinker, leader of Progressive Judaism. Baeck was born in Lissa (now Leszno, Poland) the son of Rabbi Samuel Baeck. Leo Baeck first studied at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, and remained close to its approach throughout his life. From 1894 Baeck studied at the Liberal Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin. At the same time he also studied philosophy at the University of Breslau under J. Freudental and at the University of Berlin under the philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey. Baeck served as rabbi in Oppeln (1897–1907), Duesseldorf (1907–12), and Berlin (from 1912 on), and as an army chaplain in World War I. He began lecturing on midrashic literature and homiletics at the Hochschule in 1912 and became a close adherent of Hermann *Cohen.

Baeck was a member of the committee of the Central-Verein deutscher Staatsbuerger juedischen Glaubens and published numerous articles in its journal, C.V. Zeitung, and periodical, Der morgen, Baeck was a non-Zionist member of the Jewish Agency and occasionally contributed to the German Zionist weekly Juedische Rundschau. From 1922 he served as the chairman of the Rabbinerverband in Deutschland, which included Liberal as well as Orthodox rabbis. From 1933 he was president of the Reichsvertretung, the representative body of German Jews, and devoted himself to defending the rights remaining for Jews under the Nazis. He refused all invitations to serve as a rabbi or professor abroad, declaring that he would remain with the last minyan (prayer quorum) of Jews in Germany as long as possible. At Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp, to which he was deported in early 1943, he was named honorary president of the Aeltestenrat and continued the work of encouraging his people. Thus, he became a "witness of his faith," a theme that had long occupied a central position in his writings. According to a testimony he allegedly gave to Eric Boem, he was informed in 1943 of the death camps but decided not to share the information with the Jewish leadership of the camp in order not to undermine Jewish hope, a decision that was sharply criticized by some and provoked a bitter public debate. After the war, in July 1945, he moved to London, where he became president of the council of Jews from Germany and the chairman of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. From 1948 until his death he taught intermittently in the United States as professor of history of religion at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

Thought and Works

Baeck saw himself primarily as a rabbi and a preacher, who understood his mission beyond the borders of his own Liberal affiliation, as shaped by his responsibility to the entire German Jewish community and the Jewish people at large. His philosophical-theological thought as well as his works on history of religion should be read and measured in light of his rabbinic mission. In 1901 he published a polemic article against Wesen des Christentums by the Protestant theologian Adolf von Harnack. Four years later Baeck published his main work Wesen des Judentums (1905; The Essence of Judaism, 1936). Many further editions and printings of it were published, as well as English (19483), Japanese, and Hebrew (1968) translations. The apologetic character that dominated the first edition was considerably modified in the second and the extreme rationalism was eliminated. This transformation was the result of the influence of mysticism and Jewish nationalism. He identified the essence of Judaism with biblical prophecy, namely the direct experience of God's presence and the command to worship Him, a view he adopted from Rabbi Judah Halevi. Hence, the essence of Judaism is a dialectic polarity between "mystery" and "command." The commands, according to Baeck, do not necessarily form a system of commandments like the established halakhah, which imposes a required and fixed way of life; rather they appear from time to time in the form of instructions for action like flashes of lightning that break through the cloud covering the divine "mystery." Baeck adhered to Hermann Cohen's interpretation of Judaism as "ethical monotheism." He believed that piety is achieved by the fulfillment of the duties between man and man, but in contrast with Cohen he gradually developed a deep appreciation of mysticism, which he understood to be a creative, artistic imagination, based on myth and symbolic language, which point to a supreme spiritual sphere transcending art and imagination. Ritual observances are directed toward this ethical religious aim as well as the deepening of "mystical prophecy." His religious worldview was in that sense clearly liberal and deeply religious, though in practice he was quite traditionally observant.

Baeck sharply rejected Christianity, a religion that he regarded as a "romantic" one of the abstract spirit longing for redemption and as sharply distinguished from Judaism, the "classical" religion of the concrete spirit working for the improvement of this world. Judaism, in contrast with Christianity, is thus not aimed at the salvation of the individual soul but rather at the collective redemption of humanity and of the world. In line with his national and this-worldly view of Judaism and the Jewish people, Baeck had a sympathetic, although critical attitude towards Zionism. He thought that the building of Palestine was a valuable prospect for embodying the spirit of Judaism, but not a guarantee that it would be realized.

Other works of Baeck include Wege in Judentum (1933), a collection of essay and speeches; Aus drei Jahrtausenten (1938), a collection of scholarly papers destroyed by the Nazis and reprinted in 1958; Die Pharisaeer (1934; The Pharisees and other essays, 1947), Maimonides, der Mann seine Werke und seine Wirkung (1954) Dieses Volk Israel (2 vol., 1955–57; This People Israel, 1965), a work that he began to write in 1942 and whose first volume he completed while imprisoned in Terezin; Judaism and Christianity (1958). In 1954 Leo Baeck Institute for the study of the history of the Jews from German-speaking countries was established in his name, and he served as its first president. Other institutions carry his name, such as Leo Baeck College in London.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

T. Wiener, in: SBB, 1 no. 3 (bibliography of his writings); E. Simon, Geheimnis und GebotDie Neue Wege (1948); idem, in: L. Baeck, Mahut ha-Yahadut (1968); A.H. Friedlander, Leo Baeck, Teacher of Theresienstadt (1968). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: Leo BaeckWerke, ed. A.H. Friedlander et al. (1998–2003); E. Schweid, "'Prophetic mysticism' in Twentieth Century Jewish Thought," in: Modern Judaism, 14:2 (1994), 139–74; indem, Ma'avak ad Shaḥar (1991), 24–72; A. Barkai, "Von Berlin nach Theresienstadt – zur politischen Biographie von Leo Baeck (1933–1945)," in: Hoffnung und Untergang (1998), 111–40; M. Meyer, "The Thought of Leo Baeck – a Religious Philosophy for a Time of Adversity," in: Modern Judaism, 19:2 (1999), 107–17; W. Homolka (ed.), Leo BaeckZwischen Geheimnis und Gebot (1997); A. Barkai (ed.), Leo BaeckManhigut ve-Hagut (2000).

[Akiba Ernst Simon /

Yehoyada Amir (2nd ed.)]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.