About Leo Baeck
Rabbi Leo Baeck (1873-1956) was one of the outstanding German-Jewish scholars of the 20th Century and a leader of Progressive Judaism. Born in Lissa, near Posen (in what was then Prussia and is presently Poland) Baeck began his studies in Breslau at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in 1894. During this period he also studied philosophy in Berlin with Wilhelm Dilthey. From 1897 to 1912, Baeck served as Rabbi in Oppeln, Duesseldorf and Berlin. During WWI he was an army chaplain. A scholar and a lecturer, Baeck published numerous articles in the leading German-Jewish journals of his time, such as 'Der Morgen' and 'Jüdische Rundschau'. When the Nazis seized power in Germany in 1933, Baeck devoted himself to defending the Jewish community as President of the Reichsvertretung. In 1943 he was deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp where he was named honorary president of the Ältestenrat. Surviving the holocaust, Baeck moved to London and eventually became Chairman of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Between 1948 and 1956, Baeck visted and lectured at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. The The Leo Baeck Institute was created in 1954 as an institute for the study of the history of German-Judaism.
Baeck was an historian of religion and a philosopher, as well as a rabbi. His most famous work, Wesen des Judentums (Essence of Judaism), was published in 1905 and went through many editions in different languages. It was written as a response to Adolph von Harnack's book The Essence of Christianity, which Baeck critiqued when it was published in 1901. Its originally rationalist bent was subsequently revised to incorporate a place for 'mystery' and the mystical. In his entry on Leo Baeck in the Encyclopaedia Judaica (1974), A. E. Simon calls Baeck's view of Judaism essentially "a dialectical 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 like flashes of lightning that break through the cloud covering divine 'mystery.'
Baeck accepted the idea of ethical monotheism as the essence of Judaism but added mystery, a sense of the holy, as a second Jewish essence. While some other Reform thinkers found the idea of God sufficient, Baeck wrote about our emotional awareness, our experiencing of the Divine. This awareness, he believed, naturally leads to 'ethical acts', which was how he translated the Hebrew mitzvot. At the same time, he claimed, we can also maintain peoplehood, a sense of our role in history, through ritual acts, which give expression to our sense of mystery.
Baeck, a liberal modern Jew, was not prepared to assign authority to the ritual acts, only to the ethical imperatives. Nor was he willing to give up the reality of God for the mere 'idea'. God, he insisted, is both transcendent and immanent. For Baeck, God is real. Therefore, being Jewish consisted of being ethical and striving for universal good, experiencing the mystery of the Divine, and maintaining the survival of Jews throughout history. By emphasizing experience and mystery as part of the essence of Judaism, Baeck moved radically away from Cohen's "religion of reason." However, Baeck's emphasis on universal ethics and ethical monotheism made him a bridge between the rationalists and the modern Jewish existentialists.
Baeck's personal life deserves some mention because he lived by the values described in his writings. As president of the representative body of Jews in Germany after 1933, he was given many opportunities to escape. He refused, insisting that he would stay so long as there was a minyan in Germany. In 1943 he was sent to the Terezin (Terezienstadt) concentration camp. He survived the horrors by helping others, teaching, and refusing to lose his sense of self or dignity. His philosophical beliefs were not swayed by the Holocaust. He always maintained that evil was the result of humans using their free will to not do the ethical. The enormity of the Nazi atrocities did not shake that belief.