Leo Baeck (1873-1956)—rabbi, teacher, hero of the concentration camps, and Jewish leader—represented in his life and writings the drama, tragedy, and hopefulness of modern Judaism.
Leo Baeck was born May 23, 1873, in Lissa, a city in the Prussian province of Posen where his father was an Orthodox rabbi. There he received both a traditional Jewish education and secular training in the Lissa Gymnasium. He continued this dual interest in Judaism and secular thought through his studies at the Orthodox seminary Judische-Theologisches Seminar, the University of Breslau, the Berlin Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums (a liberal Jewish seminary), and the Friedrich Wilhelm University. In 1897 he received a rabbinical degree from the Hochschule and a doctorate from the University of Berlin.
Baeck's rabbinical experience included that of a traditional synagogue in the town of Oppeln, Silesia, and of the larger synagogue in Dusseldorf. Finally he was elected senior rabbi of the autonomous Jewish community of Berlin, a post which he held from 1912 until 1943 when he was deported by the Nazis to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt. He was a noted teacher, rabbi, and preacher, respected by Jew and non-Jew alike.
His reputation was built not only upon his scholarship but also upon his concern for the entire Jewish community. He was active in civic organizations like B'nai Brith and also in the Zionist movement, which was unusual for a German rabbi of his time. He was also known and respected by Christian leaders after the publication of his first book, The Essence of Judaism (1905), which responded to a critique of Judaism offered in Adolf von Harnack's book What is Christianity.
The Nazi Years and Their Aftermath
Baeck's reputation was sorely tried during the Nazi years. He served as leader of the council of German Jews established by Hitler in 1933 and later in Theresienstadt served as head of the Aeltestenrat, a council of elders which was more a facade of Jewish autonomy than an actually independent body. Baeck has been criticized for his cooperation with the Nazis in their attempts to mask their atrocities with the appearance of justice. Nevertheless Baeck was able to utilize these positions to promote prayers of protest and to mobilize Jewish learning as a means of resistance to the Nazi effort to dehumanize the Jews.
After World War II Baeck went to London, and in 1953 he became a British citizen. While continuing his educational activities in England he also served on the faculty of the Reform Seminary, the Hebrew Union College, in Cincinnati, Ohio. He thus became associated with the Liberal Movement in Judaism, and the Liberal Jewish seminary in London is named after him. During this time he also travelled to Israel, lecturing at the Hebrew University.
Baeck's thought had three central concerns: Jewish ethics, Judaism and Christianity, and the Jewish people. These are represented by three major works. His first book, The Essence of Judaism, began as an exposition on the continuity of Jewish thinking from the Bible through the great rabbinic teachers. By the time it was revised and expanded in 1922 Baeck had developed a three-fold understanding of Judaism. Jewish religion, he contended, is made up of, first, prophetic universalism, proclaiming God's unity to humanity; second, an optimistic and dynamic faith in God, in oneself, in others, and in humanity as a whole; and third, the historical task of the Jewish people as God's emissary to the world.
In each section of his book Baeck weaves quotations from the Bible and later Jewish writings into a compressed compendium of Jewish thinking. The first section gives primacy to the religious experience, the second to ethics, and the third to history. The book comprises a sketch of Judaism richly studded with authentic Jewish texts.
Baeck's various essays on Christianity explore the differences among the rabbis, Jesus, Paul, and the later church (his earliest writings on Christianity date from 1922; see in English Judaism and Christianity, 1958). Judaism, he contended, is a classical religion, by which he meant a religious tradition seeking a positive, active social life, while Christianity is a romantic religion, a tradition that is inward looking. This contention stimulated considerable controversy among German biblical scholars (see Krister Stendal's introduction to Baeck's The Pharisees and Other Essays, 1947).
Baeck continually emphasized the Jewish people as a cultural and historical group. His final work, This People Israel (1955, and in English translation 1964), captures the sweep and majesty of Jewish history while revealing his commitment to the Jewish people. The book, which began as an exposition of the greatness of biblical Judaism, was written in 1938 and destroyed by the Nazis. The rest of the book was composed while in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. The first half covers biblical history, giving insightful summaries of such perplexing problems as the levitical laws. The second half follows Jewish culture in its various incarnations in Europe, whether under Muslim or Christian domination, and into the modern world, including mention of all the major trends in Jewish thought and social development. The book concludes with an affirmation of the Jewish task.
Further Reading on Leo Baeck
A short introduction to Baeck's life and thought by a colleague and disciple can be found in Fritz Bamberger, Leo Baeck: The Man and the Idea (1958). An interesting, if laudatory, biography by one of Baeck's American students after World War II is Albert H. Friedlander, Leo Baeck: Teacher of Theresienstadt (1959). Leonard Baker's Days of Pain and Sorrow: Leo Baeck and the Berlin Jews (1978) presents a well researched, critical, and scholarly analysis of Baeck's life in its German context. Useful information is also included in the introductions to the English translations of Baeck's writings. Walter Kaufmann's remarks in Leo Baeck, Judaism and Christianity, translated with an introduction by Walter Kaufmann (1958), are particularly illuminating.
Additional Biography Sources
Baker, Leonard, Days of sorrow and pain: Leo Baeck and the Berlin Jews, New York: Macmillan, 1978.