Rab­bi Leo Baeck: Liv­ing a Reli­gious Imper­a­tive in Trou­bled Times

Michael A. Meyer

  • From the Publisher
January 13, 2020

Rab­bi, edu­ca­tor, intel­lec­tu­al, and com­mu­ni­ty leader, Leo Baeck (18731956) was one of the most impor­tant Jew­ish fig­ures of pre­war Ger­many. The pub­li­ca­tion of his 1905 Das Wesen des Juden­tums (The Essence of Judaism) estab­lished him as a major voice for lib­er­al Judaism. He served as a chap­lain to the Ger­man army dur­ing the First World War and in the years fol­low­ing, resist­ing the call of polit­i­cal Zion­ism, he expressed his com­mit­ment to the belief in a vibrant place for Jews in a new Ger­many. This hope was dashed with the rise of Nazism, and from 1933 on, and con­tin­u­ing even after his depor­ta­tion to There­sien­stadt, he worked tire­less­ly in his capac­i­ty as a leader of the Ger­man Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty to offer his core­li­gion­ists what­ev­er prac­ti­cal, intel­lec­tu­al, and spir­i­tu­al sup­port remained pos­si­ble. While oth­ers after the war worked to rebuild Ger­man Jew­ish life from the ash­es, a dis­il­lu­sioned Baeck pro­nounced the effort mis­guid­ed and spent the rest of his life in Eng­land. Yet his name is per­haps best-known today from the Leo Baeck Insti­tutes in New York, Lon­don, Berlin, and Jerusalem ded­i­cat­ed to the preser­va­tion of the cul­tur­al her­itage of Ger­man-speak­ing Jewry.

Michael A. Mey­er has writ­ten a biog­ra­phy that gives equal con­sid­er­a­tion to Leo Baeck­’s place as a coura­geous com­mu­ni­ty leader and as one of the most sig­nif­i­cant Jew­ish reli­gious thinkers of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, com­pa­ra­ble to such bet­ter-known fig­ures as Mar­tin Buber, Franz Rosen­zweig, and Abra­ham Joshua Hes­chel. Accord­ing to Mey­er, to under­stand Baeck ful­ly, one must probe not only his thought and pub­lic activ­i­ty but also his per­son­al­i­ty. Gen­er­al­ly described as gen­tle and kind, he could also be com­bat­ive when nec­es­sary, and a streak of puri­tanism and an out­sized ven­er­a­tion for mar­tyr­dom ran through his psy­cho­log­i­cal make­up. Draw­ing on a broad vari­ety of sources, some com­ing to light only in recent years, but espe­cial­ly turn­ing to Baeck­’s own writ­ings, Mey­er presents a com­plex and nuanced image of one of the most note­wor­thy per­son­al­i­ties in the Jew­ish his­to­ry of our age.

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