Rab­bi Leo Baeck: Liv­ing a Reli­gious Imper­a­tive in Trou­bled Times

Michael A. Meyer

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.

Discussion Questions

This illu­mi­nat­ing biog­ra­phy cap­tures the essence of the life of Rab­bi Baeck in the sun­light and dark­ness of Ger­many in the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Baeck was a pri­vate, mod­est, and hum­ble man who emerged as one of the most impor­tant Jew­ish fig­ures of his time. Baeck was not only one of the lead­ing voic­es of Lib­er­al Reform Judaism but also an intel­lect, leader, teacher of and bea­con for Jew­ish cul­ture, obser­vance, and reli­gios­i­ty for the Ger­man Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. After World War II, he emerged as an icon­ic fig­ure rep­re­sent­ing courage and resis­tance to Nazism. Mey­er presents Baeck’s life from ear­ly child­hood through his death in 1956. Baeck’s life as a stu­dent — informed by Tal­mu­dic and Jew­ish stud­ies, com­bined with his belief in the mys­ti­cism of nature, and framed by a height­ened sense of moral­i­ty — forged Baeck’s the­o­log­i­cal faith in G‑d. Baeck believed a life with­out moral­i­ty was mean­ing­less. The author presents Baeck’s life with great detail and vivid­ness, with­in the con­text of both the Ger­man Jew­ry com­mu­ni­ty and in the cul­tur­al, polit­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal milieu of greater Ger­many and Europe. Baeck always put the faith and wel­fare of the Ger­man Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty ahead of his own well-being. Dur­ing the late 1930s, he was urged to leave Ger­many and emi­grate to Eng­land. Baeck refused to aban­don the imper­iled Ger­man Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty (although he did secure pas­sage for his daugh­ter). Ulti­mate­ly, he was deport­ed to There­sien­stadt. Baeck was described as a sym­bol of civ­i­lized human­i­ty fac­ing bes­tial­i­ty (Nazism), the father who would not aban­don his chil­dren (Ger­man Jew­ry).”. Even in the dark­ness of There­sien­stadt, he con­tin­ued to illu­mi­nate Jews and gen­tiles through schol­ar­ship, teach­ing, lead­er­ship and faith. Baeck believed that mar­tyr­dom was a sacred com­mand­ment, sanc­ti­fy­ing G‑d and ful­fill­ing a mitzvah.