Who Was Rabbi Leo Baeck?
RABBI LEO BAECK was a renowned figure in German Jewish life, and indeed in the intellectual world of twentieth-century Jewish thought. When he spoke in Los Angeles in the 1940s, he inspired the recently-formed congregation of Beth Aaron to change its name to Leo Baeck Temple.
WHAT DID THIS COLLECTION OF MID-CENTURY JEWISH ANGELENOS hear that so impressed them? Who was Leo Baeck and what ideas did he espouse?
Baeck was born in the region of Posen in 1873. At the time of his birth, Posen was part of Germany, and its residents, including its Jews, strove to acquire and emulate German kultur. Kultur is a difficult expression to fully translate, but broadly speaking it applies to an all-encompassing sense of German civilization—its people, their thinking, art, religion, values, practically any aspect of culture one can articulate. One of the chief aspects of German thinking, one of the linchpins of kultur, if you will, was an appreciation of rationalism and scientific study. Baeck, the son of an Orthodox Rabbi who also developed a keen appreciation of German kultur, sought to learn from two intellectual worlds--the world of Judaism and Jewish thought of his father, and the world of European, or rather, German liberal education. This interest in synthesizing Jewish and western learning can be seen in his choice of university. Baeck studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary at Breslau, one of the great centers of what has been called the wissenschaft des Judentums, or the “scientific study of Jews and Judaism.” The scholars of the “Wissenschaft” were Jews profoundly interested in the historical, sociological and anthropological study of Jews and Judaism, as a means of bringing rationality to Judaism. Through their studies they sought to explain the meaning and evolution of Jewish theology and ritual, both to establish its historical roots and to provide a set of rationale for contemporary Jewish observance.
BAECK WAS AN INTELLECTUAL DESCENDANT OF Hermann Cohen, a German Jewish philosopher who is considered one of the founders of the wissenschaft des Judentums. Cohen saw ethical monotheism as a critical societal element in influencing proper behavior in the world, and he argued that Judaism, as the founding religion in the move towards ethical monotheism, was of paramount importance. To be clear, for Cohen, the existence of God simply did not matter in practical terms. Religion worked because it advanced an important set of rational societal goals.
BAECK, TOO, BELIEVED IN JUDAISM'S CENTRALITY in informing rational, ethical monotheism, but unlike Cohen, Baeck possessed a more committed and nuanced belief in the Almighty. Mere ethical behavior was not enough for Baeck. Central to Judaism, as well, was the Jewish people’s relationship with God, and God’s assurance of their survival. Baeck’s certainty in the survival of God’s chosen people was sorely tested in the 1930s and 1940s when Hitler conquered Central and Eastern Europe.
BAECK WAS A PROMINENT FIGURE IN GERMAN JEWISH LIFE throughout Hitler's reign of power and terror. As a visible and important representative of the German Jewish people, Baeck had numerous opportunities to escape Germany in the early to mid-1930s, but he refused, believing that he had a religious and ethical obligation to work on behalf of his coreligionists. He famously said that he would not leave Germany until there were too few Jews to put together a minyan (traditionally, ten Jewish men).
BAECK WAS SENT TO Thereisenstadt Concentration Camp in 1943, but continued to help his people, speaking out on their behalf and teaching. Yet even the Holocaust did not shake Baeck’s belief in the centrality of Jewish ethics and the certainty of the existence of God. After the war, Baeck traveled the world, arguing that the Holocaust was not God’s failure, but man’s. Humans had an ethical and indeed rational obligation to resist evil and during the Holocaust many had failed to uphold this obligation. So this message was what the congregants of Beth Aaron heard, which prompted them to change the name of their temple. Baeck issued a call for human action on behalf of social justice, to do so because it was rational to do so and because of the certainty that God had a unique relationship with the Jews. That unique relationship had assured their survival throughout the ages, even in the face of the Holocaust.
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