Baeck, Leo

views updated May 29 2018


BAECK, LEO (18731956), rabbi and theologian, representative spokesman of German Jewry during the Nazi era. Born in Lissa, Posen (at that time part of Prussian Germany), a son of the local rabbi, Baeck first pursued his higher education at the university in Breslau and the moderately liberal Jewish Theological Seminary. In order to study with the distinguished scholar of religion Wilhelm Dilthey, Baeck transferred to the university in Berlin, where he earned a doctorate in 1895. Two years later, he was ordained as a rabbi at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, a leading institution of Liberal Judaism. Baeck then held pulpits in Oppeln (Silesia) and Düsseldorf, and in 1912 he was called to Berlin where, with the exception of a stint as chaplain during World War I, he remained until his deportation to a concentration camp by the Nazis. During his years in Berlin, Baeck assumed a number of increasingly influential positions. In 1913 he joined the faculty of the Hochschule as a docent of Midrash and homiletics. In 1922 he became chairman of the national association of German rabbis, and in 1925 he assumed the presidency of the Bʾnai Bʾrith, a fraternal network, in Germany.

When Hitler ascended to the German chancellorship, it was Baeck who had the prescience to declare that "the thousand-year" history of German Jewry had come to an end. Baeck was instrumental in founding the Reichsvertretung der deutschen Juden, an organization that made the most successful attempt in German-Jewish history to unify Jewish defense, welfare, and cultural activities on a nationwide scale. As president of this body, he devoted himself to defending the rights of Jews in Germany, facilitating their emigration, and raising the morale of those still left in Hitler's Reich. A noteworthy example of the last effort was a special prayer composed by Baeck for public recitation on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) in 1935, which included a defiant rejection of Nazi slanders: "In indignation and abhorrence, we express our contempt for the lies concerning us and the defamation of our religion and its testimonies" (Out of the Whirlwind: A Reader of Holocaust Literature, ed. Albert Friedlander, New York, 1968, p. 132). Arrested repeatedly by the Nazis for his outspokenness, Baeck persisted in his refusal to flee Germany until every Jew had been rescued. He continued to head the national body of German Jews after it was forcibly reorganized by the government into a council that was accountable to the Nazis. In January 1943 Baeck was deported along with other elderly German Jews to the concentration camp of Theresienstadt. In that "model camp" he served as honorary president of the ruling Jewish council and devoted his time to comforting and teaching his fellow inmates. When the camp was liberated, he still refused to leave his flock until he had been assured of their safety.

Baeck immigrated to London after the war. His last years were devoted to work on behalf of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, teaching at the Hebrew Union College (the Reform rabbinical school in Cincinnati), and organizing the surviving remnants of German Jewry. In England, he served as president of the Council of Jews from Germany. And shortly before his death, Baeck helped found an international research institute for the study of central European Jewry that bears his name (the Leo Baeck Institute).

Baeck's writings reflect his lifelong efforts to defend his people and faith. He achieved early fame by rebutting the anti-Jewish claims of Adolf von Harnack, a liberal Protestant theologian who denigrated Judaism in his book Das Wesen des Christentums (The Essence of Christianity). Baeck's first book, a polemical work entitled Vorlesungen über das Wesen des Judentums (Lectures on the Essence of Judaism; 1905), continued this defense and boldly proclaimed Judaism superior to Christianity, a claim that won Baeck considerable attention as a champion of German Jewry. Employing the approach to religion developed by his mentor, Dilthey, Baeck attempted to penetrate the underlying psychology of Judaism and understand the Jewish religion in its totality (Gestalt ).

In subsequent essays and reworkings of his first book, Baeck sharpened the contrast between Judaism and Christianity: the latter, he claimed, was a "romantic religion" that exalted feeling, self-indulgence, dogma, and passivity; Judaism, by contrast, was a "classical religion" imbued with ethical concerns. In Judaism, Baeck saw a religion in which God's mystery and commandment exist as polarities. Dieses Volk (This People Israel), a book written in Nazi Berlin and the concentration camp of Theresienstadt, explores the meaning of Jewish existence. Written during the bleakest era of Jewish history, it is a work of optimism that expresses Leo Baeck's belief in the eternity of the Jewish people and their ongoing mission. In defiant rejection of Nazi barbarism, Baeck affirmed the messianic role of the people Israel to heed God's ethical command.


Two of Baeck's most important books have been translated into English: The Essence of Judaism, rev. ed. (New York, 1961), and This People Israel: The Meaning of Jewish Existence, translated by Albert H. Friedlander (New York, 1965). Several of his major essays appear in Judaism and Christianity: Essays by Leo Baeck, translated by Walter Kaufmann (Philadelphia, 1958). There are two book-length studies of Leo Baeck: Friedlander's Leo Baeck: Teacher of Theresienstadt (New York, 1968) primarily analyzes Baeck's writings; Leonard Baker's Days of Sorrow and Pain: Leo Baeck and the Berlin Jews (New York, 1978), a more popular account, describes, on the basis of extensive interviews, Baeck's communal and wartime activities.

Jack Wertheimer (1987)

Baeck, Leo

views updated May 29 2018


BAECK, LEO (1873–1956), German rabbi and religious thinker, leader of Progressive Judaism. Baeck was born in Lissa (now Lenzno, Poland) the son of Rabbi Samuel Baeck. Leo Baeck first studied at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, and remained close to its approach throughout his life. From 1894 Baeck studied at the Liberal *Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin. At the same time he also studied philosophy at the University of Breslau under J. Freudental and at the University of Berlin under the philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey. Baeck served as rabbi in Oppeln (1897–1907), Duesseldorf (1907–12), and Berlin (from 1912 on), and as an army chaplain in World War i. He began lecturing on midrashic literature and homiletics at the Hochschule in 1912 and became a close adherent of Hermann *Cohen.

Baeck was a member of the committee of the Central-Verein deutscher Staatsbuerger juedischen Glaubens and published numerous articles in its journal, C.V. Zeitung, and periodical, Der morgen, Baeck was a non-Zionist member of the Jewish Agency and occasionally contributed to the German Zionist weekly Juedische Rundschau. From 1922 he served as the chairman of the Rabbinerverband in Deutschland, which included Liberal as well as Orthodox rabbis. From 1933 he was president of the Reichsvertretung, the representative body of German Jews, and devoted himself to defending the rights remaining for Jews under the Nazis. He refused all invitations to serve as a rabbi or professor abroad, declaring that he would remain with the last minyan (prayer quorum) of Jews in Germany as long as possible. At Terezin (*Theresienstadt) concentration camp, to which he was deported in early 1943, he was named honorary president of the Aeltestenrat and continued the work of encouraging his people. Thus, he became a "witness of his faith," a theme that had long occupied a central position in his writings. According to a testimony he allegedly gave to Eric Boem, he was informed in 1943 of the death camps but decided not to share the information with the Jewish leadership of the camp in order not to undermine Jewish hope, a decision that was sharply criticized by some and provoked a bitter public debate. After the war, in July 1945, he moved to London, where he became president of the council of Jews from Germany and the chairman of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. From 1948 until his death he taught intermittently in the United States as professor of history of religion at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

Thought and Works

Baeck saw himself primarily as a rabbi and a preacher, who understood his mission beyond the borders of his own Liberal affiliation, as shaped by his responsibility to the entire German Jewish community and the Jewish people at large. His philosophical-theological thought as well as his works on history of religion should be read and measured in light of his rabbinic mission. In 1901 he published a polemic article against Wesen des Christentums by the Protestant theologian Adolf von Harnack. Four years later Baeck published his main work Wesen des Judentums (1905; The Essence of Judaism, 1936). Many further editions and printings of it were published, as well as English (19483), Japanese, and Hebrew (1968) translations. The apologetic character that dominated the first edition was considerably modified in the second and the extreme rationalism was eliminated. This transformation was the result of the influence of mysticism and Jewish nationalism. He identified the essence of Judaism with biblical prophecy, namely the direct experience of God's presence and the command to worship Him, a view he adopted from Rabbi *Judah Halevi. Hence, the essence of Judaism is a dialectic 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 in the form of instructions for action like flashes of lightning that break through the cloud covering the divine "mystery." Baeck adhered to Hermann Cohen's interpretation of Judaism as "ethical monotheism." He believed that piety is achieved by the fulfillment of the duties between man and man, but in contrast with Cohen he gradually developed a deep appreciation of mysticism, which he understood to be a creative, artistic imagination, based on myth and symbolic language, which point to a supreme spiritual sphere transcending art and imagination. Ritual observances are directed toward this ethical religious aim as well as the deepening of "mystical prophecy." His religious worldview was in that sense clearly liberal and deeply religious, though in practice he was quite traditionally observant.

Baeck sharply rejected Christianity, a religion that he regarded as a "romantic" one of the abstract spirit longing for redemption and as sharply distinguished from Judaism, the "classical" religion of the concrete spirit working for the improvement of this world. Judaism, in contrast with Christianity, is thus not aimed at the salvation of the individual soul but rather at the collective redemption of humanity and of the world. In line with his national and this-worldly view of Judaism and the Jewish people, Baeck had a sympathetic, although critical attitude towards Zionism. He thought that the building of Palestine was a valuable prospect for embodying the spirit of Judaism, but not a guarantee that it would be realized.

Other works of Baeck include Wege in Judentum (1933), a collection of essay and speeches; Aus drei Jahrtausenten (1938), a collection of scholarly papers destroyed by the Nazis and reprinted in 1958; Die Pharisaeer (1934; The Pharisees and other essays, 1947), Maimonides, der Mann seine Werke und seine Wirkung (1954) Dieses Volk Israel (2 vol., 1955–57; This People Israel, 1965), a work that he began to write in 1942 and whose first volume he completed while imprisoned in Terezin; Judaism and Christianity (1958). In 1954 Leo Baeck Institute for the study of the history of the Jews from German-speaking countries was established in his name, and he served as its first president. Other institutions carry his name, such as Leo Baeck College in London.


T. Wiener, in: sbb, 1 no. 3 (bibliography of his writings); E. Simon, Geheimnis und GebotDie Neue Wege (1948); idem, in: L. Baeck, Mahut ha-Yahadut (1968); A.H. Friedlander, Leo Baeck, Teacher of Theresienstadt (1968). add. bibliography: Leo BaeckWerke, ed. A.H. Friedlander et al. (1998–2003); E. Schweid, "'Prophetic mysticism' in Twentieth Century Jewish Thought," in: Modern Judaism, 14:2 (1994), 139–74; indem, Ma'avak ad Shaḥar (1991), 24–72; A. Barkai, "Von Berlin nach Theresienstadt – zur politischen Biographie von Leo Baeck (1933–1945)," in: Hoffnung und Untergang (1998), 111–40; M. Meyer, "The Thought of Leo Baeck – a Religious Philosophy for a Time of Adversity," in: Modern Judaism, 19:2 (1999), 107–17; W. Homolka (ed.), Leo BaeckZwischen Geheimnis und Gebot (1997); A. Barkai (ed.), Leo BaeckManhigut ve-Hagut (2000).

[Akiba Ernst Simon /

Yehoyada Amir (2nd ed.)]

Leo Baeck

views updated May 23 2018

Leo Baeck

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.

His Thought

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

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 Sources

Baker, Leonard, Days of sorrow and pain: Leo Baeck and the Berlin Jews, New York: Macmillan, 1978. □

Baeck, Leo

views updated May 21 2018

Baeck, Leo (1873–1956). German rabbi and leader of progressive Judaism. He was a rabbi in Berlin from 1912 (serving as an army chaplain during the First World War). From 1933 he defended the rights of Jews in Nazi Germany and, refusing all invitations to leave, he was deported in 1943 to Theresienstadt concentration camp. After the war he moved to London, and then to the USA, to continue teaching. His best known work was Wesen des Judentums (The Essence of Judaism, 1905) in which, reacting against Harnack's Essence of Christianity, he argued that Judaism was essentially a dialectic between ‘mystery’ and ‘command’ within a system of ethical monotheism.