Leo Baeck Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)
0111206237-Baeck.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Teacher, author, historian of religion, philosophical-theological thinker, and outstanding articulator of modern Judaism, Baeck was the leading rabbi in Germany before World War II and one of the foremost rabbinical scholars of the twentieth century.

Early Life

One of the most important rabbinical scholars of the twentieth century, Leo Baeck was descended from a well-established rabbinical family. He was born in the Prussian town of Lissa (now Leszno, Poland) to Rabbi Samuel Baeck on May 23, 1873. Educated during the German-Jewish renaissance that produced such outstanding Jewish thinkers as Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Franz Kafka, and Martin Buber, Baeck studied for the rabbinate at the conservative Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau and the University of Breslau, where he read religion, philosophy, and languages. In 1895, he completed the Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Berlin, where he was a student of Wilhelm Dilthey and Ernst Troeltsch. A Reform Jew, Baeck was ordained at the progressive Academy for the Study of Judaism in Berlin in 1897, where he also studied. A rabbi of the Reform wing of Judaism, he began his ministry in the Silesian town of Opole. In 1907, he moved to Düsseldorf, where his preeminence as a Jewish scholar had already brought him acclaim. In 1912, he was appointed to Oranienburger, the most prominent synagogue in Berlin, where he become the leading rabbi of the capital of Germany.

His scholarship won for him an invitation to teach homiletics and Midrash (interpretative rabbinical literature) at his alma mater, the Academy for the Study of Judaism. Though teaching was a favorite occupation, he declined the title of professor, preferring to be known as rabbi. An assimilated German Jew, he nevertheless remained fully identified with all aspects of Jewish life. His sermons were solemn explorations, painstaking “Dialogues with God,” as they have been called. As an army chaplain on the Eastern and Western fronts in the 1914-1918 war, he became a pacifist. He was married and became the father of a daughter who emigrated to England before the war.

Life’s Work

Baeck’s first major publication was a review article responding to a provocative work by Protestant theologian Adolf von Harnack, Das Wesen des Christentums (1900; What Is Christianity?, 1901), which depicted Jesus and early Christianity as unrelated to Jewish religious and cultural tradition and Judaic thought as inferior to Christian belief. Rejecting Harnack’s conclusions and scholarship, Baeck stressed Jesus’ importance as a profoundly Jewish teacher who revered the traditions of the Prophets. In his magnum opus, Das Wesen des Judentums (1905; The Essence of Judaism, 1936), Baeck defended the Jewish faith against overt or implied attacks. Basing his work on a profound knowledge of Jewish sources, deep historical knowledge, and neo-Kantian rationalism, Baeck traced the development of Judaism’s central concepts—Torah, Talmud, and Halacha—from the Exodus to modern times. Interpreting Judaism as revolutionary and dynamic ethical monotheism, he stressed its development as a response to ethical demands, the categorical “ought” of the divine imperative, on generations of Jews, making Jewish history an ongoing vehicle of continuing revelation. In Judaism, he saw the highest expression of morality with a universal message. While Jewry, he argued, is unique, every people is a mystery, each “a question posed by God.”

During the 1920’s, Baeck expanded his studies, which led him to greater appreciation of the mystical aspects of Judaism, to which he gave place in a much-revised edition (1922) of his great work. Also in 1922, Baeck published a remarkable essay, Romantische Religion (romantic religion), a bold critique of the differences between Christianity and Judaism, which brought the dialogue between the two faiths to greater clarity and intensity. Baeck contrasted Christianity with Judaism, the former characterized as an emotional, sentimental, and “romantic” religion longing for redemption in the next world, the latter as a “classical,” rational faith, commanded to work for the improvement of life in this world. Baeck’s scholarship brought him to international prominence. During the interwar years, he became head of numerous German-Jewish organizations and was honored by many national German-Jewish groups.

His most outstanding service was rendered as the leader of German Jewry after the National Socialists came to power in 1933. So great was international respect for Baeck that the Nazis hesitated to destroy him. They offered him emigration, but, though he received attractive offers from England and the United States to take a position, he remained with his stricken community.

During the Nazi persecutions, he became the chief spokesperson for Jews in Germany. He was appointed president of the National Agency of German Jews and head of the Jewish Central Committee for Aid and Improvement. In these positions, he faced the arduous task of negotiating with the Nazi government, trying to mitigate the persecution of his people. He presided over efforts at emigration, economic assistance, charity, education, and culture with annual budgets running into millions of dollars. By prudent diplomacy he helped arrange the emigration of more than forty thousand Jews, many of them young people. He devoted his influence and diplomatic skills to defending whatever rights were left to Jews in Nazi Germany, to lessening or delaying Nazi persecution, and to upholding the morale of the beleaguered German-Jewish community. Despite the hostile environment and his many responsibilities, he continued a prodigious scholarship.

On the eve of World War II, Baeck accepted the presidency of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and was appointed as the leader of the newly formed National Organization of the Jews of Germany. Baeck was continuously endangered, arrested and released four times, and repeatedly interrogated by the Gestapo. A week before World War II began, he led a last trainload of children to safety in England, then returned. With the...

(The entire section is 2549 words.)