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Leo Baeck (1873-1956) was one of the most profound and creative liberal Jewish theologians of the 20th century. Today, his name graces dozens of institutions of Jewish learning and scholarship across the world. But he is perhaps best known as the rabbi of Theresienstadt, a teacher who maintained his humanity and those of others in the face of Nazi brutality. His is a legacy of universal ethics and openness to the non-Jewish world, combined with an unwavering commitment to Judaism and his relationship with God.
Student, Teacher, Rabbi
Leo Baeck was born in the German town of Lissa (now Leszno in Poland). His father, Samuel Baeck, was a local rabbi and scholar. Leo was brought up in a traditional home, observing the dietary laws and engaging in daily Talmud study, but his father’s friendship with the local Calvinist minister taught him to appreciate the possibility of interfaith friendship and dialogue.
In contrast to his lifelong commitment to Judaism, Leo Baeck’s relationship with Jewish law–halakha–evolved over the course of his studies. After leaving his traditional home, he moved to Breslau and enrolled in the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative rabbinical academy. But in 1894, Baeck left Breslau for Berlin’s Reform-oriented Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums–the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies–where he received his rabbinic diploma in 1897. Baeck’s rabbinic scholarship was complemented by his philosophical studies, first in Breslau and later under the philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey at the University of Berlin.
Leo Baeck’s rabbinic career took him to communities in Silesia, Düsseldorf and, from 1912, Berlin. During World War I, he served as a military chaplain and saw service on both the eastern and western fronts. In addition to ministering to the troops, he tended to the spiritual needs of local Russian Jews.
Back in Berlin, Baeck’s relationship with his congregation’s leaders was never easy. His character was marked by an uncompromising commitment to scholarship and the pursuit of truth; his personality lacked dynamism, and he was far from gregarious.
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