The Philosophy of Leo Baeck

From monotheism to morality.

Reprinted with permission from The Essence of Judaism (Random House).

Leo Baeck (1873-1956) was one of the most profound and creative liberal Jewish theologians of the 20th century. 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. Below are selections from his best-known work.

A Religion Without Dogma

If we view the word “dogma” in its restricted sense, it might indeed be said that Judaism has no dogmas and therefore no orthodoxy, as religious orthodoxy is usually understood. Of course, in any positive religion, classical phrases will pass from generation to generation, each of which will view these phrases as the ancient and holy vessels of religious truth. Wherever there exists a treasury of faith, a depositum fidei, it is expressed in sacred words which ring with the tones of revelation and tradition. But that does not yet constitute a dogma in the precise sense of the word. A dogma is present only when a definite formula of conceptions has been crystallized, and only when this formula is declared binding, with salvation made dependent on it, by establish authority. (Pg. 12)

The Prophetic Word

Every system of thought is intolerant and breeds intolerance, because it fosters self-righteousness and self-satisfaction–it is significant that the most ruthless of inquisitors have come from the ranks of systematizers. Fixing its focus of vision at a certain definite range, a system cuts itself off from all outside of that focus of vision and thus prevents the living development of truth. On the other hand, the prophetic word is a living and personal confession of faith which cannot be circumscribed by rigid boundaries, it possesses a breadth and a freedom carrying within itself the possibilities of revival and development. (Pg. 43)

Ethics: The Essence of Judaism

No matter when one fixes the date of Israel’s birth and no matter what view one may take of its development, one thing is certain: its predominant aspect from the very beginning was its ethical character, the importance it attached to the moral law. Ethics constitute its essence. Monotheism is the result of a realization of the absolute character of the moral law; moral consciousness teacher about God.

This ethical character is completely new. Ethical monotheism was not the outcome of previous development, but a conscious abandonment of it. For there can be no genuine transition from a nature religion (that is, a religion in which the forces of nature are worshipped and in which the gods are conceived as embodiments of nature) into an ethical religion in which God, as the Holy One, the originator of morality, is something other than nature and can be served only by the right deed. Of course it is quite possible for nature religions to acquire ethical elements by moralizing their gods and transforming them into guardian of the civic community. But a nature religion cannot develop into a purely ethical religion without a sharp break, a revolution. This transition is the world of creative personality, of founders of religion, and thus it involved a discovery.

The ethical monotheism of Israel is a religion that has been founded. The “One God” of Israel is not the last word of an old way of thinking, but rather the first word of a new way of thinking. In so far as this form of religion is a creation, embodying an entirely new and fruitful principle, we are entitled to call it historically–quite apart from supernatural conceptions–a revelation.

We may say this all the more emphatically because it has remained an absolutely unique phenomenon. Nothing like this birth of monotheism out of Israel’s moral consciousness has ever occurred elsewhere in history. It is idle to speculate if and in what form is might have come into existence under difference circumstances. Historically the fact remains that monotheism was given to mankind by Israel and by Israel alone. (Pg. 59-60)

Religious Optimism

The belief that there is a meaning in all things is possible only as a belief in the good. There is only one complete and flawless optimism, and that is ethical optimism.

Finite and limited man is not the source of this good; for the good demand an unconditional, absolute foundation. Its basis can there be found only in the One God, the outcome of whose nature is the moral law. In him the good finds the certainty of its external reality. And thus the good arises from the source of all existence: its law emerges from the depth in which the secret is contained.

The One God is the answer to all mystery; he is the source of all that is eternal and ethical, creative and ordered, hidden and definite. From this alliance between the secret and the commandment issues all existence and all significance Thereby their unity is apprehended; commandment is linked to secret and secret to commandment. Goodness is of God and set by him before man who has the power to realize it. There is but one optimism, comprising all which rests upon the One God: ethical monotheism. It is therefore a necessary consequence of those religions which, like Buddhism, are consistently pessimistic that they are religions without God and that their ethical element is merely a contingent aspect of man’s activity. (Pg. 84)

Oneself, Neighbors, and Humankind

The optimism of Judaism consists of the belief in God, and consequently also a belief in man, who is able to realize in himself the good which first finds its reality in God. From the optimism all the ideas of Judaism can be derived. Thereby a threefold relationship is established. First the belief in oneself: one’s soul is created in the image of God and is therefore capable of purity and freedom; the soul is the arena in which reconciliation with God is always possible. Secondly, the belief in one’s neighbor: every human being has the same individuality that I have; his soul with its possible purity and freedom also derives from God; and he is at the bottom akin to me and is therefore my neighbor and my brother. Thirdly, the belief in mankind: all men are children of God; hence they are welded together by a common task. To know the spiritual reality of one’s own life, of the life of our neighbors and of the life of humanity as a whole as they are grounded in the common reality of God–this is the expression of Jewish optimism.

These three aspects of the belief in the good cannot be separated in the demands they impose on us any more than they can be detached from their mutual foundation: the One God. (Pg. 87)

The Importance of Jewish Law

To the tasks set by Judaism’s faith in God and in man are added the duties based upon the commandment for the continued existence of the religious community, which are to be fulfilled by action. In accordance with the severity and duration of the struggle which Judaism had to conduct, these duties were exceedingly numerous. They include the manifold statutes, forms, customs, and institutions–e.g., the dietary laws and Sabbath rules, elaborated in the Talmud and usually given the erroneous name of the ritual Law. These serve not the religious idea itself but mainly the protection of its needs–a security for its existence through the existence of the religious community. This, and only this, is the primary measure of their value.

Their significance is characteristically express in the Talmudic phrase, “the fence around the law.” They are a barricade for, rather than the doctrine of, Judaism. Historically this distinction has been maintained: the religion was not confused with or put on the same level as these statues. (Pg. 263)

To question whether this fence which surrounded and still surrounds Judaism was really necessary is to verge on ingratitude. For in history everything that fulfils a definite and required task is necessary; whatever accomplishes something and remains within the domain of the good is justified. In any case we know that by means of this fence the Jewish community maintained its individuality in the midst of both hostile and friendly worlds. Nobody knows what its existence would have been without it.

We must therefore acknowledge with gratitude the uses of that fence. It is neither unchanging nor unchangeable; in spite of burdens placed upon it, it possesses elasticity. We must preserve it to protect the existence and thus the task of Judaism until the struggle is over and the complete truth of the Sabbath of Sabbaths, which, says the ancient saying, “shall last for ever,” is fulfilled. The great Day of Atonement for the sake of which Judaism guards its individuality has not yet arrived. (Pg. 270)

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