Leo Baeck

Theologian who stressed the ethical center of Judaism.

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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 baeckLeo 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. 

Fritz Bamberger, a fellow German-Jewish scholar, remembered that, "when Leo Baeck preached, he did not talk down to an audience. Choosing each word carefully, building each sentence for measure and rhythm, speaking somewhat monotonously in a strangely vibrating high-pitched voice, now and then underlining a phrase with a movement of his sensitive hands, more often revealing the importance of a thought by an increased sharpness of his eyes, it appeared that he expected the response to his words not from his listeners but from somewhere beyond."

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Matt Plen

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.