Leo Baeck

Theologian who stressed the ethical center of Judaism.

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Although one community leader labelled the rabbi's sermons "Baeck's private conversations with God," the congregation accepted him as their leader and teacher.

Baeck's Theology: The Essence of Judaism

Leo Baeck's thought was part of a tradition of rationalist German Judaism which reached its apogee with Hermann Cohen, the late nineteenth century philosopher who characterised Judaism as the universal "Religion of Reason." Cohen saw human reason as the foundation of universal ethics and the goal of religion as the realisation of morality in the life of the individual.

Cohen--following Immanuel Kant--conceived of God as a "postulate of practical reason," that is, an idea created by human beings to lend legitimacy to their autonomous, rational, ethical system. But while philosophically sound, this approach was religiously problematic. Franz Rosenzweig related that Cohen once explained to an old Jew the idea of God which he had developed in his ethics. The old man listened attentively, but when Cohen had finished he asked him: "But where is the boreh olam, the creator of the world?"

This is a question that would have resonated with Baeck. Perhaps because of his rabbinical vocation, Baeck was concerned less with philosophical certainty and the idea of God than with his congregants' real-life spiritual experience. Yet as a rationalist, he wanted to preserve morality as the foundation of Judaism. Was it possible to develop a theology which allowed for a living relationship with God and yet maintained the primacy of ethics? This is the question that drove Baeck's theological quest.

Leo Baeck's best known work, The Essence of Judaism, was written following the publication of Protestant theologian Adolf von Harnack's Essence of Chrisianity, which compared Judaism unfavourably with Christianity. In response, Baeck described Christianity as a romantic, "feminine" tradition, based on feeling and grace. In contrast, he labelled Judaism as classical, "masculine," and oriented towards ethical action. Christianity's essentially non-ethical character could not be reformed by trying to graft on liberal principles, whereas the fundamentally moral basis of Judaism rendered it supremely compatible with modern values.

While Baeck agreed with Hermann Cohen that Judaism was, in its essence, ethical monotheism, Baeck argued that it stemmed not from an abstract philosophical idea but from the individual's religious consciousness. So too, Jewish ethics had to be founded on religious certainty about a living God who dictates moral norms as part of his relationship with human beings. Thus Jewish theology reflected a tension between immanence--the individual's personal relationship with God--and transcendence: God's magisterial, law-giving aspect.

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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.