The Philosophy of Leo Baeck

From monotheism to morality.

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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.

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Leo Baeck

Leo Baeck (1873-1956) was an 20th century German-Polish-Jewish rabbi, scholar, and a leader of Progressive Judaism.