The Philosophy of Leo Baeck

From monotheism to morality.

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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.

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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.