Leo Baeck: Something Eternal

How to understand Leo Baeck's philosophy on God today.

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Reprinted with permission from the author.

“For Judaism, religion does not consist simply in the recognition of God’s existence. We possess religion only when we know that our life is bound up with something eternal, when we feel that we are linked with God and that he is our God.”-Leo Baeck

Just this morning, I was behind a Toyota Corolla at a red light with this bumper sticker on its trunk: “God is too big to fit inside one religion.” And it made me think--and pause a little too long when the light turned green. What does this bumper sticker wisdom mean? I suppose that every religion tries to claim the monopoly on God through its own prayers, devotional literature, rituals and leadership. But God, by God’s very nature, must transcend all these boundaries.
eternal god
Leo Baeck, in his book The Essence of Judaism, challenges us to think about the way God is manifest in Judaism. His book was a Jewish response to a book by Adolph van Harnack, The Essence of Christianity. Baeck (1873-1956) was a great German Jewish rabbi, thinker and leader who studied at the Conservative Theological Seminary in Breslau. He was deported to Theresienstadt Concentration Camp but was liberated by the Russians in 1945. After his liberation he continued to write, and the Reform rabbinical college in London is named after him to this day.

What Did He Believe?

Baeck begins his discussion of God with the premise that there are thinkers who believe that the idea of God is no more religious than the idea of gravitation. God is the first mover who created the universe and does nothing more than explain cosmic order. Baeck finds this untenable:

In this idea faith can find neither its basis nor its strength. The gift of religious certainty is conveyed solely by that which God means to our existence and our soul, by the inner consistency which our life thus gains, by our resultant moral power, by the satisfaction of finding answers to our questions and demands, and by our discovery of the relationship between our spiritual nature and the Divine – that feeling which realizes the call from God to us each day of our lives: ‘Where art thou?’ (Gen. 3:9).

Baeck tries to identify the source of our transcendent feelings, those that make us believe that we are called to holiness and obligation, intimacy and responsibility. We all want to belong to something larger than ourselves and attach ourselves to a sense of higher purpose. Baeck is concerned that if God is a fact rather than an inspiration, then we have no relationship to God. There is no covenant and no connection.

When we look at the way God appears in the Hebrew Bible, through narrative and law, the emphasis again and again is personal: God, your God, God the God of your ancestors; the Lord, your God is holy. As Baeck writes above, it is not God’s existence which changes us but our belief that God is in relationship with us. We are bound up with God and joined to something eternal.

We are left with the challenge of making God not merely a factual reality in our lives (which in an age of pervasive atheism is in itself a challenge) but an intimate partner in our everyday activities and our decision-making. If we are bound to something eternal then it is our task to discover what is eternal and bind ourselves to it.

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Erica Brown

Dr. Erica Brown is the Director for Adult Education at The Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning and consults for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. She is an author-winning author and the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award. Erica has served as an adjunct professor at American University and George Washington University. She lectures on subjects of Jewish interest and leadership.