Leo Baeck on God, Halakha

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In anticipation of Leo Baeck’s 50th yahrzeit on Sunday, I’d like to highlight a few other aspects of his thought. Baeck was, in many ways, a prototypical product of Classical Reform Judaism. His religion was, to its core, Ethical Montotheism — and both of those words were key for him. Baeck was very much a theist. In The Essence of Judaism he wrote:

Some Jews seem to think that Judaism is completely contained in its ethical commandments and that the belief in God is a mere adornment. A grosser superficiality could not possibly be inflicted on the Jewish religion.

And for Baeck, God is not merely an absract idea. God is a being that commands — and demands.

The more thoroughly man realizes that God commands, the more conscious does he become of his freedom. Man then understands that he has been created for freedom, that good is a matter of the will and that he is free even before God.

This is a highly sophisticated and nuanced idea: the notion that we recognize our ability to act — our sense of agency — by internalizing commands. According to Baeck, our actions gain meaning and resonance when we realize that we are asked to act, that we are commanded to excercise our will. In a sense, “being commanded” is more important than the commandments themselves.

But Baeck does not totally eschew halakhah, traditional Jewish law. Here Baeck deviates from Classical Reform Judaism, and here we see two of Baeck’s most remarkable characteristics: his humility and perspective.

I quote Baeck at length here because his words are so atypical.

To question whether this fence [halacha] which surrounded and still surrounds Judaism was really necessary is to verge on ingratitude. For in history everything that fulfills a definite and required task is necessary; whatever accomplishes something and remains within the domain of the good is justified. In any case we know that by means of this fence the Jewish community maintained its individuality in the midst of both hostile and friendly worlds. Nobody knows what its existence would have been without it. We must therefore acknowledge with gratitude the uses of that fence. It is neither unchanging nor unchangeable; in spite of burdens placed upon it, it possesses elasticity. We must preserve it to protect the existence and thus the task of Judaism until the struggle is over and the complete truth of the Sabbath of Sabbaths, which says the ancient saying, “shall last for ever,” is fulfilled. That great Day of Atonement for the sake of which Judaism guards its individuality has not yet arrived.

For me, this quote is a classic example of Baeck’s genius and importance. He blazed his own path and is difficult to fit into a neat denominational category. Fifty years after his death, this legacy should be both memorialized and embraced.

Posted on November 17, 2006

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