This week, MyJewishLearning looks back on the life and thought of Leo Baeck, a theologian whose name graces many institutions and buildings, but whose actual writings are vastly underappreciated. Baeck died 50 years ago this month on November 2, 1956 (Heshvan 28 in the Jewish calendar — which this year falls on Sunday, November 19).
Baeck was a progressive rabbi who made his mark in pre-WWII Europe before spending the last years of his life in England. He conceived of Judaism as, essentially, ethical monotheism, though he had a very subtle and sophisticated appreciation for aspects of traditional Judaism, as well. For an introduction to Baeck’s work, read Matt Plen’s new article on MJL.
I first read Baeck’s work as a 19 year-old, but his masterpiece The Essence of Judaism is still one of my favorite works of Jewish theology.
In the Middle Ages, Jewish thinkers compiled lists of Judaism’s creeds, the most famous being Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith. But modern thinkers, beginning with Moses Mendelsohn, de-emphasized Jewish dogma. Like his contemporary Solomon Schechter, Baeck was one such theologian.
Baeck saw Judaism as, fundamentally, a religion of action, not a religion of belief, and for him, this positioned Judaism to be a more open and tolerant faith, as well as a more activist one. In The Essence of Judaism he wrote:
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 the systamatizers. 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 breadth and a freedom carrying within itself the possibilities of revival and development.
Men can persuade themselves that they fully possess the Word and still more the Creed. Against this tendency to complacency, the religion of the deed is a counterbalance, for in it the ideal can never be realized.
Baeck’s humanism was prescient. His theology guards against the types of fundamentalism — from all religions and ideologies — that are cancers for the world today. Baeck’s thought can be a tikkun, a redemptive remedy for these trends.