Leo Baeck

Theologian who stressed the ethical center of Judaism.

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But why should we assume that ethics must be derived from religious consciousness and that the only correct response to God is an ethical one? The contemporary Reform theologian Eugene Borowitz notes that Baeck never adequately answered this question, claiming instead that his purpose, as a historian, was to describe how Judaism had always understood itself. But, if so, Baeck faced another insurmountable challenge: demonstrating that a dynamic, evolving tradition had an unchanging "essence" and that this essence was identical with his own modern, rationalist conception of Judaism.

At any rate, Baeck's vision of ethical monotheism had two important practical implications. First, human autonomy, the responsibility to choose between good and evil, is at the center of Judaism. This is encapsulated in the traditional idea of teshuva--moral healing by means of a penitential return to God.

Second, in his later work This People Israel: The Meaning of Jewish Existence, Baeck reiterated his idea that ethics and not ceremonial law is the core of Judaism. Baeck distinguished between law--which he considered to be of human origin--and divine commandment, which inheres only in those ordinances which lead towards morality. Yet man-made ritual law plays an important role: to sustain the Jewish people, thereby creating a framework for the realisation of the ethical. This is the universal meaning which Baeck ascribed to the apparently particularistic, even chauvinistic, concept of chosenness: only the Jews chose to make divinely grounded morality--ethical monotheism--the basis of their national, ethnic identity.

Baeck and the Nazis

Throughout his career, Baeck was sought out for positions of communal leadership. He was a member of the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith, an organization committed to fighting German anti-Semitism, and a non-Zionist member of the Jewish Agency in 1897. But he wasn't an anti-Zionist, and he had been one of only two rabbis to vote against the German Rabbinical Association's condemnation of political Zionism.

After Hitler's rise to power, Baeck refused all offers of escape, declaring that he would stay as long as there was a minyan of Jews in Germany. In 1933, he was elected founding president of the Representative Council of German Jews. At the organization's first meeting, Baeck declared: "The thousand years history of German Jewry is at an end." Nonetheless, he ceaselessly fought against the Nazi onslaught, working to provide social services to the devastated Jewish community and often negotiating directly with the Gestapo.


In 1943, Leo Baeck was deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. There he was put to hard physical labour on a garbage cart. Three of Baeck's sisters had already died in the camp; one more perished after his arrival there.

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Matt Plen

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.