Rabbi Leo Baeck (1873 to 1956)

Rabbi Leo Baeck, a great scholar and compassionate soul, was born in Lissa, Poland in 1873, the son of a rabbi. He attended the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, followed by the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin, simultaneously studying philosophy at both the universities of Breslau and Berlin. Baeck occupied pulpits in Oppeln, Dusseldorf, and Berlin, and also taught at the Hochschule. When the Nazis came to power, Baeck was given numerous opportunities to escape, but he refused to leave his people, Finally, in 1943 he was deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp where he worked tirelessly to teach, counsel, support and inspire his fellow inmates. Baeck survived the Holocaust. After the war, he moved to London where he served as the chair of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and taught intermittently at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. Until his death in 1956, Baeck maintained a rigorous schedule of teaching and scholarship.

Baeck's most famous book is his first volume, The Essence of Judaism , published in 1905 and still considered a classic of modern Judaism. It was conceived as a polemic against Adolf von Harnack's critique of Judaism in The Essence of Christianity, hence the similarity of titles. Baeck pointed out that Harnack had failed to take into account the religious and cultural milieu of early Christianity by totally ignoring first century Judaism and rabbinic literature. Baeck argued forcefully that Judaism represents the height of classical religion: an ethical system characterized by monotheism and optimism, which helps people live their everyday lives morally. Baeck 's notion of ethical monotheism was much the same as Hermann Cohen's notion, but he added to this the aspect of mystery -- a sense of the holy -- as being part of the essence of Judaism. Baeck's emphasis on the emotional aspect of religiosity (where Cohen had focused solely on the cognitive aspect) distinguishes him. Like other liberals of the twentieth century, Baeck accepted the authority only of ethical commandments, not ritual acts. However, his comparison of Judaism and Christianity recognizes the emphasis of tradition on commandments of all kinds: While Christianity is infused with mystical rites of sacrament in an attempt to bring heaven down to earth, Judaism focuses on raising human behavior to the level of the divine, and hence emphasizes commandments and obligations which make demands upon a person's behavior.

Baeck was, indeed, a scholar of early Christian texts, studying the gospels to elucidate the real Jesus from the layers of Paul and imposed Hellenism. He wrote: "... whatever is completely different from the tendencies and purposes of the generations which came after the first generation of disciples; whatever contradicts the tenets which later became part of the faith; whatever is different from, or even opposed to, the intellectual, psychic, and political climate in which these later generations gradually found themselves; whatever,r in other words, exemplifies the way of life and the social structure, the climate of thought and feeling, the way of speaking and the style of Jesus' own environment and time. In all this we are confronted with the words and deeds of Jesus." [ The Gospel as a Document of the History of the Jewish Faith , p. 99f] Hence Baeck recovered Jesus's Jewishness and located him squarely in the world of first century, second Temple Judaism. The Christ, in contrast, was the creation of the Roman world, crafted by Paul and others who came later. Baeck hoped that uncovering the Jewish foundations of Christianity would enable Christians and Jews to forge genuine and respectful relations.

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