You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

May 23: Leo Baeck

Lawrence Bush
May 23, 2010

13253-004-40594D34Rabbi Leo Baeck, the leader of the German Jewish community in its darkest hour, was born on this date in 1873. In 1905 he published The Essence of Judaism, which presented the Jewish religion as a blend of rationalism, sacred sensibility, universal ethics, and belief in the reality of God. The book established him as a defender of Judaism and a bridge thinker among rationalists, existentialists, and liberal theologians. Under the Nazis, Baeck was president of the Reichsvertretung der Deutschen Juden, the Jewish council, and has been criticized for his attempts to negotiate while Germany’s Jews were being liquidated. Though jailed several times for his protests, he essentially served as chief mourner for a dying community while refusing numerous offers to bring him to America. In 1943, Baeck was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where he became the key religious leader and a symbol of Jewish endurance (while losing four sisters). After the war, Baeck taught at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in New York and chaired the World Union for Progressive Judaism. He died in London in 1956. Several Jewish institutions of learning, as well as an asteroid (100047 Leobaeck), bear his name.
“We Jews are, as it were, the sons of the revolution, the daughters of the revolution. We should be aware of it.” —Leo Baeck, 1949

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.