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Communal Duty: Leo Baeck's Philosophy, 1933-1943

Mon, December 18, 1:15 to 2:45pm, Marriott Marquis Washington, DC, Marquis Salon 15


Rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck (1873-1956) is widely regarded as a symbol of German Jewry and its elected leader during its darkest hour. Baeck’s actions as the president of the REICHSVERTRETUNG, and later under the Gestapo controlled REICHSVEREINIGUNG, were hailed as bold acts of spiritual resistance. Some, on the other hand, found fault in Baeck’s actions and have criticized him for cooperating with the Nazi regime.
This paper focuses on Baeck’s lectures and writings in the years 1933-1943. From the start of his career at the turn of the century, Baeck was a public intellectual who understood the challenges posed to Jews by the non-Jewish majority and sought to provide Jewish answers to the pressing questions of the day. I contend therefore that in order to better understand Baeck’s public role, one should read these writings in light of his earlier philosophy, most notably the revised edition of THE ESSENCE OF JUDAISM (1922).
Such an approach locates a shift in Baeck’s thought. Although Baeck maintains key terms and ideas, he gives them new meaning. This is evident in the relation of the Jew to the surrounding and in the concept of duty. In his pre-1933 writings, the relation of Jews to their surrounding is described as one in which Jewish thought remains creative and alive because of its relation to the majority. After 1933, Baeck maintains the centrality of the Jewish encounter with the Other, but emphasizes the existential threat to the Jew, both to the possibility of exercising religious life and to the physical safety of the Jews. This “existential turn” in Baeck’s thought—evident by EN PASSANT references to Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and even Heidegger—is accompanied by a renewed emphasis on the idea of the Jewish community. Earlier, Baeck understood the ethical task of the Jew in the world through the language of religious mission aimed at all humanity; starting 1933, he cannot write this way and shifts his focus to the Jewish community. It is the Jew in Nazi Germany who is now “the stranger, widow, and orphan” (Ex. 22: 20-21).