"Jewish leadership" is a phrase whose meaningful content seems to grow paler with each new workshop aimed at cultivating it. ("Where are the Jewish followers?" quipped the late Arthur Hertzberg.) Since Moses, however, one true test of leadership has been the willingness to share the worst fate of one's followers. Such a leader was Leo Baeck.
Born in 1873, the son of a traditional rabbi, Baeck studied at the Conservative seminary in Breslau before moving in 1894 to Berlin, where he studied with the philosopher and sociologist Wilhelm Dilthey and was ordained by the Reform-oriented Hochschule. His career reflected the mix of traditional learning and piety with broad philosophical horizons and the ethical universalism of Reform Judaism.
Baeck's major work, The Essence of Judaism (1905), was a powerful retort to the Liberal Protestant denigration of Judaism as so much archaic legalism. Christianity, Baeck contended, was a "romantic religion" and, unlike Judaism, unequipped to meet the moral challenges of the real world. That confidence in Judaism's moral resources would in time be sorely put to the test.
A preeminent figure in German Jewry under increasingly grim conditions, Baeck became in 1933 the president of a newly-formed umbrella organization promoting Jewish self-help, education, and welfare. After Kristallnacht in November 1938, he headed a successor organization appointed by the Third Reich: essentially, the first Judenrat. He continued teaching and preaching until his deportation in January 1943 to Theresienstadt. Surviving the war, he moved in its aftermath to London, where he remained a leader of Reform Judaism and a prolific writer and lecturer until his death in 1956, declaring in 1947 that it was still the responsibility of the Jews "to stand in opposition to the very last day, until the Kingdom of God reigns in the world."
In Theresienstadt, Baeck had chosen not to tell his fellow prisoners what he already knew about the fate of deportees to the East, judging that it would be too much for them to bear. In retrospect that decision has been criticized by some, by others justified or at least forgiven. One thing, though, is certain: up to 1939 and perhaps even later, Baeck could easily have left Germany, having received repeated invitations to the U.S. But even as he worked to facilitate others' emigration, he chose to stay, willingly sharing in the suffering of his people—and thereby bequeathing a powerful teaching to Jewish leaders who would follow him.
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