Leo Baeck was born in Lissa (now Leszno, Poland), in the then German province of Posen on May 23, 1873, the son of a Rabbi. After attending the conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland), he moved to Berlin to study at the more liberal Lehranstalt für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin. By 1897 he had secured his first post as rabbi in Oppeln (now Opole, Poland).
In Oppeln, Baeck made his mark as an intellectual and a modern theologian in, with the publication of Das Wesen des Judentums (“The Essence of Judaism”) in 1905. Written in response to Adolf von Harnack’s Das Wesen des Christentums (“The Essence of Christianity”), the book is a passionate argument for the enduring relevance of Judaism. Rather than the cult based on outmoded rituals and laws that Harnack saw in Judaism, Baeck located the essence of Judaism in the intersection between rational ethics and a personal experience of the divine. The commandment to search the scriptures for ethical principles, he argued, made Judaism an evolving, perpetually modern tradition of critical thought.
A humanist, a scholar, and a modern theologian, a man deeply versed in both rabbinical study and Western culture, a Feldrabbiner during World War One, Baeck was irreversibly committed to the cause of Jewish life in Germany. In many ways he symbolized the delicate, fertile symbiosis of Jewish and German thought that characterized the years before Hitler’s Reich. A stoic, Baeck remained at his post as the civilization he loved was shredded. He was a reluctant interlocutor with the Nazis from their rise through the Final Solution, a stance for which he was rewarded with dispatch to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
–Roger Cohen, from Leo Baeck Institute at 50, 2005.
In 1912 Leo Baeck was called to Berlin, where he worked both as a rabbi at the large synagogue on Fasanenstraße as well as a lecturer at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums.
A patriot who was committed to the cause of Jewish life in Germany, Baeck emerged as an important symbolic and political leader of German Jewry. During the First World War, Baeck served as a chaplain (Feldrabbiner) in the German Army. In 1918 he returned to Berlin and worked at the Prussian Culture Ministry as an expert in Hebrew. In addition to his position as a rabbi and his lecturing at the Hochschule, Leo Baeck also became President of the Union of German Rabbis (Allgemeiner Deutscher Rabbinerverband) in 1922. He was elected President of the German B’nai B’rith Order in 1924. At this time Baeck also joined the Central-Verein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens, and the Jewish Agency for Palestine.
When the Nazis rose to power in 1933 Leo Baeck was elected president of the Reichsvertretung der deutschen Juden, an umbrella organization of German-Jewish groups founded to advance the interests of German Jewry in the face of Nazi persecution. The organization was forced to change its name to the Reichsverband der Juden in Deutschland in 1935 to reflect the Nazi view that there were no “German Jews” but only “Jews in Germany.” As the head of this organization, Baeck worked to maintain the morale of German Jews and alleviate the discrimination and persecution of the Jews by the National Socialists. Under Baeck, the organization also helped Jews emigrate from Germany.
In spite of several offers of emigration, Leo Baeck refused to leave Germany or his community, even after Jewish businesses and synagogues (including his home congregation at Fasanenstrasse) were burned and looted in November 1938. He is reported to have said that he would only leave Germany when he was the last Jew remaining there. He remained the nominal president of the Reichsverband when it was placed under Nazi control and renamed the Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland. When this organization was finally disbanded in 1943, Leo Baeck, along with his family members, was sent to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt (Terezin) at the age of seventy.
During his time in Theresienstadt, Leo Baeck continued to teach, holding secret lectures on philosophy and religion in the barracks of the camp. In spite of being forced to perform hard labor, he also managed to begin a manuscript that would later become Dieses Volk – Jüdische Existenz, (“This People Israel: The Meaning of Jewish Existence”) an interpretation of Jewish history. The camp was liberated in May 1945 by the Red Army. None of Baeck’s four sisters survived Theresienstadt.
After the liberation of the camp, Leo Baeck eventually made his way to England where his daughter Ruth resided. He received many citations and honors as a result of his efforts under the Nazis, and spent much of his next years travelling and lecturing, as well as writing and helping to found several organizations with the goals of assisting the remnants of European Jewry. He also reached out to the new Federal Republic of Germany and to Israel.
In 1955, a group of émigré German-Jewish intellectuals including Hannah Arendt, Martin Buber, Robert Weltsch, and Gershom Scholem met in Jerusalem to found an institute that would preserve the history of the German-Jewish culture. They named the Institute in Baeck’s honor and appointed him its first President. Although Leo Baeck died just over a year later, on November 2, 1956, he left an indelible imprint on the mission and work of the Leo Baeck Institute.