Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Thinking Empire with Leo Baeck

Yaniv Feller

Leo Baeck arriving to La Guardia – ©Leo Baeck Institute New York

White-bearded and dignified, Leo Baeck disembarked an airplane in New York’s La Guardia airport in January 1948. The seventy-four year-old rabbi came to preach in the United States as part of the American Jewish Cavalcade, a religious revival program of the Reform movement. As the former official leader of German Jewry under Nazism and a survivor of Theresienstadt Ghetto, Baeck became a symbol of moral clarity, religious conviction, and the legacy of German Jewry. Some called him “a saint in our time,” others “the pope of the German Jews.” Baeck’s visit solidified his stature as a larger than life figure, the rabbi who could have fled the Nazis but stood by his flock, and he was greeted with praise wherever he went. A fundraising campaign for postwar refugees, for example, had the title “Fill a Box for Baeck: Celebrate – 75th Birthday of Our Heroic Rabbi.” Among non-Jews, Baeck was treated as a statesman without a state, meeting President Truman at the White House and becoming the first non-American rabbi to open a Congressional session with a prayer.

Baeck was not without his critics, especially after his death in 1956. Reporting from the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt described Baeck’s actions during the Holocaust as contributing to the destruction of the Jewish community. She called him the “Jewish Führer,” a statement so harsh she chose to omit it from subsequent editions of her book. But if named institutions are one measure of lasting legacy, Baeck is still seen, as historian Eva Reichmann called him, as “a symbol of German Jewry.” His continued fame is attested today in numerous institutions including the Leo Baeck Institute for the study of German-Jewish history, with branches in New York, Jerusalem, London, and Berlin, the Leo-Baeck-House, which houses the Central Council of Jews in Germany, and the Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles and Leo Baeck schools in Toronto and Haifa.

Towering figures cast long shadows. The focus on Baeck’s life contributed paradoxically to a neglect of his thought. Unlike the contemporary triumvirate of Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig, and Martin Buber, Baeck is not widely read or taught as part of the Jewish philosophical canon.

Leo Baeck (right) and Martin Buber (left) – ©Leo Baeck Institute New York

Yet I believe he offers a unique vantage point to examine twentieth century German-Jewish thought for at least three reasons:

1. Baeck’s work spans seven decades, beginning with a polemic with the Christian scholar Adolf Harnack at fin de siècle Berlin and the publication in 1905 of his first major work, The Essence of Judaism, through important lectures in the Weimar Republic, insistence on Jesus’s Jewishness even under the Nazi period, and the posthumous magnum opus This People: Jewish Existence. This means his work covers many changing attitudes and themes among German Jews.

2. Baeck was not a scholarly hermit who stayed in the ivory tower. He was first and foremost a rabbi and communal leader, while also positioning himself as a public intellectual and a representative of Judaism for Jews and non-Jews. This means his works includes highbrow scholarly treatises of theology and the history of religion alongside middlebrow texts such as sermons, public lectures, and shorter pieces for newspapers.

3. Baeck’s official communal roles meant that even his philosophical writings were enmeshed with political concerns. This point is crucial, as it exposes the relation between religious and political thought, which Baeck’s work examine.

            In The Jewish Imperial Imagination: Leo Baeck and German-Jewish Thought, I show that the red thread running through Baeck’s works is an engagement with imperial visions of expansion and domination while trying to understand the place of the Jewish minority in the world. Beginning in the Wilhelmine Empire, going through the Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany, and the Cold War, Baeck’s life was shaped by empires that left their mark on his thought. At times, Baeck’s thought is in line with the German imperial visions of his time. Often, however, he reformulated such ideas in order to express resistance to imperial violence in the name of Judaism.

Leo Baeck as an army chaplain in the First World War – ©Leo Baeck Institute New York

            During the First World War, Baeck was one of the first to volunteer to serve as a Jewish army chaplain, a position financed by the Jewish community in which he spent almost the entirety of the war, first in the western front and then in the eastern. His sermons and accounts from the East imagine the war as conducted in the name of culture, which should expand eastward to what was imagined by Baeck as empty landscape. Such a vision, akin to the American imagination of the Western frontier, was in line with what Kristin Kopp called “Germany’s Wild East” or the idea that Germans had a rightful claim to Poland as a colonial space. Yet Baeck’s thought exposes ambivalence about the use power and violence. In a small booklet produced for Jewish soldiers, he wrote that the honor and dignity of both fatherland and religious community depended upon the soldier’s kindness and decency.

            This tension is even more pronounced in Baeck’s idea of Jewish missionizing. Most Jews nowadays would likely claim that, unlike Christianity, Judaism does not espouse attempts to proselytize. It will surprise some readers that the esteemed rabbi insisted on the value, justification, and need for active Jewish missionizing. This is true of his early work, The Essence of Judaism, in which he argued that it was part of Judaism’s presupposition that it tries and “convert the world to its ideas.” A few years later he elaborated on his thinking in a private letter where he explained missionizing as tied to Jewish self-preservation, and as enabling Jews as well as non-Jews to take pride in the value of Judaism and its contributions to the world. These claims were made at a time when Christian missionaries were working in the colonies of the Wilhelmine Empire, which was then at the peak of its power. Baeck’s insistence on the importance of Jewish missionizing was evident after the Holocaust. He argued that the postwar era was a time ripe for Jewish missionizing, not only because of the waning power of other religions, but also implicitly because of the need to increase the number of Jewish people after the Holocaust.

            While influenced by Christian missionizing, Baeck’s imperial imagination offered a Jewish alternative. Throughout his work, he consistently contrasted Macht, meaning power associated with violence, with Kraft, spiritual energy. The former he identified with imperial powers, and with Christianity as an imperial religion. The latter he associated with Judaism, which he thought of as leading by example of moral behavior.

Leo Baeck in Theresienstadt Ghetto – ©Leo Baeck Institute New York

This distinction remained important for Baeck even in Theresienstadt Ghetto. In a lecture delivered in the ghetto, he contrasted the Western way of writing history, influenced by the Greeks and Romans, with the Jewish prophetic alternative. The prophets, Baeck argued, were looking at the imperial structures of power, but they knew these represented un-history, that imperial power for its own sake would never last because it was not grounded in ethics and belief in God. The covert message would not have been lost on Baeck’s listeners in 1944. The Third Reich and Nazi power were bound to collapse, becoming no more than sunken ruins.

Baeck was born 150 years ago. The imperial imaginations that shaped his work call for a new understanding of the intellectual history of the revered German-Jewish philosophical tradition of which he was a representative. But this is not merely a historical question. The haunting of empire discussed in my book is still present in discussions about Jewish critiques of the State of Israel or recent debates in Germany about the memory of its colonial past alongside the memory of the Holocaust. Leo Baeck’s religious and political thought provides one venue to rethink such debates.

The Jewish Imperial Imagination by Yaniv Feller

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