Leo Baeck


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Adolf Harnack (1851—1930)


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German Jewish rabbi and theologian who was one of the leading exponents of liberal Jewish theology in the twentieth century and spiritual leader of Germany's Jews during their struggle against Nazi persecution before and during World War II.

Ordained in 1897, Baeck served as a rabbi in Oppeln, Silesia (1897–1907), in Düsseldorf (1907–12), and in Berlin (1912–42), where he also lectured in midrash and homiletics at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums. His Das Wesen des Judentums (1905; translated as The Essence of Judaism, 1948), in which Baeck stressed the dynamic evolutionary nature of religion, established him as an outstanding Jewish scholar. A later (1922) edition expanded Baeck's philosophy of a ‘religion of polarity’, which he regarded as a dialectic between ‘divine mystery’ and the ‘ethical imperative’. He considered the Jews as exemplars of a supreme Judaistic morality and the sole progenitors of the faith.

In 1933, Baeck was appointed co-leader, with Otto Hirsch, of the National Agency of Jews in Germany and was increasingly engaged in the fight with the Nazis for Jewish rights. Baeck was arrested and imprisoned in Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943. There he gave philosophy classes to the inmates and served as unofficial pastor. He also wrote This People Israel: The Meaning of Jewish Existence (1955), exploring the philosophical implications of the existence of a Jewish state. On 8 May 1945, Theresienstadt was liberated, the day before Baeck's scheduled execution. After the war he settled in England and served as president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.

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