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Rabbi Leo Baeck

Drawing upon a variety of sources, especially his subject's own writings, Michael A. Meyer presents a biography of one of the most significant Jewish religious thinkers of the twentieth century. Rabbi Leo Baeck gives equal consideration to Baeck as an intellectual and as a courageous leader of his community under the shadow of Nazism.

Rabbi Leo Baeck
Living a Religious Imperative in Troubled Times

Michael A. Meyer

2020 | 288 pages | Cloth $59.95
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. An Unconventional Student and Rabbi
Chapter 2. Restoring the Dignity of Judaism
Chapter 3. Rabbi in the World War
Chapter 4. A Thinker Engaged
Chapter 5. The Burden of Leadership
Chapter 6. Enmeshed
Chapter 7 Theresienstadt
Chapter 8. Reality After Catastrophe

Epilogue. The Icon and the Person

Bibliographic Essay

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


By August 1939, the German Jews' situation had become desperate. Since Hitler's rise to power six years earlier, the civic equality they had so laboriously gained in the preceding century was being eroded bit by bit. In 1933, they were removed from all positions of power or influence in German society; two years later, with the Nuremberg Laws, they were reduced from the status of citizens to mere subjects of the state. Simultaneously, the Nazi regime, by taking over their property, was imposing a steadily worsening impoverishment. In November 1938, legal discrimination burst into a massive outbreak of violence as Jewish lives, synagogues, and private property were destroyed in a pogrom known as Kristallnacht (night of broken glass). Jews were now singled out by the names they were forced to take: "Israel" for men and boys; "Sarah" for women and girls. Initially, most German Jews tried to ride out the storm. Some were descendants of a long line of ancestors in the country, and they had chosen the familiar over the foreign. But now, almost everyone was looking for any avenue of escape, their efforts frustrated as countries that might have accepted persecuted Jews severely limited their immigration. Among those fortunate to find a refuge outside Germany were communal leaders and rabbis, who, understandably, chose to save their own lives and those of their families.

In 1939, Leo Baeck—rabbi, scholar, and leader of the organized German Jewish community—was engaged in multiple efforts to facilitate emigration, especially for the young. That August, on the eve of World War II, he visited close relatives who had received permission to settle in England. While in England, he was urged to accept offers allowing him to remain, joining his daughter and her family. A British university offered the scholarly rabbi an academic position, and the German Jewish refugee community was eager for his rabbinical leadership. But Baeck steadfastly refused the opportunity. Nor was it the only time that he was offered a position in Great Britain or the United States. In each instance, he demurred, for he believed that it was his responsibility to be "the last Jew out of Germany." Despite the dangers, he would remain, attempting to do what he could to expedite the emigration as long as any Jews were still permitted to leave Germany and until the deportations to the East began. From then on, his principal task shifted to upholding morale and alleviating the suffering of those who no longer had any choice but to remain, while assisting those who went into hiding. In January 1943, Baeck was deported to the concentration-camp-like ghetto of Theresienstadt, where he continued to serve the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual needs of fellow Jews, along with some persecuted non-Jews, all of them confined in a way station on the road to death.

This same Leo Baeck was not only a tenacious keeper of his flock but also one of the most significant Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century, comparable with such better-known figures as Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Today, it is his career as a courageous leader of his community in darkest times that is best known, though he has also received some attention as a religious thinker. What has been lacking is a study of Baeck that not only combines these two aspects of his life but explores how they interacted with each other in his own consciousness and his changing environment. The combination of active leadership with profound thought is rare; perhaps even more remarkable is a personal philosophy that so completely harmonizes public and private action. Unlike numerous prominent personalities in the humanities and the arts, whose personal lives do not reflect the essence of their accomplishments, Baeck integrated what he believed in with what he did. His faith in God implied the ineluctable acceptance of moral obligation in all areas of life. Fulfilling that obligation was, in his eyes, no less a requirement in difficult times than it was in calmer ones, even if the cost should be far greater. Admired by many, Baeck also had his detractors: although many lent him support, some sought to undermine his work. His decisions involving life and death were controversial both in his time and down to the present.

To fully understand Leo Baeck requires probing not only his thought and public activity but also his personality—a difficult endeavor, since Baeck rarely dwelled on himself. Though he was usually formal and restrained on the outside, his engagement with events could not fail to stir his inner life. Generally described as gentle and kind, when necessary he could also be combative. A streak of puritanism and an outsize veneration for martyrdom ran through his psychological makeup. This personal element must receive its due if one is to understand Leo Baeck. The integration of these perspectives is the task of this volume. Drawing upon a broad variety of sources (some coming to light only in recent years) and especially turning to his own writings, I attempt a more complex and nuanced image of one of the most noteworthy personalities in the Jewish history of our age.

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