Commentary Magazine

Judaism and Christianity, by Leo Baeck

Romantic and Classic Religion
Judaism and Christianity.
by Leo Baeck.
Jewish Publication Society. 292 pp. $4.00.


For two millennia, the coexistence of Judaism and Christianity has been marked by repeated conflict and controversy. In political and social terms, Christianity’s marriage with the temporal power of the state soon rendered the struggle one-sided. In the realm of the spirit, however, Judaism has held its own, and the confrontation of the two systems has produced a considerable body of literature. Hundreds of volumes have been written, most of them by the Church, reflecting the sharp differences between Judaism and Christianity. Because of the Church’s powers of censorship and temporal coercion, we must admire the forthrightness with which Jewish authors defended their point of view and even went over to the attack. At times they were forced to use circumspect language, resort to symbols, or employ satire, but on the whole the Jewish case was stated with dignity and courage.

Leo Baeck’s collected essays, posthumously published under the title Judaism and Christianity, sensitively translated by Walter Kaufmann, are part of this great polemic tradition. Himself the last grand rabbi of Germany, who escaped death in the Theresienstadt camp by a clerk’s error, Leo Baeck witnessed the most cruel breakdown of the Jews’ relation with Christian civilization. Unlike many others, he realized that the confrontation of Judaism and Christianity could not, and should not, proceed merely in the daily contacts of individuals and communities, but above all in philosophy and theology.

The translator, in an introduction which is a eulogy for a revered teacher and friend, draws attention to the appropriateness of Baeck’s beginning his career with the now classic Essence of Judaism and ending with Judaism and Christianity. Both books are works of apologetics, in the technical, theological sense of that term. “Das Wesen des Judentums” (The Essence of Judaism) was written as an answer to Harnack’s “Das Wesen des Christentums” (What is Christianity?), and Judaism and Christianity is dominated by the essay “Romantic Religion,” which is a polemic against Christianity.

In reading Judaism and Christianity, furthermore, one realizes to what extent Essence of Judaism was Baeck’s magnum opus. This first book contains a clear, fully developed outline of his thought, of which the major essay as well as “Mystery and Commandment” in the latest volume are basically a re-statement; while the other essays in this book, “The Son of Man,” “The Gospels as a Documentary of the History of the Jewish Faith,” and “The Faith of Paul,” constitute scholarly raw material for contrasting Judaism and Christianity.

In “Romantic Religion,” Baeck draws sharply contrasting opposites of classic and romantic religion, of Judaism and Christianity. Romantic religion, Christianity, “seeks its goals in the now mythical, now mystical visions of the imagination.” To the believer in romantic religion, mood and feeling are central. “Reality becomes mere mood; and moods, eventually, the only reality.” Schleiermacher’s definition of religion as “the feeling of absolute dependence” sums up the romantic condition. By contrast, “In classical religion, longing strives ever and again for the goal which is to unify all men and impels them to follow the commandment of God. . . . For all future is here the future of the commandment, the future in which it is realized and fulfilled.”



Baeck acknowledges that there are romantic elements not only in Christianity but in every religion; in fact, romanticism is often historically necessary as an antidote to other positions, for instance, to what passes as “liberal” religion. Romanticism contradicts “that shallow reasonableness which would dispose of everything . . . that enlightenment which has knowledge of and answers to everything . . . that activism which would take care of and execute everything.”

Thus, in Baeck’s view, classical religion, classical Judaism, rejects mysticism in which the striving for the absorption in God, the “experience,” leads to the neglect—and implies perhaps even the uselessness—of the commandment (a danger against which Jewish Mysticism, whether of earlier Cabbalah or later Hasidism, struggled continuously); but it also refuses to be reduced to pure rationalism or pure ethicism. Classical Judaism is both mystery and commandment, at one and the same time.

In romantic religion, however, the will to action becomes paralyzed. “Man’s whole existence is transformed into longing—not into the longing for God, in which man, raising himself above the earth, overcomes his earthly solitude; nor into the powerful longing of the will which thirsts for deeds.” In fact, the whole realm of the ethical becomes problematic. In many passages, particularly those which deal with Paul, Baeck insists that faith not works, belief not law, are the decisive elements of Christianity. It is “the path that leads away from justice.” Belief supersedes ethics; faith and the feeling of having been saved replace the impulse and necessity of moral action. “Law” is abolished, and “commandment” becomes the unacceptable antithesis to “faith.”



The basic stance of the romantic is passivity. Morally, “he is the object of virtue and sin—not its producer, its subject.” Human life is held in tension not between man’s striving for the fulfillment of ethical goals and his recurrent failure to achieve them (as in Judaism), but rather between original sin and election. Both of these are outside man’s power, the one inhering through birth, the other a gift of the grace of God. Even man’s “faith cannot be won, but only be given by grace.” This faith itself is evidence of man’s helplessness: “The salvation that comes through faith is in no sense earned, but wholly received.”

With telling force Baeck quotes Luther on this, as on many other points, showing not merely the continuity of the romantic position over the centuries, but its “pure” form; “velut paralyticum [as one paralyzed], man should wait for salvation and faith.” The grace of God, wholly unearned, wholly beyond the will and act of man, displaces the notion of God’s commandment. (In Judaism, on the other hand, faith and law are fused: “The world of Judaism is to be found only where faith has its commandment, and the commandment its faith.”)

The consequences of the romantic position are far-reaching, not only for the individual but for society as a whole. Civilization or forces which aim at active participation in history can enter, at best, a most uneasy alliance with romantic religion and more often find themselves struggling against it. Not only does romantic religion become “redemption from the will”; ultimately, it promotes “a faith in redemption from the world and its demands.” It does not develop, as does Judaism, “trust in the world or, to be more precise, the assurance of reconciliation.”

Baeck describes the sacrament as the vessel in which the living experience, so indispensable to romantic religion, can be caught and preserved. Precisely because this is its nature, man again becomes merely the recipient, the object. “The sacrament is said to work . . . quite independently of the human will and of anything a person might contribute—working simply by happening, ex opere operato.” By contrast, the commandment given through revelation, which we find in Judaism, is inherently unfinished in form; one commandment begets the next. Commandment has in it not merely the notion of an immediate act to be performed but also, like the ethical task, points beyond itself.

Because Judaism and Christianity is a polemical work, Baeck’s main interest is to state a position, not to analyze or to weigh each point dispassionately. He draws sharp contrasts for the sake of clarity and, inevitably, the contrasts sometimes become too sharp. For example, Baeck relies almost exclusively on Paul and Luther for his image of Christianity. Lutheranism was, of course, his immediate environment. In a few passages, he acknowledges that Catholicism and Calvinist Protestantism at times modify the positions of Paul and Luther. (“Calvinism began to recognize more clearly that there is a liberating, ethical power in worldly work. . . .” “The human desire for deeds made its demands. . . . Through the sacrament of penance the [Catholic] Church made a place for it.”) Such statements, however, merely highlight the dilemma of romantic religion as it is torn between its commitment to the City of God and its task as a functioning power in the world. They do not reflect sufficiently, it would seem, the historic responsibilities which even Lutheranism assumed in the making of European life.

Had greater weight been given to the Catholic and non-Lutheran points of view, the intensity of the contrasts drawn would have been reduced. Certainly much of American Christian thought and practice differs from the image of Christianity as outlined by Baeck. Yet these are only small strictures on what is a most stimulating, profound book on the nature of Christianity and Judaism, which constitutes a major contribution to the continuing dialogue between two great systems of religious thought and practice.



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