The Judaism of Rabbi Baeck
The Essence of Judaism.
by Leo Baeck.
Revised Edition. Schocken Books. 288 pp. $4.00.
In studying great lives of the past, and in personal contacts with some men of genius of our time, I have encountered those who carry a heavy burden of moral responsibility, of intellectual or artistic subtlety, and who carry this burden often with difficulty and pain; but there seemed to me not too much space left for what can specifically be called dignity. There is certainly the appearance of marked dignity in some kings, princes, and—actors; yet in these cases, one generally feels that the dignity is only a matter of externals but does not attach to the core of the man. In Leo Baeck the pith of the man and the writer is dignity, Jewish dignity. As a host in his home, as a guest in other homes, as a preacher in his synagogue, and as the leader of German Jewry within Himmler’s concentration camps, he is and has remained the shining incarnation of those rarest gifts: dignity coupled not with sternness but with radiant warmth. It is with this sense of the man in the background of one’s mind that one reads this new edition of his Essence of Judaism.
Without emphasis on polemics, Baeck makes alive a number of features by which Judaism distinguishes itself from other world religions. There is primarily the amazing lack of any dogma, of any fixed religious creed. In Judaism the stress is on human conduct, on the morality of action, and not at all on articles of faith, on the belief in certain definite, theologically correct tenets. The revolutionary teaching of Copernican astronomy, for instance, which caused so much concern to Catholic and Protestant theology, could be accepted by Judaism without any difficulty. The freedom of interpretation of religious beliefs which was granted in pre-talmudic and post-talmudic times borders almost on the allowance of atheism and the blasphemous. This free, inner development of religious thought could hardly have been better illustrated than by quoting that legend of Moses who hears Rabbi Akiba expound the Torah and does not even recognize it as—his Torah! Perhaps, as Baeck indicates, this degree of freedom of thought is partly due to the fact that Judaism, unlike Buddhism, Islam, and other religions, is not based on the teaching of one prophet but of a series of prophets and religious masters.
No less remarkable, however, than the lack of a rigid dogma is the lack of an essential distinction between laity and priesthood in Judaism. Even in Biblical times, the priesthood “was vested with no special proximity to God nor did it claim any. The priests never claimed to possess or to be able to administer gifts of grace; they never retailed salvation.” According to Exodus 19:6, the whole Jewish community considered itself as destined to be “a kingdom of priests.”
It is only such a religious movement as Quakerism, which grew up in the 17th century AD, in a new appreciation of the spirit of the Old Testament, that comes near to Judaism in its lack of dogma, the emphasis it lays on the moral deed, and its far-reaching rejection of a separate priesthood.
There are in Baeck’s work also illuminating clarifications of old, central paradoxes of Jewish teaching. There is the seemingly irreconcilable contrast between Israel’s claim to be the chosen people and its claim to represent a religion of universal validity. Baeck, however, shows that there is by no means a logical contradiction involved: “Just as family and love of fellow man do not exclude one another, so the universalism and particularism of the prophet’s message are not contradictory.” “Salvation is destined for the whole world,” for the Children of Israel no more than for the Children of Noah; “a heathen who does right is worth as much as a High Priest in Israel.” And, yet, to live under the ethical commandment of the “One God” was originally and specifically the task of Israel. This new way of life was Israel’s creation and, as Baeck adds, in a courageous, free interpretation, “we are entitled to call this historically—quite apart from supernatural conceptions—a revelation.”
The Jewish idea of a God of Wrath has, perhaps, given even more offence than the idea of Israel’s “exclusiveness”; and on this point again, Baeck does not try to explain the difficulty away. He does not agree that the idea of God’s boundless love should supplant the “lower” and earlier concept of the jealous and wrathful God. The divine wrath is, according to Baeck, the most adequate and powerful expression of the categorical character, of “the absoluteness and exclusiveness of the good.” The failure to understand God’s wrath along with his love “flows from a lack of ethical reaction to evil, from an absence of feeling about the sinfulness of every injustice on earth.” Religion should “never dispense with the loathing of everything immoral.” And even the affliction of the righteous is “justified” by Baeck in the words of Elihu in the Book of Job: “He delivereth the afflicted through his affliction.”
But on this point I cannot quite suppress some doubting questions. Do these words of Elihu do sufficient justice to the depths at which the problem of suffering under God appears in the Book of Job? There seems to me too much of the spirit of Kant’s categorical imperative in Baeck’s work and not enough of the spirit of Job, the 90th Psalm, of Koheleth and—the Song of Songs.
Is it true that all morality is essentially “a contradiction and a protest”? Has Hermann Cohen or any other thinker succeeded in showing that to raise oneself by the moral act “above mere causality” is more than a popular and edifying phrase or a metaphysically questionable belief? According to Baeck, almost everything in Judaism is based on the “certainties of ethical conscience” in the free man, on the “clarity” of ethical commandments in every human breast; and he dismisses any doubt of the simplicity and certainty of the moral imperative as “ethical opportunism,” as “a blurring of ethical standards,” as a weak “moral compromise,” or as some “of the evasions and ingenuities of a double-standard morality.”
But all those millions of Nazis whose fury and hatred Baeck withstood—did they not also speak and act with a terrifying “certainty of ethical conscience” and according to an absolutely simple “uncompromising” standard of an ethics diametrically opposed to that of the simplicity of our prophets’? Is the world, and even the Jewish world, not too often filled with those false prophets who in all sincerity preach a simple ethics which to us is the height of immorality? Does not Baeck himself say that even a sentence in one of the Ten Commandments was once rightly changed into its opposite by later, “clearer” moral insight?
I do not ask these questions out of ethical despair or in sympathy with moral indifference. On the contrary I am passionately concerned to protect our moral standard from relativism and scepticism, from that nihilism which is only too often the unavoidable consequence of too great a trust in the simplicity and clarity of our ethical commandments. And if, as Baeck and his great predecessors teach us, the Name of God represents the source and incarnation of all moral good, then again, in my opinion, our generation can hardly have a more urgent task than this: to protect “the Name” more than ever before against its misuse and from the evergrowing ambiguity or even meaninglessness which it has acquired in the mouths of shallow believers.
On all these points I would side with Hillel’s unpopular saying that “no ignorant person,” no one without subtler insights, “can be pious”—a saying rejected by Baeck as not authoritative.
But my deep affectionate respect for Leo Baeck does not allow me to go on with such “polemics.” I know only too well that what he said of other great Jewish documents can be applied also to his work: his Essence of Judaism contains only a small “fragment” of that for which he stands, of what he thought and what he lives for. The name of Baeck will be linked for all times with one of the severest trials which world Jewry and Jewish values had to undergo. And it seems to me that world history could not provide a more appropriate symbolic ending of this trial than the bodily and spiritual survival of Leo Baeck and the revival of a Jewish state.