Leo Baeck and Jewish Liberalism

 Tucked away in a quiet Jerusalem side-street is the Leo Baeck Institute, where activities associated with the man himself and various aspects of his heritage are held, its official purpose being ‘the study of German and Central European Jewry.’ Sister institutes are to be found in cities elsewhere in the world – Frankfurt, New York, London and Berlin. The Jerusalem institute hosts a wide range of lectures, symposia and seminars, whether at its official home or in universities, research institutes and sundry other venues throughout Israel.
Together with the Association of Former Residents of Central Europe and Beit Theresienstadt, the Theresienstadt Martyrs Remembrance Association (situated at Kibbutz Givat Haim Ihud and known in Hebrew as Beit Terezin), the Leo Baeck Institute recently held a symposium entitled ‘Liberal Judaism Then and Now, Sixty Years Since the Passing of Rabbi Doctor Leo Baeck.’
The turnout one cold, wet December evening at the end of 2016 was surprisingly large, and when I finally found the building (the invitation gave the wrong address) I was lucky to find an empty chair at the back of the hall. Some sixty persons, many of them not very young, were listening attentively to the introductory lecture given by the director of the Institute, Professor Samuel Feiner. After a few words of welcome from the Deputy German Ambassador to Israel, each member of the panel of five scholars, experts in aspects of Liberal Judaism as currently practised in Israel and elsewhere, gave a short lecture on an allied subject. Thus, for example, Professor Moshe Halbertal of the Hebrew University spoke about the importance of ethics and spiritualism in the USA today and how this features in the focus of Liberal Judaism there. Dr. Hillel Ben-Sasson, of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, spoke about the central position of the individual in Liberal Judaism in the USA and the heightened attention placed on the separation of religion and state in the political arena, the implication being that this is sadly lacking in modern Israel.
For me personally the talk by Rabbi Gabi Dagan, who heads the complex of educational institutions named for Leo Baeck in Haifa, was particularly interesting. The emphasis there, starting in the kindergarten and going all through the system to the high-school and vocational education classes, is on inculcating the values of Liberal Judaism as opposed to the rote learning and restricted intellectual scope of orthodox Jewish learning. He stressed the fact that this approach was that advocated by Rabbi Leo Baeck himself, and that pupils who go through the educational institutions that bear his name are equipped for life with an open mind, an enquiring approach, tolerance and acceptance of the other and recognition of the importance of self-realisation within the framework of the community.
Professor Ruhama Weiss of the Hebrew Union College spoke of the importance of giving a feminist interpretation to the Talmud, and in particular the Babylonian Talmud, which evolved in exile. She noted with satisfaction that an increasingly feminist approach to religion is evident throughout Judaism, including even the orthodox variety, and certainly in Liberal Judaism, which has adopted that stance from its very inception.
Finally, Dr. Margalit Shlein, who heads the Theresienstadt Martyrs Remembrance Association, gave an outline of Rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck’s activities in the two years he was incarcerated in the Theresienstadt Ghetto, 1943 – 1945. During this period, although given preferential treatment as a ‘Prominent,’ he devoted himself to endeavouring to bring succour to the other inmates, providing spiritual guidance as well as giving lectures on subjects connected with his religious philosophy and outlook.
Dr. Shlein was at pains to point out that although he was aware of the fate of the Jews who were sent to Auschwitz, Rabbi Baeck kept the information to himself, fearing that knowledge of this would serve to deter those being deported from cooperating, and thus causing them additional suffering. When the prisoners were finally released, in May 1945, Theresienstadt being the last concentration camp to be liberated, Rabbi Baeck refused to leave until the last prisoners had left.
The evening ended on a lighter note, with singers from the seminar held on music in Theresienstadt performing songs in English, German, Yiddish and Hebrew.