The Essence of Judaism

Plunkett Lake Press
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First published in German in 1905 as Das Wesen des Judentums, Leo Baeck’s The Essence of Judaism is perhaps the most widely read example of German Jewish scholarship in the 20th century. Written as a response to Adolf von Harnack’s lecturesDas Wesen des Christentums (The Essence of Christianity), the book seeks to both define the fundamental principles of Judaism, and contrast them with other religions. But by outlining Judaism’s essence, Baeck also shows how the different denominations within Judaism are bound together by fundamental commonalities. Translated into English in 1936, it quickly became a classic in the English-speaking world, and has since been gifted at Bar Mitzvahs and featured on synagogue reading lists. In a world of religious plurality, the book remains highly relevant today.



“The analysis in this masterly volume is set on a high level of historical knowledge, integrity of thinking and religious insight... A life dedicated to religious study and profound spiritual pondering has gone into The Essence of Judaism... [Its] study... is, therefore, valuable not only for attaining a clearer understanding of Judaism but also for achieving a clearer understanding of the background of the great world religions of Christianity and Islam... In the definition of what he regards as the essence of Judaism, [Baeck] often points out wherein it differs from Christianity, Buddhism and other systems of religious teaching.” — David de Sola Pool, The New York Times


“A mature product of German Jewish genius... This beautifully written book may best be described as the swan song of German Jewish scholarship.” — Jacob Agus, Jewish Social Studies


“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.” — David Baumgardt, Commentary Magazine


“This work will give back to many faith in their Judaism and will awaken a desire to immerse further in its study... It is not one of the least merits of this book that it awakens the desire for further instruction and immersion in Jewish scholarship and Jewish life... This work is based on a comprehensive mastery of the biblical and postbiblical literature, draws on other religions, and from belief in the value and mission of Judaism, creates a vivid warmth.” — Heinemann, Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums


“This is an unusually important book... Baeck considered himself a ‘liberal’ Jew, but the synagogues in which he preached in Berlin were, by American standards, ‘conservative’... yet after the War he taught at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where ‘reform’ rabbis are trained. Baeck and the book under review bring home to us the utter inadequacy of such labels. It was of his essence to stand above factions.” — Kauffmann, Religious Education


“[The book] presents us [...] with what may briefly, and not altogether inaptly, be described as Prolegomena to Judaism. Within a very moderate compass we have an able characterization of Judaism, an interesting and warm exposition of its leading ideas and peculiarities... Dr. Baeck writes with enthusiasm... The book as a whole is stimulating.” — Wolf, The Jewish Quarterly Review

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About the author

Born in what is now Leszno, Poland, Leo Baeck (1873-1956), the son of a rabbi, studied at the conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau and at the more liberal Lehranstalt für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin. He received a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Berlin in 1895. In 1897, he became a rabbi in Oppeln (now Opole, Poland) where he made his mark as an intellectual and a modern theologian with his Das Wesen des Judentums (The Essence of Judaism) published in 1905 in response to Adolf von Harnack’s Das Wesen des Christentums (The Essence of Christianity). The book is a passionate argument for the enduring relevance of Judaism. Displaying courage, foresight and independence of thought, Baeck was one of only two rabbis in the Union of German Rabbis (Allgemeiner Deutscher Rabbinerverband) who refused to condemn Theodor Herzl and the First Zionist Congress (Basel, 1897). He served as a rabbi in Düsseldorf from 1907 until 1912 when he was called to Berlin to become a rabbi at the large Fasanenstraße synagogue and a lecturer at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums.


During World War I, Baeck was a chaplain in the German Army. In 1918 he returned to Berlin to work at the Prussian Culture Ministry as an expert in Hebrew. In addition to his position as a rabbi and his lecturing at the Hochschule, Baeck also became President of the Union of German Rabbis in 1922. He was elected President of the German B’nai B’rith Order in 1924 when he also joined the Central-Verein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens, and the Jewish Agency for Palestine.


In 1933, Baeck was elected president of the Reichsvertretung der deutschen Juden, an umbrella organization of German-Jewish groups founded to advance the interests of German Jewry in the face of Nazi persecution. In spite of several offers of emigration, he refused to leave Germany, even after Jewish businesses and synagogues, including his Fasanenstraße congregation, were burned and looted in November 1938. In 1943, Leo Baeck, along with his family members, was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp where he continued to teach, holding lectures on philosophy and religion. He also managed to begin a manuscript that would become Dieses Volk – Jüdische Existenz (This People Israel: The Meaning of Jewish Existence), an interpretation of Jewish history.


After the Russians liberated Theresienstadt in May 1945 — none of his four sisters survived —, Leo Baeck made his way to England and spent much of his time traveling, lecturing, writing and helping found several organizations to assist the remnants of European Jewry. In 1955, a group of émigré German-Jewish intellectuals met in Jerusalem to found an Institute to preserve the history of the German-Jewish culture. They named the Institute in Baeck’s honor and appointed him its first President. Baeck died the following year in London.

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Additional Information

Publisher
Plunkett Lake Press
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Published on
Aug 17, 2019
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Pages
190
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Features
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Language
English
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Genres
Religion / Judaism / General
Religion / Judaism / History
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