In this episode, we’re joined by Michael A. Meyer to talk about Rabbi Leo Baeck and his legacy, as a window into twentieth-century German Jewish history, both before the Holocaust and also in the shadow of that tremendous tragedy. Listen in as we discuss his new book, Rabbi Leo Baeck: Living a Religious Imperative in Troubled Times, and think about the big picture lessons we can take away from Baeck’s life and his legacy.
Michael A. Meyer is the Adolph S. Ochs Professor Emeritus of Jewish History at Hebrew Union College. He is a distinguished scholar in the fields of modern Jewish history, German Jewish history, and beyond. Among his books, notable ones include: The Origins of the Modern Jew: Jewish Identity and European Culture in Germany, 1749-1824, which was published in 1967, and Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (1988). He also edited Ideas of Jewish History (1974), and the four-volume German-Jewish History in Modern Times, which was published in four volumes from 1996 to 1998. More recently, he has written Rabbi Leo Baeck: Living a Religious Imperative in Troubled Times, which was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2020, and is the focus of our conversation in this episode.
Rabbi Leo Baeck is a stirring biography of one of the most prominent rabbis of the last century. Born in 1873, Leo Baeck became a spiritual leader of German Jewry in the first decades of the twentieth century, as a rabbi in Silesia and later in Berlin, where he was the chief rabbi from 1912 to 1942, when he was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. There, Baeck played an important role in the attempt to develop Jewish cultural activities in the most adverse of circumstances. After the war, Baeck settled in London, where he continued to play a leading role in the rebuilding of German Jewish cultural life in its diaspora; he passed away in 1956, but his legacy lives on in many ways, among them the many synagogues that bear his name and also the Leo Baeck Institute, the research institute on German Jewry which was established in 1954 with branches in London, New York, Jerusalem, and today also in Berlin.
Rabbi Leo Baeck is a biography that tells us the life story of one man, Leo Baeck; and like much of Michael Meyer’s excellent scholarship it offers cogent and coherent insight into his religious ideas within the context of the broader intellectual history that shaped his lifetime. But the book also does something bigger, by offering us a very personal window into the world of German Jewry in the early twentieth century, in the Nazi era, and also the story of its postwar legacy.