In order to understand Reform Judaism at its best, we can study the life of one person, Rabbi Leo Baeck.
Baeck served as a rabbi for the Jewish community of Germany before and during the Holocaust. As a prominent rabbi, he declined offers from Jews outside of Germany to help him escape the Nazis.
Instead, he chose to remain with his congregation, and as late as 1939, he brought a group of children to England -- and then returned to Germany. In 1943, he was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where he provided pastoral care to Jews in captivity and famously offered lectures on Plato and Kant to hundreds of prisoners. While he was living in the concentration camp, he wrote parts of his book, “The People Israel: The Meaning of Jewish Existence.”
Reading this book, one feels the urgency with which Baeck wanted to get his ideas down on paper. Of the 140,000 Jews sent to Theresienstadt, fewer than 9,000 survived.
As he faced the real possibility of his death, Baeck wrote late at night in the concentration camp. What was the message he hoped to share with the world?
Baeck argues that Jews have a fundamentally ethical mission in the world. Baeck writes that humanity’s relationship with God is mysterious but that this relationship with God commands us to be ethical.
In the gendered language of his time, Baeck wrote, “Everything given to man in his existence becomes a commandment; all that he has received means ‘Thou shalt!’”
Baeck was a leader in the Jewish Reform movement of his time, and after he survived the Holocaust, he taught at Hebrew Union College, the American Reform seminary. The idea put forth by Baeck and others that this ethical commandedness lies at the heart of Judaism has been a cornerstone of Reform Judaism since it began in the nineteenth century. This idea has sometimes been called “ethical monotheism.”
American Jews today are a very diverse group. Jewish Americans are not only ethnically and politically a mixed multitude, but the ways in which Jews practice their religion can vary dramatically. In inter-Jewish debates, the Reform movement is sometimes criticized for emphasizing ethical monotheism too much.
However, when Reform Judaism is at its best, our commitment to ethics lies at the center of what we do, and our Jewish practice extends beyond ethical monotheism. As Baeck’s life shows, Judaism also includes creating a sense of community, supporting one another, and immersing ourselves in the rich world of Jewish religious practice. In fact, Baeck writes that it is with the help of the song and poetry of Judaism that the Jewish people can actualize these ethical imperatives in the world.
Reform Jews can be proud of our commitment to fighting for a more just world. As Baeck wrote, even in the face of the horror, moral bankruptcy, and stupidity of his Nazi captors, the Jewish people have a mission in the world.
“Everywhere and always they know themselves to be addressed and touched,” Beck wrote. “Everywhere an answer is demanded from them; everywhere the commandment [to be ethical] reveals itself.”