Light on the Longest Hatred

From the “Exodus Series Paintings” by Maria Lago

Light on the Longest Hatred

I’d intended to devote this column to leisurely reflections on what I sometimes term “the Jewish assignment” in history.  Reflections prompted by a biography I’m now reading, with the title, Rabbi Leo Baeck: Living a Religious Imperative in Troubled Times.  The author is Michael A. Meyer and he writes very intelligently about his subject.

Before starting this book, I knew almost nothing about Leo Baeck save for a vague recollection that he’d been criticized for his role during the Holocaust – was it for not spelling out to Jews what awaited them at the terminus of their train trip to the killing grounds?  

Since I’m not a big fan of armchair moralists who know exactly how other people should have acted during those other people’s mass slaughter, I’d not formed prior judgments about Leo Baeck.  As of now, in the biography, it’s still the 1920’s, he’s rabbi of an important congregation in Berlin and the Nazi period hasn’t yet begun.

However, what I learned from the Preface has put me very much on his side.  During the thirties, when he worked to assist emigration from Germany, Baeck was repeatedly offered asylum and even a favorable teaching position in England.  These offers he refused, choosing rather to give what consolation and assistance he could to Jews who remained trapped in Germany – either by lack of means or because they’d realized too late what Hitlerism portended. 

Hey, armchair moralists,

that’s good enough for me.

My anticipated hour for writerly reflection has meanwhile collided with an online news item that just came to my attention.  The Professional Staff Congress, the academic union of the City University of New York — to which I belong, which in the past helped me in a job fight and supplies part of my pension – has just passed a resolution about Israel.  The language of the resolution describes Israel as a colonial-settler-apartheid state without a right-to-exist.  

Usually such resolutions are passed by a minority that has nothing better to do.  Everybody else goes home to have dinner with their friends or families and get their work done.  Only the extremists stay up late to get their resolutions through.  By morning, when ordinary people wake up, it’s a done deal.

I am not an effective debater and try my best to “stay out of politics,” since it interferes with my ability to sleep at night.  Nor am I a political theorist.   Therefore, bracketing the string of false claims in the PSC resolution, let me just summarize briefly what gives Israel a better right to exist than any other state on the planet.

What, ordinarily, gives a state its “right” to exist?  Three things: (1) victory in battle, (2) international treaties, (3) productive use of the territory with which its people have mixed their labor.  Israel meets all three of these “ordinary” criteria.  

She meets two further criteria, which are non-ordinary.  (4) Her people have been persecuted for 2000 years in every country where they sought to live outside the land of Israel – their martyrdom culminating in the wickedest collective deed of persecution in recorded history. (5) They lived,  recorded, and remembered their experiences in their land in such a way as to make it a holy land for many peoples besides themselves, thus fulfilling a promise that their record attributes to God: “In your name will all the peoples of the world be blessed.”

Now back to my original question: What was Leo Baeck’s contribution to the thinking-through of the Jewish assignment — the covenant between God and the Jews — as something ongoing?  

The biographer contrasts it with the thought of two of his German-Jewish contemporaries: Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig.  Buber seems more individual: the communion between you and me extends from the two personal I’s, converging toward the divine Thou.  For Rosenzweig, it is experienced in the revelation of God’s love, which calls forth from ourselves the reciprocal response of lovers of God.

Unlike these thinkers, whom he knew and corresponded with, Baeck feels a rabbi’s responsibility toward the Jewish people as an entire community.  He seems to have had a talent for finding ways to give Jews of conflicting opinions some unifying thread or sense of communion with each other.  He was gifted with benevolence and a great sense of responsibility.  He emphasized the moral element in divine commandments but did not discard the external rituals that also tied his people together.  

I haven’t read far enough into this account to say more, but it seems that his thinking evolved to allow room for God’s unpredictable, incalculable presence – the mysterious side of the divine – visiting a people whose vocation would be to partner with God in tying past to future.  That vocation would never be exhaustively disclosed by what happens in the historical here and now.  

As a thinker, Baeck interests me particularly because he’ll be put to the terrible tests of real life in the worst of circumstances.  What will he think, and what will he do, then?

And, speaking of such things, what do I make of the unprecedented hatred that now emanates from so many corners of the academic and opinion-shaping world?  There’s no mistaking it.  It provides the advance rationale for genocide — for the next Shoah.

What I make of it is that it also provides evidence – uncanny empirical evidence if ever there was such a thing – for the place of the Jews in history  spiritually understood.  The Jews remind people of the God whose record in history they first knew and preserved.

What else would prompt so much hatred?

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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