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April 4, 2005
Stein Lecture examines spiritual leadership in Nazi Germany
BY Katherine baust
Ken Stein, director of the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel, welcomed a full house to the eighth Annual Stein Lecture, March 29 in Miller-Ward Alumni House.
This year’s lecturer was Michael Meyer, Adolph S. Ochs Professor of Jewish History at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati, who spoke on “Jewish Spiritual Resistance in Nazi Germany: A Tale of Two Rabbis.” Meyer explored the different ideologies of Leo Baeck and Joachim Prinz, who represented two generations of German liberal rabbis in Nazi Germany.
Meyer compared the character of these two men and their activities as spiritual leaders. Prinz was a fervent Zionist, while Baeck’s faith was centered in neutrality. After Hitler came to power, both sought to strengthen the spiritual resolve of a community deprived of its equality and increasingly persecuted. Each survived the Holocaust, Prinz by flight to the United States and Baeck in the camp at Theresienstadt.
“For Prinz, the Nazi takeover was not as much of a shock as it was to those Jews who identified with German culture,” Meyer said. “The Zionists, a minority, believed the Jews would never be at home in Germany and would only find refuge in Jerusalem.”
“Prinz saw the need for the Jews to believe in themselves while swimming in a hostile environment, and saw his sermons as ‘collective therapy,’” Meyer continued, saying Prinz considered it his rabbinical task to counter Nazi propaganda and build the self-confidence of his fellow Jews.
After conditions worsened, Prinz urged Jews to leave Germany months before his own departure. Meyer said Prinz’ messages were strictly Zionist, quoting one: “‘In the Aryan world, they can manage without the Jews, and that is something we always need to think about.’”
Baeck was a strict moralist, neutral in his philosophy and faith, according to Meyer. “Baeck was not a Zionist, but he was not opposed to Zionists,” Meyer said. “Likewise, though a liberal rabbi, he remained connected to Orthodox Jews.”
Meyer said Baeck lived the faith he had expressed in his theological papers long before Hitler came to power: that his Judaism was foremost a religion of the prophets. At the essence of his philosophy was the belief that “God commands; he doesn’t give advice,” and that Jews live in the presence of God, therefore demanding heroism and the highest ethics in the world.
“Baeck sought to instill this fearlessness into the hearts of his fellow Jews and a responsibility towards one another,” said Meyer. “By the late 1930s, Baeck, like Prinz, was concerned with getting the Jews out of Germany and keeping up the morale of those who had no place to go. He could have left earlier, but his own sense of duty required him to not leave his post.”
Meyer began his teaching career with HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His speciality is Jewish intellectual history and the history of Reform Judaism. He has authored numerous books, including The Origins of the Modern Jew: Jewish Identity and European Culture in Germany and Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism.