A Response to Michael Meyer's Paper

in European Judaism
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  • 1 Leo Baeck College marc.saperstein@lbc.ac.uk
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I hope it will be clear that in the point I am about to raise, I am not quarrelling with Michael's paper, and – while I do not in principle repudiate Joachim Prinz's effort to 'deflate what we might call the myth of Leo Baeck's sainthood' – that is certainly not my purpose at present. I would rather explore briefly the aspect that Michael identified in the first part of his presentation as central to Leo Baeck's legacy for us as progressive Jews: 'the unconditional divine commandment to do that which is right' – the divine command that 'leaves no room for ethical opportunism', the command that may require 'an utter subjugation of the self ', making one ultimately responsible to God and only secondarily to human beings, and that 'precludes obedience to any secular authority that contravenes God's will'. This sounds extremely noble and admirable. But how is it supposed to work for us? How are we to know what it is that God is commanding that requires such absolute obedience and sacrifice of self at a difficult moment? Clearly, as a progressive Jew, Baeck did not believe that God's will is to be discovered through the study and analysis of the ancient authoritative texts of the Jewish religious tradition. That is the Orthodox position that he did not accept. If God commands us today, it must be not in a message to be discovered in ancient texts but in a direct address. But what does this actually mean?