Rabbi Leo Baeck – a Karma Yogi14 min read

There seems to be a lurking feeling in many people’s minds that a practical and active life is less spiritual than an intellectual one, and again that an intellectual life is less spiritual than a contemplative one. They apparently think that only those who cannot make a success of the inner life should be asked to serve in a practical capacity, and give a practical demonstration of spiritual principles, and that the necessity for action diminishes as a man rises, until at last it ceases altogether and he can retire from the life of the world, if he so desires.

This, of course, can and does happen in some cases, but it is not the general rule, indeed nothing could be less fundamentally true than the assumption from which it springs. In this Yoga, withdrawal from the world is not advocated, and only those who have served a long apprenticeship of practical service are allowed to become monks and contemplatives. Our Teacher, the late Professor Shastri, was definite about this point ; he even dignified the distortion of the philosophy from which the idea of retirement springs with the name of ‘ heresy ’, for, according to him, in order to be able to hold this view, a fundamental cleavage must have been made between matter and spirit, whereas the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta recognises no such thing, matter and spirit being held to be one in essence though seemingly separate in manifestation.

The teaching of the Vedanta is that the Spirit is non-dual, pure, all-pervasive and fundamental, and that matter only exists, or rather appears to exist, by virtue of the reality and existence of Spirit, on which it is based, and on which it depends. If this were not so, chaos would be the only certainty in life, and the truth of non-duality would be disproved. But there have always been certain men, with no interest in spreading opinions, but only in revealing the

Truth—which they have seen more clearly than we see the physical appearance of matter—whose words and example testify that through training and self-purification, Reality or God can be directly seen, and that then man experiences the non-dual truth directly and knows himself to be one with it. Direct experience alone convinces, and it is. direct experience which is the acknowledged goal of the spiritual aspirant. Until he reaches it, he must watch and follow those who have attained it, for they are liberal-hearted men who will impart the Truth to the one who really seeks to know, when he is ready to receive it.

Professor Shastri has said that this direct recognition of Truth and the passing of it on, is the normal process in spiritual development. In a biological sense an organism is not complete until it has reproduced itself, and this is true in an inner sense of the Yogi also ; and from time to time men are born or are produced by spiritual training who, by their revealed outer life and their inner strength and compassion, show the way to liberation to both devotees and sinners.

The holy Teacher and Sage Shri Shankaracharya was such a doer of enlightened action ; from him onwards— and before him, no doubt—the practical demonstration of directly cognised Truth, through constructive action, has been held to be the natural and desirable outcome of spiritual realisation. When this stage is reached, action is not sought, and only those actions which come of their own accord, so to say, are intuitively performed. Such a man has freed himself from all prejudices, and, what is much more important, from all preferences also. St. Francis kissed the lips of the leper at an early stage in his career, but it took a lifetime of training and illumined vision to enable him to open his hands and allow the keys and policy of his beloved Order to fall into the grasp of another.

A few weeks ago, the life and example of a very great Karma Yogi indeed and one who was also a great Teacher, was brought to my notice when a friend lent me an article about him. He seems to have been completely at home in the world of material things and in the spiritual world as well, and so natural and perfect was his understanding and manipulation of both that no-one who appreciates his spiritual eminence would dream of limiting him to either category. You will all probably have heard and read about this man and the inspiration he was to those in bondage and agony—it is the Rabbi Leo Baeck.

There is no need to go into the details of his life, in peace and war, except to say that he was arrested and released again several times by the Germans, until in 1943 he was at last sent to the Concentration Camp for Jews at Theresienstadt, from which no-one emerged except to go to the Gas Chamber. There he lived and worked until the end of the war and beyond that.

His spirit was so resilient, so at home in every situation and condition, that he seems to have dwelt in this Camp as he would have lived and worked in a spiritual community. If one has to summarise the contribution he made to those around him, and to those also whom he never met, but who have come to hear of his pure mind and unbreakable spirit, it would be that he lived out practically the Yogic dictum— ‘ Inner growth, not endurance ’. When such a pronouncement is interpreted by one who is based on and interpenetrated by Spirit, it means a constant expansion towards the Light, and no acceptance of the darkness of ignorance and duality.

He was a leader, a teacher, a scholar and one of the spiritually great and his understanding of the inner life and its potentialities was the outcome of his recognition of the universal power of God, and the brotherhood of man— what the Yogis would call the universality of consciousness. To take one instance of this : Through the play of destiny the Nazi guard who had so terribly maltreated and tortured this group of prisoners, became prisoners to them in their turn. When this happened, not only did the Rabbi Baeck turn aside the natural desire for revenge, in his fellow Jews, but in the end no prisoner in that camp harboured that desire. This was due to his example, or perhaps to the fact that though the possibility of revenge must have entered his mind in connection with those under his care, it never rested there for an instant.

He taught all in that prison to look upon their plight as a challenge to their faith and ingenuity, and as an opportunity for interior growth. This involved a determination on his part to promote knowledge of all kinds amongst them, and at all times, and it is said that when he gave his philosophical discourses in that Camp after lights were out, seven hundred listeners hung on his words like clusters of grapes.

Dr Shastri has always said, and Rabbi Baeck lived this belief, that the man who ceases to learn or to desire to learn, ceases to live as a human being, and that if, having received knowledge, he has no desire to share it when it is sought, he holds up the natural and healthy process of circulation in the collective mental body. It is indeed a spiritual rule that that which has been received must be passed on in some form or other, at the proper time, and that to disregard this law is sin. The exchange may be by word of mouth, or from mind to mind, or its transference may remain hidden—a movement in the upper air of the Spirit—but it must take place when the necessity arises. This is why the giving away in charity of a part of the material possessions of a pupil is advocated in all the spiritual schools. It is a practical living out of this spiritual ideal.

The Rabbi Leo Baeck wrote once himself:—“The spiritual does not merely hover overhead like a pure conception, it consists in the being and quality of the individuals who have won it for their own ”. This ideal of activity on both planes is not new. It has been cherished in the East and West throughout the ages, though often misunderstood and stifled by the world as unfitting. The belief which makes this ideal natural and inevitable has no special home in any one religion and even the ways in which it is demonstrated practically differ. In the Vedanta, the vision is of a universal consciousness, which is the basis of every manifestation. While the outer eye still sees variety and good and evil, this universal consciousness lies unrevealed, but when the inner eye is opened it is found to be that which pervades all and is fundamental in all, like space. Then the Knower moves about, blown by the wind of the Spirit, giving help, encouragement or enlightenment as he is prompted to do.

In Christianity, this knowledge is expressed as the belief in the all-present God, manifest in his recognisable form as Jesus Christ, who makes all men active and one in his service. The love of God is based on wisdom, and can be expressed in action, but direct knowledge of God is revealed through the essence of the being of the illumined Sage alone. Then, as has been said, he may act, but it is his spiritual effulgence which enlightens.

All beliefs are theoretical, and they represent only a section of the whole Truth, but when the Truth, which is beyond words or description, breaks in its fulness upon the inner sense, the inner and outer intention fuse into one, and the man sees the miracle of perfection and not merely the reason for it, and he becomes free. When this takes place, his very presence in the world, though his true status may be unrecognised, enriches and feeds it, and when he acts, nothing can withstand him. The sun in its original state is a glorious, yet an awful thing. No-one could approach it and live, but all we experience of its marvels is that it looks like a round ball of light, that it seems to rise and set, that it is the home of light, gives us food and warmth, and fills our hearts and bodies with strength and joy.

The illumined man is just such an awful yet glorious being. We could not approach him if the light which he now is were directly revealed. Therefore, all we know of him is that he dispenses gifts of various kinds, and appears to accept them ; that he gives us his companionship and withdraws it, and that he brings on our growth by his visible presence and his invisible power— in fact that he lives among us as one of ourselves. Our Teacher used to tell us that the object of growth was to transcend, not to enhance, existing circumstances, and what we are speaking of now is the culmination of growth— transcendence—the spiritually adult state. At present we only know of it through the indirect testimony of those who have attained it, for it is only directly recognisable by those who are approaching, or have reached the state themselves.

The lives of the great—not only the supremely great of whom we have been talking, but the lesser luminaries also—are manifestations of selfless constructive action. These men are the embodiments of encouragement. They demonstrate for us that the spiritual ideals work, by living them before us. They invest every occasion and happening with spiritual significance, and if one can so express it, they ruthlessly and consciously turn every situation to spiritual advantage. As this advantage is to everyone’s advantage, it is not such an egoistic performance as it sounds.

Perhaps one of the greatest contributions made by Rabbi Leo Baeck is that he did not try to steer his boat of suffering souls away from the dark shore and to land them on the other shore—the shore of light. For him there was no other shore, there was no need to move at all, or to make a dangerous journey. He believed that spiritual truth and safety lay directly beneath their feet, and that they had only to uncover it there, to see it and rest in it. In his sonnet on Homer’s Blindness, Keats says :

“ Lo ! on the shores of darkness there is light,

The precipices show untrodden green,

There is a budding morrow in midnight,

There is a triple sight in blindness keen.”

So Leo Baeck believed, so he taught by his example, and so do all the spiritually great. No need to travel to find the security of Truth, it is there, near at hand, and waiting to be revealed.

Professor Shastri used to tell the story of a Teacher who suddenly told two of his pupils to dig for water in a most unlikely piece of ground. They started with enthusiasm but when they had gone down some feet and found nothing, they stopped and returned to the Teacher, and told him that there was no water in the place that he had selected. “ Dig deeper ”, was all he said. After they had gone down a few more feet, they gave up once again and tried to persuade the Teacher to give up the idea once and for all. But he still said : “ Dig deeper, my sons ”. They continued digging for some time, and then one of them said : “ The old fool, I’m going to stop. There’s no water here, he’s mad ”. The other went on doggedly and suddenly the water was there before his eyes. So it is in the spiritual sense. The depth at which water will be found, differs, but there is not an inch of earth under which it does not lie, and the spiritual drills can go very deep ! This knowledge is as a beacon of hope and encouragement to the spiritual aspirant.

At this stage, belief in the existence of Reality, or God, must still remain theoretical, but none the less to have such a belief at all is a very great possession indeed. Later, when the Spirit is directly revealed and recognised in every place, and for all time, it will cease to be a possession or a belief, and will be revealed to the one who knows it, as his own nature.

These may seem to be mere words for they refer to things which perhaps cannot be expressed in words, but the Truth which they are trying to describe is the heritage of each one of us. Such descriptions, however inadequate, are attempts to augment our longing for that Truth and for the expansion and freedom it brings, and also to explain why we should make sacrifices, why we should voluntarily restrict ourselves, however temporarily, and whyy above all, we should attempt to undergo a spiritual training and discipline at all. If we keep our eyes on the men of illumined action, we shall learn the answer to these questions from them and from their example, and they will give us strength to press on.

What, then, is the ordinary man to do if he wishes to locate and bring to the fore the powers which lie at the back of his mortal mind and senses, and which will reveal his immortality to him ?

  1. Firstly, he must intensify his desire to emerge from his present state of slavery to his mind, and from the fear that goes with it.

2. Secondly, he must approach the Truth himself—he must not rely solely on those who know about it, nor on merely reading what has been written about it. He must strive to approach it through his own stretching out—that is, by simple meditation and spiritual practices such as are given in Adhyatma Yoga; the repetition, with imagination and faith, of a name of God, or of a virtue such as courage, patience, compassion; and also through exercises in visualisation.

In this way he will change his sense of values, and will become as harmless as a snake that has had his fangs removed, which is a pre-requisite for the spiritual aspirant, although he will still be able to hiss a little when necessary, which is another desirable characteristic. He must widen his sphere of sympathy also, through enquiry and reading, and so break down the adhesions of likes and dislikes, superiority and inferiority. Thus he will become more open to instruction and to the influence of the great spiritual powers—for conscious effort evokes a response.

According to the code of the sea, signals for help must always be answered—even a little sailing boat can stop a great battleship in its course if it sends out signals of distress. The spiritual practices may be regarded as signals for help and guidance, and they will inevitably attract a response if they are made—-and from great and powerful vessels too !

To make efforts consciously and with imagination and determination is to obey the law we mentioned in connection with the Rabbi Leo Baeck—‘ Inner growth, not endurance