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Abraham Geiger's Liberal Judaism

Personal Meaning and Religious Authority

Ken Koltun-Fromm

Publication Year: 2006

German rabbi, scholar, and theologian Abraham Geiger (1810--1874) is recognized as the principal leader of the Reform movement in German Judaism. In his new work, Ken Koltun-Fromm argues that for Geiger personal meaning in religion -- rather than rote ritual practice or acceptance of dogma -- was the key to religion's moral authority. In five chapters, the book explores issues central to Geiger's work that speak to contemporary Jewish practice -- historical memory, biblical interpretation, ritual and gender practices, rabbinic authority, and Jewish education. This is essential reading for scholars, rabbis, rabbinical students, and informed Jewish readers interested in Conservative and Reform Judaism.

Published with the generous support of the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation.

Published by: Indiana University Press

Series: Jewish Literature and Culture

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pp. ix-x

A book like this attempts to acknowledge authority both more and less than it should: more, because my debts to others are innumerable, yet less, for I could never repay them. But I accept that burden of authority as my blessing. Indeed, that blessing exceeds my own grasp to fully account for the authority of personal meaning that informs my own life. Still, I am grateful for all the encouragement, support, and advice I have received in years past that helped to advance this project forward. Members of the religion...

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Introduction: Abraham Geiger, Religious Authority, and Personal Meaning

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pp. 1-11

As the leading theorist and intellectual founder of the Jewish Reform movement, Abraham Geiger (1810–1874) appealed to the authority of personal meaning to both ground and challenge modern Jewish practice. His prodigious works offer a local and dynamic account of religious authority rooted in personal meanings that inspire and command. Neither objective in appeals to foundations “out there,” nor purely subjective in focusing on the self, religious authority for Geiger mediates between social life and...

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1. Historical Memory and the Authority of Religious Judaism

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pp. 12-39

Many of Geiger’s closest friends were his fellow students of oriental studies in Bonn during the early 1830s. With them he maintained close personal ties and literary correspondence, especially with Joseph Derenbourg—like Geiger a leader in the critical historical study of Jewish texts and thought (Wissenschaft des Judentums). After leaving Bonn and accepting his first rabbinical post in Wiesbaden, where he remained until 1838, Geiger wrote often to Derenbourg of his struggles there, and even more of his own...

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2. The Practice of Hermeneutical Authority

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pp. 40-63

Like many of his young colleagues and friends at university, Geiger recoiled from the Talmudic legalism of the ancient rabbis and their “hairsplitting” readings of the biblical text. Yet even before entering his studies in Heidelberg and Bonn, the young Geiger recognized how “the spirit [Geist] of the Talmud is so thoroughly different from that of the Bible.”1 Even more, strong differences arise in Mishnaic and Talmudic interpretations of biblical law, and these suggest very different methodological interests and concerns among the rabbinic readers of early Judaism2 Geiger blamed much of this divergence on...

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3. The Gendered Politics of Authority

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pp. 64-84

Geiger’s wife Emilie died in Berlin at the age of 51 on December 6, 1860. She had been ill since the birth of their last child some ten years earlier.1 Geiger recalled those painful moments in a letter written to his friend Joseph Derenbourg a bit more than a year after her death:...

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4. Rabbinic Authority

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pp. 85-112

As a teenager, Geiger wrote in his diaries about friends, family, and his prodigious studies as a young man. He recalls a moment when, at age eleven, he began to doubt the veracity of the biblical narratives and Moses’ teachings:...

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5. Jewish Education and the Authority of Personal Meaning

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pp. 113-133

Geiger’s education as a youth, like that of so many of his liberal colleagues, reflected a traditional upbringing that slowly, but ever gradually, blossomed into more critical studies of Jewish history that included humanistic disciplines. Raised in a strict observant household, Geiger learned Hebrew texts at an early age, and soon added German as well as mathematics to his Talmudic studies. At eleven, he absorbed Latin and Greek from private tutors, and after the death of his father in 1823, Geiger increasingly...

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Conclusion: The Practice of Authority

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pp. 134-140

Abraham Geiger’s many appeals to the authority of personal meaning resonate with contemporary Jewish lives. This is true because he rejected philosophy as “completely pre-suppositionless” and solely derived from “pure rational teaching.” Rational philosophy, in Geiger’s view, seeks universal ends that undermine personal commitment and character. But Jewish philosophy, so Geiger argues, works within systems of value and concern, and cultivates embodied...


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pp. 141-172


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pp. 173-180

E-ISBN-13: 9780253111852
E-ISBN-10: 0253111854
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253347442

Page Count: 192
Illustrations: 1 index
Publication Year: 2006

Series Title: Jewish Literature and Culture