Introduction: Abraham Geiger, Religious Authority, and Personal Meaning
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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 individual commitments, historical memory and liturgical worship, texts and their interpretation. Situated at modernity’s door, Geiger’s religious works uncover the roots of contemporary Jewish experience, even as his appeal to personal meaning bridges modern and post-modern Judaism. His world, to be sure, is not ours, but the complex issues he faced—the value of historical memory, textual authority, the politics of gender and religious practice, rabbinic authority, and the challenge of Jewish education—all remain with us nonetheless. A sympathetic but critical reading of Geiger on these issues, as this book offers, can help shape and inform present-day re®ection on these very subjects. Indeed, contemporary Jews will come to recognize the sources of their commitments and con-®icts in Geiger’s own. Yet even with Geiger’s importance for modern Jewry, we still lack an extended critical study of his religious works and their signi¤cance for modern Jewish practice. To be sure, Michael Meyer has published a number of important essays on Geiger, and other leading historians of modern Judaism—Jay Harris, Jakob Petuchowski, Ismar Schorsch, Andreas Gotzmann, to name but a few—have discovered in Geiger’s works signi¤cant contributions to the study of Jewish midrash, prayer book reform, and Jewish history.1 Geiger’s son Ludwig (himself a distinguished scholar of German Jewry) published the most comprehensive biography and collection of critical essays—and to this day, despite its rather hagiographic tone and Max Wiener’s more recent collection, it still remains the best account of Geiger’s life and works.2 Yet a critical, focused, and book-length study of Geiger ’s Jewish thought has so far eluded scholarly attention. Even Susannah Heschel, who has written the only extended study in English, focuses her work on Geiger ’s obsession with early Christianity. Geiger proposed a “counterhistory,” argues Heschel, in order “to demolish the standard portrayal of Western history by looking at the Christian West from the perspective of Jewish experience.” He attempted , in Heschel’s phrase, to “Judaize Christianity.”3 Although Heschel recognizes that Geiger “raised the problem of how religious authority in the modern world might be established,”4 she focuses on Christian authority through Geiger’s portrayal of the Jewish Jesus. Geiger reverses the gaze, such that his critique Introduction: Abraham Geiger, Religious Authority, and Personal Meaning 1 “should be understood not as an effort at assimilation, but, in light of postcolonial theory, as an attempt to subvert Christian hegemony and establish a new position for Judaism within European history and thought.”5 If so, then we need to understand as well how Geiger positions Jewish religious authority within the modern world. Geiger’s religious thought offered a cogent and provocative defense of liberal Judaism and, as this book argues, is pivotal for understanding the sources of authority in contemporary Judaism. Meyer notes, for example, how Geiger’s “intellectual and scholarly eminence [was] recognized even by those who differed with his religious views,” and “his dilemmas were shared by others in his generation and thereafter; his resolutions set a permanent seal on the [Reform] movement.”6 Even Heinrich Graetz, the great German-Jewish historian of the nineteenth century, fashioned his scholarly works to directly assault Geiger and his movement.7 Geiger penetrated to the heart of nineteenth-century debates on history, memory, texts, education, and religious practice, and suffered the inevitable stings of criticism, some motivated by jealousy, that come with intellectual prominence. Yet through his contested analysis, contemporary Jewry is better equipped to face the challenges of authority in modern and post-modern life. This book analyzes how the authority of personal meaning energizes and informs Geiger’s account of modern Jewry. If Heschel directs Geiger outward to confront Christian identity, I turn him inward to challenge Jewish identity and the dynamics of religious authority that inform it. Through focused chapters on history and memory, sacred texts, gender practices, rabbinic of¤ce, and Jewish education, I argue that Geiger consistently appeals to personal meanings and their authority to command Jewish religious...