restricted access 1. Historical Memory and the Authority of Religious Judaism
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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 ¤rst rabbinical post in Wiesbaden, where he remained until 1838, Geiger wrote often to Derenbourg of his struggles there, and even more of his own doubts and concerns about liberal Judaism’s future .1 Discouraged by the Wiesbaden Jewish community, Geiger was fortunate to have Derenbourg close by as a preacher in Mainz. But when Derenbourg left for Amsterdam in 1835, Geiger maintained his friendship less through joint vacation visits and more through personal letters.2 Here Geiger confesses to his many battles, including this pressing question about Jewish history, written to Derenbourg late at night in 1836: For the love of Heaven, how much longer can we continue this deceit, to expound the stories of the Bible from the pulpits over and over again as actual historical happenings, to accept as supernatural events of world import stories which we ourselves have relegated to the realm of legend, and to derive teachings from them or, at least, to use them as the basis for sermons and texts?3 As was the case with many of his colleagues who promoted a more scienti¤c and critical approach to Jewish texts, Geiger expresses both frustration at the innocent adoption of legends as historical facts, and uncertainty about how to reimagine those legends as religiously meaningful. When biblical historical texts lose their authority “to derive teachings from them,” how can preachers like Geiger employ that history “as the basis for sermons and texts”? If “actual historical happenings” no longer command modern Jewish practice, then what kind of usable past4 can Geiger draw from to enliven contemporary Judaism? This notion of a usable past is at the heart of Jan Assmann’s perceptive study of the biblical Moses in European memory, in which Assmann distinguishes between “history in its radical form of positivism” and “mnemohistory” as the study of a remembered past.5 Though memory is certainly related to history, Assmann opens new questions about how one imagines the past and its heroes, while he sets aside factual issues concerning what “really” happened. Assmann stands in good company in this turn to memory in historical studies. With Yerushalmi’s in®uential Zakhor, together with his Freud’s Moses, new works have canvassed the various terrain of historical memory, and have resurrected forgotten texts that deserve the historian’s attention.6 For many historians of memory, discovering what “really” Historical Memory and the Authority of Religious Judaism 1 12 happened in the past is either unfathomable or simply unnecessary for understanding how persons narrate and imagine that past. Assmann, for example, evinces little concern about whether Moses ever existed, or even if he had been an Egyptian. Those remain historical questions. Moses as a ¤gure of memory “is modeled, invented , reinvented, and reconstructed by the present.”7 Even if Assmann’s notion of history appears overblown, he still argues persuasively that a remembered past is a usable one, revealing not an innocent memory but a motivated projecting of contemporary debates about identity onto a past. In this way, the past becomes meaningful, and its heroes become authoritative sources for modern identity and authenticity. Assmann’s mnemohistory as a modeling and reinventing of the past undermines the very possibility of immediate access to past events. Though Assmann himself may still harbor a precarious belief in objective, positivist history, practitioners of his brand of remembering could very well forgo such attachments, and instead appeal to the ways in which we access and account for our past. History turns from a one-sided, professional activity to an imaginative retelling that invents authority through constructed memories. Historical accounts create authority , but make it appear as if those authoritative sources had already been there to discover. Indeed, to speak of memorializing, modeling, or reinventing the past actively subverts history as a fact-gathering, objective reading. Yet this represents less a post-modern turn than it does one of the many ways in which historians reconstitute the past. Abraham Geiger responded to this historical challenge, and to his own questions posed to Derenbourg in that 1836 letter, by arguing that effective history memorializes a past in order to ground new religious possibilities. This seems odd...