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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 Judaism.2 Geiger blamed much of this divergence on Christian in®uence.3 To rectify the abuse of Talmudic readings, he began his commentary on the Mishnah, together with his Mishnaic dictionary and grammar book, in July 1827.4 Geiger’s interest in the Mishnah and biblical interpretation, as Susannah Heschel has rightly noted, would motivate his lifelong study of religious authority.5 He sought to curb the abuse of biblical misreadings as re®ected in Christian arrogance, on the one hand, and Jewish parochialism, on the other. Reading the Bible well, so Geiger believed, grounded a liberal Jewish practice in textual authority. But rarely was Geiger consistent in his early readings of the Bible. Recall Bruno Bauer’s infamous pamphlet “The Jewish Question,” in which he lamented the Jewish theological move toward a “Mosaic religion” that would triumph over a debilitating rabbinism. The Mosaic law, so many of these Jewish thinkers argued, comprised “the most pure ethical teaching.” But to Bauer such a pristine time, if it ever existed, was in the unrecoverable past. Jewish theologians could not simply revive the past in order to ¤rm up the unconditional value of liberal Jewish religion in the present. Their Mosaismus was an imagined purity dictated by the complexity of Enlightenment and emancipation politics. History proved unyielding, Bauer had argued with force, and the Mosaic constitution, when puri¤ed of all its priestly privilege and sacri¤cial rites, would appear as nothing but rabbinic Judaism in all its degrading and illusory existence. Indeed, world history had moved far beyond the biblical Mosaic faith, and so any attempt to recapture it would immediately condemn Judaism to an ahistorical life.6 Geiger, as we have seen, responded to Bauer’s article point for point, and even adopted Bauer’s own Hegelian language to defend the historicity of the Jewish people and its religion.7 In rejecting Bauer’s static conception of Judaism, Geiger instead offered a grand, historical sweep of Jewish texts and life, painting a dynamic picture of Jewish history that undercut all claims to a pristine, Mosaic faith. Yet in the very same journal in which his Bruno Bauer und die Juden appeared, Geiger published Das Verhältniss des naturlichen Schriftsinnes zur thalmudischen Schriftdeutung (The Relationship of the Natural Sense of Scripture to Talmudic The Practice of Hermeneutical Authority 2 40 Scriptural Interpretation), a profoundly in®uential essay8 that defended the “natural sense” of Scripture against the turgid and “unnatural” readings of the rabbis.9 In appealing to a “natural sense,” Geiger had reproduced the hermeneutical moves of those Jewish theologians who defended a pristine Mosaic faith. For the Mosaists as well as for Geiger, the biblical text provided a clear blueprint for an inner religious life that the rabbis then abandoned and tragically redirected to support a barren, public worship. Here Geiger’s religious idealism resurfaced in his appeal to a prophetic moral core at the heart of historical Jewish thought and practice. He defended a static, natural reading of the text that challenged the contingent, messy, and to Geiger, blatantly absurd exegetical creations of the Talmudic rabbis. He did so even as he rejected a static conception of Judaism in the Bauer essay of the very same journal. That Geiger could be so unclear about biblical hermeneutics in the early 1840s only highlights the remarkable exegetical breakthrough in his study of the Bible and rabbinic exegesis some ¤fteen years later in his Urschrift (1857).10 Many scholars have failed to recognize that the thoroughly historical critique in the Urschrift marks a decisive shift away from his earlier appeals to a “natural sense.” In place of a pristine, natural reading stands a text forever reworked and rewritten by redactors and readers who project into it all that they hope to get out of it: this is hermeneutical authority through revolution, a creation of meaning through radical revision. Where the young Geiger mocked Talmudic exegesis and the hairsplitting readings of the rabbis, the more...


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