4. Rabbinic Authority
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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: Is it possible, I thought, that Moses might well have ascribed his teachings to Jehova, as Minos did to Jupiter, Lykurgus to Apollo and Numa Pompilius to Egeria? Pfui! what sins, called out a voice empowered by eleven years; such thoughts should come to the mind of the son of a rabbi, to a true-believing Jew [einem rechtgläubigen Juden]?! Should doubts stir against the holiness and prophetic witness of the divine Moses? The thought went away and I fell asleep.1 But Geiger awoke the next day, and so too did those disturbing thoughts about religious authority. Indeed, Susannah Heschel suggests that Geiger moved from “questioning pieties to investigating the suppositions of rabbinic authority” soon after writing these re®ections in 1826.2 Yet the link between religious and rabbinic authority can already be teased out from these diary notes. Geiger’s father had died in the spring of 1823—three years before this diary page, and some two years after the recalled moment of doubt at age eleven. Although Geiger does not share his reactions to his father’s death in the diaries, the event released a more profound loss of trust in the Jewish tradition. Geiger is the son of a rabbi in two senses: the son of his father, and the inheritor of a tradition passed down by Moses. The death of his father may have “empowered” a sti®ed voice within him that not only suspected Moses’ teachings, but that of the “divine Moses” as well. Rabbinic authority for Geiger is deeply personal in ways that link received instruction to the persons who transmit it. Geiger’s diary reveals how a young, “true-believing Jew” associates the holiness of teaching with the purity of character. Geiger was not the only youth of his generation to raise these issues concerning rabbinic authority. A young man studying for the rabbinate published a paper in the Allgemeine Zeitung des Judenthums in 1845 on the differences between “spiritual leaders” (Geistlichen) and the laity in Judaism.3 For a young scholar entering the rabbinic profession, those differences loomed large, as they did for the many liberal rabbis who gathered yearly (from 1844 to 1846) to discuss major issues facing modern Judaism. After reviewing the biblical and rabbinic material on authority and leadership, especially in connection to the priesthood, the candidate M. Dreifuß offered his own reasoned appraisal: When the sacri¤cial cult had disappeared along with the destruction of the Temple, the great meaning of the priesthood, which was intimately connected to the sacri¤cial service, naturally disappeared as well. Here marks the point in time Rabbinic Authority 4 85 in which the difference between laity and priest [Priester] or spiritual leaders [Geistlichen] was abolished, and in its stead the community now recognized individual spiritual superiority . . . as alone justifying a prominent position within the community of faith.4 Dreifuß concluded that “only the authorized scholar [Gelehrte] could be considered a spiritual leader [Geistlicher] in the full sense of the word.”5 The priest, like the Temple that grounded his authority, had been dislodged by communities in need of new leaders who would respond to their “faith.” Geiger’s journal entry, and this short article by Dreifuß, clearly and to my mind quite astutely raise the problem of rabbinic authority for modern Judaism. By gently linking the cultic priest to modern spiritual leaders, Dreifuß undermined the authority placed in of¤ce alone, and instead transferred that authority to scholars who possess the learning and “spiritual superiority” now demanded by the laity. Knowledge alone conferred religious superiority, and justi¤ed “in the full sense of the word” a commanding authority upon communal religious matters. Geiger linked this authority to personal authenticity and to the persons who transmit the Jewish teachings from one generation to the next. Privilege and communal standing would no longer be a matter of lineage but of religious learning and character. To fully appreciate the contentious debates then raging over rabbinic authority, scholars have often turned to Geiger’s struggle against the more traditional rabbi Solomon Tiktin in Breslau during the early 1840s.6 Tiktin embodied the traditional rabbi who prized rabbinic literature over university education, Jewish law over edifying sermons, and a protected Jewish community over one...