Rabbi Abraham Geiger

Reform rabbi fought for movement's recognition as part of Jewish tradition.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Abraham Geiger was a Reform rabbi and scholar (1810-74). Geiger, born in Frankfurt, received the traditional Talmudic education of his day and later studied at various German universities and was thus well equipped to become one of the pioneers of the Jüdische Wissenschaft movement, in which the historical-critical method was employed to uncover the sources of Judaism and the way in which the religion developed.

After occupying various Rabbinic positions (serving in Breslau as an Orthodox rabbi where he met with determined opposition on the part of the Orthodox), Geiger became the Director of the Hochschüle in Berlin, a position he occupied until his death. Geiger’s two major works are: Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthum aufgenommen? (showing the influence of Judaism on Islam and the Koran) and Urschrift und Übersetzungen der Bibel (in which the text and contents of the Bible were examined in the spirit of modern biblical criticism, then in its infancy).

For all his scholarly eminence, Geiger was not content to live and work in an academic ivory-tower but believed his researches and those of his colleagues demonstrated that the Reform movement followed in the tradition of Judaism as a developing religion and this impelled him to struggle for the recognition of Reform as the tendency demanded once Jews had become members of Western society. As Geiger saw it, the nationalistic and particularistic aspects of Judaism reflected no more than stages in Judaism’s progress towards, universalism.

He advocated, therefore, the substitution of German for the Hebrew of many prayers and the rejection of the idea of a return to Zion and the rebuilding of the Temple, in favor of the idea that Jews have a mission to all mankind; although he did believe in a version of the Chosen People idea according to which Jews had been especially gifted with the powerful religious sense that resulted in the emergence of ethical monotheism.

Geiger was strongly opposed to the neo-Orthodoxy of S. R. Hirsch, a friend of his youth, and to the conservative philosophy of Zechariah Frankel, but he was less radical in his Reform stance than S. Holdheim, whose ideas seemed to Geiger to destroy continuity with the Jewish past. Unlike Holdheim, Geiger steadfastly refused to countenance the transfer of the Sabbath to Sunday. Such a step would imply that Judaism was moving closer to Christianity. Any move in this direction was vehemently opposed by Geiger.

For the same reason Geiger refused to countenance any attempt to abolish circumcision, despite the fact that, in a private letter, he once described it as a "barbaric act." Orthodox Jews to this day consider Geiger to be an archheretic, though there is often to be observed, even among the Orthodox, a grudging admiration for his great learning.

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