Geiger, Abraham

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GEIGER, ABRAHAM (1810–1874), pioneer of the *Wissenschaft des Judentums and founder of *Reform Judaism. Geiger was born in Frankfurt am Main to an Orthodox family and received a traditional religious education. Already in his childhood, he began studying classical history, which gave rise to doubts concerning biblical claims to divine authority. At the age of 17, Geiger began writing a study of the Mishnah, differentiating its legal style from biblical and talmudic law, and a dictionary of Mishnaic Hebrew.

With funding from friends, Geiger began university studies at the University of Heidelberg in April 1829, to the dismay of his family. He concentrated on philology, Syriac, Hebrew, and classics, but also attended lectures in Old Testament, philosophy, and archaeology. After one semester, he moved to the University of Bonn, where he joined a group of Jewish students, many of whom were preparing for careers in the rabbinate, that included Samson Raphael *Hirsch, Solomon *Munk, Joseph Derenbourg, and other future scholars of Judaism.

At Bonn, Geiger's studies focused on Oriental languages, philosophy, and theology, but he was offended by some of his professors' ignorance of Judaism and occasional antisemitic comments. He began an intense study of Arabic and the Koran under the distinguished Orientalist Georg Freytag, winning a prize for his essay "Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen?" The essay, which earned Geiger a doctorate at the University of Marburg, demonstrated the influence of rabbinic literature on the text of the Koran. Published as a book in 1833, it won great acclaim as opening a new avenue for Islamic scholarship, and was the first step in Geiger's larger intellectual project, demonstrating Judaism's central influence on Christianity and Islam. Neither possessed religious originality, but simply carried the Jewish message of monotheism to the pagan world.

Since no university professorships were available in Germany to Jews, Geiger took a position as rabbi to the Jewish community of Wiesbaden from 1832 to 1837 and continued his academic publications primarily through the scholarly journals he founded and edited, Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift fuer juedische Theologie (1835–39) and Juedische Zeitschriftfuer Wissenschaft und Leben (1862–75). His journals became an important vehicle in its day for publishing Jewish scholarship, and they included historical and theological studies as well as discussions of contemporary Jewish affairs.

While in Wiesbaden, Geiger introduced some synagogue reforms, abolishing the recitation of medieval Hebrew poems of lamentation for the destruction of the Second Temple, and other prayers he felt were theologically inappropriate. In 1837 Geiger convened a meeting of reform-minded rabbis in Wiesbaden, and he continued to be a driving force behind subsequent synods of liberal rabbis, held in Braunschweig in June 1844, Frankfurt in July 1845, and Breslau in 1846.

In 1838 Geiger became a finalist for a rabbinic post in Breslau, but divisions between conservative and liberal factions within the Jewish community led to heated opposition to his appointment. His religious commitments were under suspicion by conservative factions, who accused him of being a Karaite or Sadducee. Geiger replied that rabbinic Judaism meant "not to be slaves to the letter of the Bible." As a result of the opposition, he was not able to take up a position as assistant rabbi until 1840, and only with the death of Breslau's Orthodox rabbi Solomon Tiktin in 1843 did Geiger become chief rabbi. That appointment led to the secession of the Orthodox faction, under the rabbinic leadership of Gedaliah Tiktin. In Breslau Geiger established a school for religious studies and a group for the study of Hebrew philology. Geiger was one of the most active participants in the synods held by the Reform rabbis in Frankfurt am Main (1845) and Breslau (1846).

The tensions in Breslau continued throughout his tenure, and when the Juedisch-Theologisches Seminar was founded there in 1854, thanks in part to Geiger's efforts, he was not appointed to its faculty, though he had long been at the fore-front of attempts to establish a faculty of Jewish theology. His exclusion from the Breslau seminary resulted from pressures by conservative Jews who considered his theological position too liberal. In 1863 Geiger left Breslau to serve as rabbi of the Reform congregation in his hometown of Frankfurt am Main, and in 1870 became rabbi in the Berlin community. Ultimately, in 1871, he was appointed to the faculty of the newly founded Reform rabbinical college in Berlin, Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums, where he spent his final years.

Geiger's rejection of Orthodox Judaism in favor of a more liberal approach developed, he tells us in his diaries, during his adolescence, and began to flourish in his university days. Judaism was distinguished for Geiger by its monotheism and ethics. Whereas the Greek genius had introduced philosophy to Western civilization, the Jews were possessed of a "religious genius," and it is the latter, according to Geiger, that gives morality a firm basis in society. However, Judaism's ethical imperative had been lost in the rigidity of talmudic legalism, developed over centuries of ghettoization inflicted by Christian intolerance. In the Middle Ages, Jews were better off in Islamic countries than under Christian rule, he argued; Geiger praised Islamic tolerance and the Jews in Islamic Spain as "heroes of Wissenschaft," producing poets and philosophers who contributed their work to the general culture by writing in Arabic, not Hebrew. Theirs was a pure Judaism, he argued: monotheistic, based on divine revelation, but without the constraints and narrowness of Jewish life within medieval Christendom.

While Reform Judaism initially developed as lay Jews simply lost interest in the strict observances required of Orthodoxy, with many seeking shorter services, more frequent sermons, and organ music, modeled after Protestant churches, Geiger sought a more coherent ideological framework to justify innovations in the liturgy and religious practice. In his view, Reform Judaism was not a rejection of earlier Judaism, but a recovery of the Pharisaic halakhic tradition. Geiger's magnum opus, Urschrift und Uebersetzungen der Bibel (1857), argued that the Pharisees and early rabbis of the Mishnah had sought a liberalization and democratization of Jewish law, in opposition to the conservative, aristocratic Sadducees, who controlled the priesthood and Temple as the central religious institutions of Jewish life. Drawing on methods developed by F.C. Baur and the Tuebingen School, Geiger uncovered the religious and political tendencies in Greek, Aramaic, and Syriac biblical translations, as well as apocryphal and pseudepigraphical literature, to formulate a picture of Second Temple Judaism in tension between progressive and reactionary proclivities: the Sadducees "were joined by everything which counted itself as part of the aristocracy… they had administration and judicial functions. The Pharisees consisted of the citizenry which had national and religious inclinations, and constituted the opposition to the aristocracy, whom they eventually overcame. The differences are based more on political and partisan viewpoints than on diverging religious principles; gradually they became different religious sects." The theological principle of Pharisaic tradition, according to Geiger, "is nothing other than the principle of continual further development in accord with the times, the principle of not being slaves to the letter of the Bible, but rather to witness over and over its spirit and its authentic faith-consciousness."

In his subsequent survey of Jewish history, Das Judentum und seine Geschichte, a series of lectures he delivered in Frankfurt and Berlin, Geiger depicted the eras of Jewish engagement with the surrounding culture as ideal. The Pharisees, who sought to liberalize and democratize Jewish practice and supplant the Temple priesthood with a priesthood of all believers, represented authentic Judaism. Jesus was a liberal Pharisee who "walked in the way of Hillel…. [and] did not utter a new thought." Christianity began when Paul carried Jesus' Jewish message to the Greco-Roman world and distorted Jewish monotheism with Hellenistic paganism. The Pharisaism of both Jesus and the early rabbis was lost in the Middle Ages, Geiger argued, when Christian persecution forced Judaism to retreat from the liberalizing tendencies of the Mishnah and turn the Talmud into a petrified system of legal restrictions. Jesus failed to gain many Jewish disciples in Judea because his teachings were not original, but the common beliefs of the Pharisees. Following the destruction of the Temple in 70 c.e., Geiger argued, the Sadducees joined the early Jesus movement and expressed their long-standing opposition to the Pharisees in various New Testament passages, such as Matthew 23.

Geiger's position within the Reform movement was moderate, mediating between the more radical efforts of Samuel *Holdheim and Kaufmann *Kohler, and the conservative, proto-nationalist factions represented by Zacharias *Frankel and Heinrich *Graetz. Geiger preferred German as the language of Jewish liturgy: "If Hebrew were to be represented as an essential element of Judaism, then Judaism would be pictured as a national religion." Similarly, Geiger felt that the dietary laws were "inane, thereby so very damaging to social life, and, indeed, the inward brotherhood among people nonetheless transcends the renewal of a separatist, bleached-out and very dubious religious feeling." At the same time, while he considered circumcision a "barbaric, bloody act," he opposed the call of the radical Frankfurt Reformverein to abolish it.

Geiger became a major liturgist of the Reform movement, editing prayer books in 1854 and 1870 that became influential models for Reform Jews worldwide. In accord with other liberal Jews of his day, he eliminated the hope for a return to Zion in the messianic era from the prayer book, and while retaining the Hebrew original, changed the German translation of certain phrases; for example, "reviver of the dead" became "source of eternal life." Geiger himself remained an observant Jew throughout his life, but permitted certain liberalizations of religious practice. He relaxed some Sabbath restrictions and allowed organ music in the synagogue, and shortened the prayer services, but he opposed the abolition of circumcision and shifting Sabbath observance to Sundays.

Although criticized sharply for his opposition to Jewish national identity, notably in his refusal to intervene on behalf of the Jews of Damascus accused of ritual murder in 1840, Geiger sought to instill a deep sense of pride in Jews. He argued that Jews deserve credit for giving birth to the three major monotheistic traditions of the West, and also for those principles of religious tolerance and freedom of belief that constitute the basis of modern society.


Geiger's most significant writings include his doctoral dissertation Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen (1833) and Urschrift und Uebersetzungen der Bibel in ihrer Abhaengigkeit von der innern Entwickelung des Judenthums (Breslau: Julius Heinauer, 1857); the second edition was published with an introduction by Paul Kahle, a postcript by Nachum Czortkowski, and a Hebrew essay by Geiger, reprinted from Oẓar Neḥmad, 3 (1860), 1–15, 115–21, 125–28 (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Madda, 1928); in Hebrew translation with an introduction by Joseph Klausner, Ha-Mikra ve-Targumav (Jerusalem: Bialik Foundation, 1949; reprinted 1972). See also Geiger's Sadducäer und Pharisäer (Breslau: Schlettersche Buchhandlung, 1863), reprinted from jzwl, 2:11–54. The two journals he edited contain numerous articles of scholarly and theological significance: Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift fuer juedische Theologie (1835–39) and Juedische Zeitschrift fuer Wissenschaft und Leben (1862–75). Das Judenthum und seine Geschichte (3 vols., 1865–71) appeared in English as Judaism and Its History (1865, 1911). Also important are Geiger's Lehr- und Lesebuch zur Sprache der Mischnah (1845) and Parschandatha; die nordfranzösische Exegetenschule (1855). Other writings include a study of Maimonides (1850); an edition of the Divan of Judah Halevi (1851); a study of Ibn Gabirol (1867); translations of a number of their poems in German verse; a treatise on the Karaite Isaac b. Abraham Troki (1853); and a study on Leon Modena (1856). He published several valuable manuscripts (collected in Melo Chofnajim, 1840). Geiger contributed regularly to the Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, the leading journal in the fields of Oriental studies, Semitics, philology, and Islamic studies.

Geiger's son, Ludwig Geiger, wrote the most comprehensive biography to date in the introduction to Abraham Geiger: Leben und Lebenswerk (Berlin: Georg Reimer, 1910), which also contains a superb collection of studies about Geiger's work by leading scholars. Ludwig Geiger also edited five volumes of Geiger's articles and correspondence, with biographical introductions:Abraham Geigers Nachgelassene Schriften (Berlin: Louis Geschel Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1875–78; reprinted New York: Arno Press, 1980). English translations of excerpts from Geiger's publications and private correspondence, with a biographical introduction, are found in Max Wiener, ed., Abraham Geiger and Liberal Judaism: The Challenge of the Nineteenth Century, tr.. E.J. Schlochauer (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1962). Selections in Hebrew translation appear in M.A. Meyer (ed.), Avraham Geiger: Mivhar Ketavav al ha-Tikkunim ba-Dat, tr. G. Eliashberg (Jerusalem: Merkaz Zalman Shazar u-Merkaz Dinur, 1949; reprinted 1979) and S.A. Poznanski (ed.), Kevuzat Ma'amarim (Berlin: Louis Gerschel, 1877; reprinted Warsaw: Tushiyah, 1910; reprinted Haifa: Student Union of Haifa University, 1966).


J.J. Petuchowski (ed,), New Perspectives on Abraham Geiger: An huc-jir Symposium (1975), incl. bibl., 55–58. S. Heschel Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus (1998); M. Wiener, "Abraham Geiger and the Science of Judaism," in: Judaism, 2 (Jan. 1953), 41–48; idem, Juedische Religion im Zeitalter der Emanzipation (1933), passim; M.A. Meyer, "Christian Influence on Early German Reform Judaism," in: C. Berlin (ed.), Studies in Jewish Bibliography, History and Literature in Honor of I. Edward Kiev (1971), 289–303; idem, "Reform Jewish Thinkers and Their German Intellectual Context," in: J. Reinharz and W. Schatzberg (eds.), The Jewish Response to German Culture, (1985); J. Fleischmann, Be'ayat ha-Naẓerut ba-Maḥshavah ha-Yehudit mi-Mendelson ad Rozentsvaig (1964); I. Heinemann, Ta'amei ha-Mitzvot be-Sifrut Yisrael, 2 vols. (1966). For additional bibliography, see J. Auerbach, "Abraham Geiger," in: Allgemeine deutsche Biographie, 8 (1878; reprinted Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1968), 786–93.

[Susannah Heschel (2nd ed.)]

Geiger, Abraham

views updated May 23 2018


GEIGER, ABRAHAM (18101874), rabbi, foremost exponent and idealogue of Reform Judaism in nineteenth-century Germany and outstanding scholar of Wissenschaft des Judentums (the modern scholarly study of Judaism). Geiger was born in Frankfurt, where he received a distinguished, traditional Talmudic education. He was also attracted to secular studies and in 1833 received his doctorate from the University of Bonn for a work entitled Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen (What did Muammad take from Judaism?), a study that measured Judaism's influence on early Islam. In 1832 Geiger became rabbi in Wiesbaden, and there he set out to rescue Judaism from medieval rabbinic forms that he regarded as rigid, unaesthetic, and unappealing to Jews of contemporary cultural sensibilities. He did this by initiating reforms in the synagogue service and by calling, in 1837, for a conference of Reform rabbis in Wiesbaden. Moreover, he hoped to show how the academic study of the Jewish past could be enlisted as an aid in the causes of Jewish political emancipation and religious reform through the publication of the Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift für jüdische Theologie (18351847).

Geiger became embroiled in controversy in 1838 when the Breslau Jewish community selected him as dayyan (religious judge) and assistant rabbi over the strong protests of the Breslau Orthodox rabbi, Solomon Tiktin. Indeed, because of this opposition, Geiger could not accept the position until 1840. Upon Tiktin's death in 1843 Geiger became rabbi of the city. There he continued his activities on behalf of Reform, playing an active role in the Reform rabbinical conferences of 1845 and 1846, held respectively in Frankfurt and Breslau.

Geiger's undiminished commitment to the academic study of Judaism and his belief in the need for a modern rabbinical seminary to train rabbis in the spirit of modern Western culture and Wissenschaft des Judentums led, in 1854, to the creation of the Jüdisch-Theologisches Seminar in Breslau. Geiger was bitterly disappointed, though, when the board of the seminary decided to appoint as principal the more conservative Zacharias Frankel instead of himself. It was not until 1872, two years after Geiger had come to Berlin as a Reform rabbi to the community, that his dream of directing a modern rabbinical seminary came to fruition. For in that year the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums was established, with Geiger at its head. He remained director of this center for the training of Liberal rabbis until his death.

Geiger's scholarship was prodigious and profound. His most influential work, Urschrift und Uebersetzungen der Bibel (The original text and translations of the Bible; 1857), advocated the methodology of biblical criticism, and a host of other scholarly and polemical articles and books displays his broad knowledge of all facets of Jewish history and culture. These publications reveal his determination to make Judaism an integral part of Western culture and indicate both his theological bent and his ability to employ historical and philological studies in the cause of religious reform.

Geiger's work, carried out in the context of Religions-wissenschaft, pointed to the evolutionary nature of the Jewish religion and, under the influence of Schleiermacher, allowed him to focus on the inwardness of the Jewish religious spirit. Having thereby mitigated the force of tradition, Geiger was able, in terms borrowed from Hegel, to view Judaism as a universal religion identified with the self-actualization of the Absolute. He therefore downplayed nationalistic elements in the Jewish past, denied them any validity in the present, and justified Jewish separateness in the modern world by speaking of Judaism's theological uniqueness and spiritual mission. Nevertheless, Geiger, unlike his more radical colleague Samuel Holdheim, represented a moderate approach to Reform. He refused to serve a Reform congregation that separated itself from the general Jewish community, he observed Jewish dietary laws, and he urged the retention of traditional Jewish laws of marriage and divorce. In addition, he favored the observance of the second day of the festivals and, like his more conservative peer Frankel, spoke of "positive-historical" elements in Judaism.


The best English introduction to Geiger's life and writings appears in Abraham Geiger and Liberal Judaism, compiled and edited by Max Wiener and translated by Ernst J. Schlochauer (Philadelphia, 1962). David Philipson's The Reform Movement in Judaism (New York, 1967) also contains a great deal of information about Geiger's career and thought. Geiger's own views of Judaism are summarized in a series of lectures he delivered in Frankfurt that have been translated by Charles Newburgh as Judaism and Its History (New York, 1911). Jakob J. Petuchowski provides interesting insights into Geiger's approach to Judaism and contrasts him with Samuel Holdheim in the article "Abraham Geiger and Samuel Holdheim: Their Differences in Germany and Repercussions in America," Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 22 (1977): 139159. Finally, Petuchowski has edited a series of essays by several eminent scholars on the meaning and significance of Geiger's career and scholarship in a work entitled New Perspectives on Abraham Geiger (Cincinnati, 1975).

New Sources

Heschel, Susannah. Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus. Chicago, 1998.

Koltun-Fromm, Kenneth. "Historical Memory in Abraham Geiger's Account of Modern Jewish Identity." Jewish Social Studies 7 (2000): 109126.

Mack, Michael. German Idealism and the Jew: The Inner Anti-Semitism of Philosophy and German Jewish Responses. Chicago, 2003.

David Ellenson (1987)

Revised Bibliography

Geiger, Abraham

views updated May 23 2018

Geiger, Abraham (1810–74). Leader of Reform Judaism. In 1837 Geiger convened the first meeting of Reform rabbis and as rabbi of the Berlin Reform congregation, he was director of the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judenturms from 1872 until his death. He perceived Judaism to be solely a religion and was thus anxious to encourage assimilation into the national life, as well as freedom of thought and enquiry. He summarized his view of Judaism in a popular series of lectures Das Judenthum und seine Geschichte (3 vols., 1865–7: Judaism and its History).

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