(1810 - 1874)
Although Napoleon granted Jews full
civil rights in 1807, socially they were still held in contempt by
cultured Europeans. Tremendous pressure was placed on them to give up
their strange particularistic ways and leap into the richness of
science, music, art, literature, and philosophy. Many acquiesced,
believing that the new 19th century nationalism would provide them
with full identity. The old ways of superstitious religious rules and
regulations were past. The new age of science and reason, of
unlimited truth had arrived.
Abraham Geiger was born into this
cultural milieu. Geiger received a traditional Jewish education, but
he was also introduced to the world of German culture. He studied
Greek and oriental languages in Bonn, where he met Samson
Raphael Hirsch. The two of them became friends. Geiger became a rabbi,
but he also participated in the scientific approach to Judaism.
He was horrified by the mass exodus
of bright, intellectual Jews from Judaism.
The cream of European Jewry was embracing secular nationalism, and
Geiger viewed this as a tremendous loss. He and a group of reformers
determined to stop the flood. The solution, as they saw it, was to
make Judaism modern and acceptable to intellectual Europeans. In
doing so, they hoped to keep young modern Jews Jewish and rid Europe
of anti-Semitism. They believed
that people hated Jews because Jews acted strangely, differently. By
making Judaism a religion of
reason, science, and aesthetics, they would enable Jews to remain
both modern and Jewish.
They began with four aesthetic
innovations which they justified within the existing framework of halachah:
1. Some of the prayers were said in
the vernacular. The vast majority of the prayers were still in
2. The prayers were either recited
or sung; the sing-song davening system was abolished because it
threatened modern decorum.
3. The use of the organ was
introduced to make the singing more decorous.
4. The sermon became the most
important part of the service, and it was delivered in German.
Many European-cultured traditional
Jews had no problems with these early innovations. Abraham Geiger was
given a rabbinic post in Breslau. He was opposed by the traditional
rabbi S. A. Titkin, but, after Titkin's death in 1843, Geiger became
head of the majority of the Breslau Jewish community. In Breslau
Geiger established a school for religious studies and a group for
study of Hebrew philology. He was one of the most active participants
in the Synods held by the Reform rabbis in Frankfort (1845) and Breslau (1846). It was these synods
which resulted in traditional European Jews, led by Rabbi
Samson Raphael Hirsch (Geiger's old friend), separating from the
Led by Geiger and Samuel Holdheim,
these synods set out to eliminate from Judaism every mark of national
uniqueness. Since the goal of modern Judaism was to live a lifestyle
that brought holiness into the modern world, a world of science and
truth; all outmoded rabbinic legislation had to pass the test of
reason, morality, and modernity to be acceptable. If a practice
separated a Jew from the modern, secular world, then it was a Jew's
religious obligation to renounce it.
Geiger believed that all of Jewish
tradition was an evolutionary process. He saw every generation of
Jews creating practices that expressed the eternal ethical laws
inherent in Judaism.
The synods recommended the
abolition of the dietary laws; wearing the kippah, tallit, and tefillin. Prayer references to a "Return to Zion," a personal Messiah,
and resurrection of the dead were removed. References to the
sacrificial cult were excised. Geiger opposed all prayer in Hebrew,
but he was not able to convince the synods of this.
There was discussion about
but the rite remained.
Geiger and the other early founders
of Reform Judaism burned with a
messianic passion. They believed that what they were doing would save
Judaism from the old-fashioned legislative stagnation of the rabbis
and, at the same time, rid Europe of anti-Semitism by offering a Judaism that the secular world could honor and accept.
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