Commentary Magazine


Abraham Geiger and Liberal Judaism, edited by Max Wiener

Modern Jewish Dilemmas

Abraham Geiger and Liberal Judaism.
by Max Wiener.
Jewish Publication Society. 305 pp. $4.50.

Jewish modernity as a continuous tradition is more than two hundred years old. A century before its establishment, to be sure, Spinoza had embodied the most radical of modern Jewish choices—that of the Jew who has ceased being Jewish without feeling the need to convert to Christianity—but Spinoza’s example had no immediate followers. The outlook and mode of behavior that we identify as modern began to exist as a significant force in Jewish history with Moses Mendelssohn and his circle—that is to say, in Germany in the 18th century. Mendelssohn himself was an Orthodox Jew who made it his life’s work to defend his people and his faith with the weapons of an elevated German style and a good control of contemporary philosophy. His program called for Westernizing the manners, language, and education of European Jewry, thus fitting Jews for the experience of that political and social emancipation toward which he also labored. In his assertion that Judaism had no dogmas, Mendelssohn sought to create room for Western-style philosophical speculation; and at the same time, by asserting that the commandments of the Jewish tradition were divinely revealed, he hoped to secure the continuing Orthodoxy of those who, like himself, had entered the wider intellectual world.

Mendelssohn’s position was caught in an inherent self-contradiction. Free philosophical thought, especially in an age of Deism and agnosticism, could not fail to extend beyond the realm of the speculative into that of the practical. It is one thing to believe that God is a heavenly watchmaker who has created a perfect machine which He is now admiring; to couple this with saying to Him, three times a day, “Heal us, O Lord,” or with chanting “El Mole Rach’mim” to Him for the repose of the dead is quite another. Furthermore, asserting that Judaism is a system of “revealed legislation” itself involves a good many dogmas of the very kind that Mendelssohn sought to deny. It implies a God who speaks to men and who has revealed Himself decisively: what more primary dogma is there than this? But Mendelssohn’s need was not one of intellectual consistency. He was able to solve the question of how to be at the same time a Jew and a modern man by affirming within himself both these beings in their entirety. Thus he prefigures that kind of modern Orthodoxy which can both assert the literal truth of the book of Genesis and produce professors of geology.

There was deep insight in the increasing distrust found among the rabbinic leaders of the ghetto in Mendelssohn’s day and after. They were correct in regarding the synthesis that he embodied as an unstable one. Those whom he and followers, the later “Enlighteners,” led out of their closed talmudic world very quickly ceased paying this world even formal obeisance. Western culture, or any culture for that matter, involves far more than language, manners, and book learning; it implies nothing less than an attitude to life, and those who believed that the Jewish way is God’s will were absolutely right, from their point of view, to try to dynamite all the bridges to the outside world. This belief continues to operate today in the Hasidic communities in Williamsburg and Mea Shearim in Jerusalem and in a few yeshivot, but it did not succeed in keeping the majority of the Jews out of the modern world. Self-ghettoization has not been a popular alternative to the Jewish predicament in the Western world; for that matter, neither has intellectual schizophrenia of the Mendelssohn kind.

Some Jews reacted to modernity by converting to Christianity, paying the price of a “ticket of entry” into the fullness of Western society; others have adopted the position—best described by Sartre—of being Jews by situation. for the most part, however, Jews have been occupied with all the possible permutations of the answer to one ultimate question: how can the Jew, as Jew, cease being two and become one? On what basis can he transcend the tension of being Jew and German, Jew and American, or Jew and modern man, and become, within himself and in the eyes of others, “just like everybody else”?

Logically, there are two ways to approach the problem: one can either change the world or change oneself. If the world, through persecution, and the Jew, through self-ghettoization, have jointly created an identity that is sui generis, one can imagine a new order that uproots these ancient errors and brings men, as men, into new relationships. Certainly the passion of Jews for all ideologies of the 18th and 19th centuries, from the French Revolution to Freud, has been nurtured by this desire to create a world in which there is now not “neither Jew nor Greek”—in St. Paul’s phrase—but neither Jew nor Christian. On the other hand, one can relate to the world as it is, or as it is becoming, and even love it with great passion. The problem is, then, essentially a conservative one: how to become part of the “establishment,” whatever that may be in one’s own time and place. For those who are rooted in the Jewish past the way has become one of bringing Judaism with them into modern life by changing it into a new key. Thus the current wishful self-image of most American Jews is exemplified in Will Herberg’s famous title, CatholicProtestantJew. Everyone knows that the Jews in America are not just like the Protestants and Catholics, but this is what they dearly want to be—religious difference now being regarded as the only acceptable one among Americans. Hence so much of Jewish life that a generation ago was felt as an ethnic experience has come more and more to take on an “ecclesiastical face.”

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This development is, of course, nothing new. In fact, the great difficulty with modern Jewish thought is that there have been no new notes for at least a century. To make Judaism “Western” one could affirm it either as a religion, like other Western faiths, or as a nation, like other Western nations. Each of these possibilities was defined by a German Jew in the 19th century. In 1862, Moses Hess expressed the nationalist view in Rome and Jerusalem, the first classic of modern Zionism. By then Abraham Geiger had been the leader of the movement for religious reform for several decades. Geiger wished to be a German first and then a Jew. German national identity was not, he argued, blood or race but a matter of culture and political allegiance. Co-nationalists differed in their faith, and his was Judaism.

Geiger was completely logical in his insistence that national elements had to be entirely removed from Judaism. For a Jew to be comfortable as the kind of German patriot that Geiger wished to be, it was necessary for Judaism to become a universal religion, the bearer of an elevated and divinely inspired morality. The specific contents of his theology can be reduced to three motifs: a deep respect for and involvement in the Jewish past; a continuing criticism of, and a sense of difference from, Christianity; and the affirmation of a liberal humanitarianism. When his son announced that he was abandoning Jewish studies for other fields, Geiger could only write an answer amounting to the hope that the young man would be a true lover of mankind. It is surely no coincidence that not only the most radical of American Jewish Reformers, Emil G. Hirsch, but also a leading religious liberal who left Judaism, Felix Adler, were Geiger’s disciples.

The vision of Judaism as a universal religion demands the difficult task of defining in believable fashion a set of Jewish ethical norms which differ so materially from either Christianity or liberalism that it is worth the difference to remain a Jew. This definition Geiger never produced. In any case, the emphasis on ethical content was primarily intended to get around the problem of ritual obedience, so that the modern Jew might be free on religious grounds to do what he was doing anyway for other reasons—i.e., breaking with the inherited commandments. Geiger invoked the principle of history to validate such change. His great contributions to Wissenschaft des Judentums were based on the premise that Judaism had always been in its nature an evolving tradition and that therefore change was not only permissible but was an obligation for his own time.

Those who broke with Geiger, finding him too radical, like Zechariah Fraenkel and the other “Conservatives,” did not really differ with him on this principle. They too believed that Judaism had evolved historically and that change was therefore the order of the present. They differed from him rather in being more involved in Hebrew and much more traditional by temperament; they had a far greater sense than he that Judaism was rooted in an actual Jewish community and not in some abstract confession.

But the premises of all the varieties of liberal Judaism, from the most conservative to the most radical, ultimately descend from the notion of history. Rereading Geiger, especially under the guidance of so great a scholar and historian as the late Max Wiener, raises many questions about this principle. Solomon Schechter, for instance, had tried to evade perhaps the most pointed of these questions, namely, who is to decide on the necessity of change, by positing the existence of Catholic Israel, the community of all Jews who make their choices through the life they lead. Now, such an idea seems very plausible when applied to a community that is overwhelmingly and commitedly Jewish in the serious sense; in a less Jewish community like our own, however, we have seen that the majority may choose many things which even the liberals must deny on the basis of some ultimate Jewish standard. In our time, therefore, we are unavoidably confronted with the questions: what are the basic standards that one cannot change? by whose authority do we change the changeable?

The whole of modern Jewish thought, insofar as it is affirmatively Jewish, is an attempt to find the grounds for affirming Judaism without a belief in Halachah, in the divinity of Jewish Law. Geiger’s thought is the greatest example of this attempt at its most religiously radical. Intellectually and historically the attempt has failed—though we keep on repeating the experiment. Perhaps our greatest debt to this excellent book is that it has made available in English one of the most profound expressions of Jewish modernity. Perhaps if some of our contemporary theologians and thinkers were to reread Geiger, we might be spared any further reinvention of his positions—positions taken in a time when they had true contemporary relevance. Perhaps the energies that have gone into reinventing him and Fraenkel will now be released for the necessary task of going beyond them toward a Jewish theology for our own day.

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