You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

May 24: Reforming Judaism

May 23, 2015

GeigerAbraham Geiger, a key founder of Reform Judaism in 19th-century Germany, was born on this date in 1810 in Frankfurt am Main. He was a remarkable intellectual and linguist from childhood. His doubts about Biblical infallibility, Jewish “chosenness,” and other dogmas arose in his teenage years and were firmed up at the Universities of Heidelberg and Bonn, where he studied Arabic and the Koran and began to write about Judaism as the wellspring of both Christianity and Islam. Unable to acquire a professorship because of anti-Semitic laws and customs, Geiger became a rabbi at Wiesbaden, then Breslau, and began innovating both liturgically and culturally. He “was horrified by the mass exodus of bright, intellectual Jews from Judaism,” writes the Jewish Virtual Library. “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... was to make Judaism modern and acceptable... by making Judaism a religion of reason, science, and aesthetics...” The Reformers eliminated prayer shawls and tfillin and prayers about the resurrection of the dead, the return to Zion, and the arrival of a messianic being; they introduced organ music and sedate worship customs. These and other major changes in the culture of German Judaism (mixed seating of men and women would only come about in America), as well as traditionalist reactions to them, led to the creation of denominational Judaism.

“The idea in Judaism is mightier than the vessel that first contained it... Break the vessel and save its precious contents.” —Abraham Geiger