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Abraham Geiger

1810 – 1874

by Ken Koltun-Fromm

Like many of his contemporary German-Jewish theologians, Abraham Geiger (1810–1874), the leading theorist and intellectual founder of the Jewish Reform movement, was nurtured in a traditional religious home and schooled in the classic rabbinic texts as a young child. But after learning Greek and Latin, Geiger yearned for knowledge beyond his insular Jewish education, and sought it through the German universities. At the end of his university studies, he accepted rabbinical posts in Wiesbaden, Breslau, Frankfurt and Berlin. In Wiesbaden he became engaged to Emilie Oppenheim (1809–1860), whom he had met a year earlier in Bonn. Emilie died in Berlin at the age of fifty-one on December 6, 1860. She had been ill since the birth of their last child some ten years earlier. A little more than a year after her death, Geiger recalled those painful moments in a letter written to his friend Joseph Derenbourg:

She suffered cruelly during the last few years, and she bore it with dignity. Early in 1860 she underwent a painful operation in Berlin. On her sickbed, which seemed to be a couch of convalescence, she was quite cheerful; she had loving care and devoted friends.

When his wife finally succumbed to her illness, Geiger made a pledge to “go on living, true to my children, to my office and to scholarship.” Yet even as Geiger redoubled his efforts at work, he admitted to Derenbourg that “the painful void remains forever new; my home is and remains empty.” Recalling that painful loss, Geiger remembered his wife as one who “remained beautiful to the very last; her womanly dignity and grace grew as time went by.” Even today, Geiger admitted, “she still lives within me” (Wiener, 94–96).

These personal reflections of loss expose the undercurrents of Geiger’s emotional life. But they also reveal something more in that they reflect bourgeois sensibilities of refinement and space. To Geiger, Emilie remains the dignified, honorable and pleasant mother and wife, devoted to her children’s welfare and her husband’s profession—a portrait that her son Ludwig, in his biography of his father, also admires. She still “lives within” Geiger because she cultivates all that he associates with home and the inner life. His world is one of scholarship and labor; her duty resides, as Geiger tells it, in “understanding and sympathy for all my work and all my endeavors.” Through her sympathy and support, Emilie enabled Geiger, in both her life and her death, to dedicate his passions to “one idea,” and to “labor faithfully in its cause” (Wiener, 95). The home was indeed empty, but the power of Geiger’s reform would carry forward. In writing about that “one idea,” and the virtuous feminine support of it, Geiger reproduced bourgeois gendered assumptions of feminine interior space and male public labor. At home and “within,” Emilie could support Geiger’s public world of religion and political reform. The tropes of personal loss, however deeply and honestly felt, reveal Geiger’s sense of gendered space, and the fitting work to be done within and beyond the self.

Geiger reads inner religious virtue and public political morality into the biblical texts in order to read out of them an authoritative precedent for bourgeois Jewish practice and identity. The texts, through Geiger’s interpretive skill, define virtue as private and female, but label political morality as public and male. Biblical women such as Rebecca, Miriam and Deborah are domestic, private persons cultivated in virtues that reflect aesthetic beauty. Yet Geiger highlights the strong ethical principles and noble grandeur, the political savvy and moral rectitude of such diverse male figures as Abraham, Hillel and Honi the Circle Drawer. Figuring biblical women as modest and virtuous enablers is certainly not peculiar to Geiger, for he shares this image with many of his contemporaries. Amos Funkenstein is surely right when he argues that Geiger, and not only he, imagined a past that reflected the “liberal-bourgeois ideology” of the time.

But in reflecting that ideology, Geiger also helped to produce modern bourgeois standards of taste and refinement. As progressive Jews like Geiger entered the middle-class society and culture of Western Europe, they adopted a male civic society dependent on gendered configurations of the private sphere. When Geiger rereads the Jewish biblical heritage to support bourgeois values of female domesticity and public male power, he produces the very discourse that justifies male authoritative practice.

This silencing of female power is a response to the cultural anxiety in the face of a more provocative, “feminized” religion. Where traditional Judaism prized textual study in male domains of learning outside the home, modern Judaism now focused on inner spirituality, refinement, family integrity and personal experience in the home. Indeed, the home is precisely where Geiger locates his spiritual Judaism, and he, like his bourgeois contemporaries, engenders that space as feminine. To be sure, the home had always been a feminine space in traditional Judaism, and liberal thinkers such as Geiger accepted the separate domains of religious practice. But now women controlled and had access to the religious goods of modern Judaism, because much of modern religious practice occurred in the home and within the self. Judaism as a modern religion appropriated the traditional feminine home by withdrawing religious authority from the synagogue, and directing it to more private spaces. Yet in privileging the inner life with its spiritual potential, Geiger also fears the loss of male Jewish power. His modern Judaism would be one that still upheld male religious authority.

In the fourth chapter of Das Judenthum und seine Geschichte (Judaism and Its History), published in 1864–1865 and based on popular lectures on Jewish history which he delivered in Frankfurt and Berlin, Geiger compares the shallow familial life of Hellenism to the prominence of “domestic life” in Judaism. He chastises the Greek nation for undervaluing “the sanctity of matrimonial life” and “the intimacy (Innigkeit) of the family.” Indeed, “a woman’s worth according to her true being has not been properly highlighted in Hellenism” (44). Like many of his contemporaries, Geiger compares Judaism with the Greek nation of antiquity. He has much to say about a woman’s character, and believes Judaism offers the most robust and true picture of it.

In this remarkable chapter that reflects upon, among other things, nationality, slavery and the status of women (Stellung der Frauen), Geiger situates a woman’s place within the private, virtuous space of familial integrity. He notes the biblical injunction to leave father and mother in order to become “an essential unity” with one’s wife. This is, for Geiger, a male responsibility, for the son leaves his parents to join his wife who, Geiger adds, “follows her husband.” Though the couple lives in full equality, a woman’s desire remains steadfast for her husband alone, for in Geiger’s view, “he rules over you (er soll über Dich herrschen)” (44). The value of domestic harmony drives Geiger’s notion of gender equality. Within the serene confinement of the private home, the husband recognizes “a woman’s worth according to her true character.” Both husband and wife “become one being, one house,” and “full equality” prevails within Geiger’s invented private sphere of domestic contentment. This picture constructs the woman with “familial” virtues of desire, reverence, loyalty and humble subservience to her husband. She is the virtuous matriarch, the enabler of family fortune and public praise, the simple and honorable wife and the mother of noble males. Her “true character” is one of inner purity and domestic tranquility.

Geiger’s portrayal of Jewish domestic life actively constructs the “cult of domesticity.” This bourgeois model “called upon women to create a peaceful domestic environment free from the stresses of the larger society and devoted to the preservation and transmission of traditional morality, while men assumed the burden of earning a living and governing society” (Hyman, 1955, 25). Jews left the ghetto not for labor intensive work but for the status and wealth that accompanied middle-class culture. But Jewish males were not always successful in attaining the wealth, status and prestige of bourgeois society, and so many imagined a home far more welcoming and secure. The family could provide the easy comforts that still remained elusive in the public sphere.

Geiger’s account of domestic Jewish women is rooted in the image of the “cult of domesticity” that had developed in Europe and played out elsewhere, though in varied and often more radical forms. He figures the Jewish wife as humble and subservient, cultivating a serene and amiable home. Jewish domestic life, in this picture, remains free from the stresses of middle-class conflict and impersonal market forces. There is unity and tranquility in the Jewish domestic world because Jewish women exhibit the virtues and discipline that mark the bourgeois “cult of domesticity.”

Geiger also fantasizes that servile and privately modest women wish to be so, and he discovers these virtuous women throughout Jewish literature. In the Bible, Rebecca appears as a “maiden of innocence, friendly and kindhearted toward the stranger, readily complying with his request for water to drink, and caring even for his camels” (Judenthum, 44). She is for Geiger a picture of female nobility: kind, innocent, modest, and sexually pure. And in “readily complying” to Abraham’s servant’s request, Rebecca actively desires and conforms to the enabling role of spouse.

This sense of chosen modesty and female subservience to male actors underscores a dominant motif in Enlightenment and nineteenth-century images of familial duties. In Fichte’s influential view, marriage involves “the unlimited subjection of the woman to the will of the husband.” But her minor status is not willed but desired: “Woman is not subjected to her husband, so that her husband should have a right of compulsion over her; she is subjected through her own continuous necessary wish—a wish which is the condition of her morality” (quoted in Hull, 322).

Like Rebecca, Miriam too is always pure, like “a fresh source of water,” and fiercely loyal, with “the intimacy (Innigkeit) of a woman’s heart.” After citing a well-known Midrash that praises the Israelite women for the communal deliverance from Egypt, Geiger asks rhetorically: “Who guarded their homes, who attended to the pure moral sense [reinen Sinn] of their children, who protected the hearth fires of ethical life [das Feuer der Sittlichkeit]?” Since men labored outside the home in Egypt and, according to Geiger’s view, in Europe too, his answer was surely commonplace: “It was the mothers in Israel who attended to those matters” (Judenthum, 45). Geiger inscribes the virtuous, compliant and innocent spouse as a “woman’s natural purpose” both within the familial economy of civil society and the biblical Exodus story.

The association of virtuous Jewish women with private contentment, virtue and purity continues even in Geiger’s account of more politically astute figures such as Deborah, Hannah and Ruth. Note Geiger’s ambiguous praise of Deborah as a “beautiful” figure (eine schöne Gestalt), prophetess and judge, “a bold and courageous woman, an enthusiastic leader, yet one fully conscious of her womanhood.” Deborah’s public courage and bravery, together with her mastery of religious politics, express little of her feminine virtues. Even Deborah recognizes this, according to Geiger. She is reluctant to enter battle because, as she tells Barak, victory should not be a woman’s. Yet Barak insists she accompany him and so, as Geiger tells it, she grudgingly consents and gains the victory (Judenthum, 45–46).

Since Deborah is a strong and public figure in the Book of Judges, Geiger must stress her private and more feminine virtues. He thus praises her political boldness, even as he notes her graceful, beautiful figure. Since courage, leadership and bravery are truly male virtues, Geiger must defend Deborah’s womanhood. One might think it bold that such a courageous woman arose in Israel. But we need not fear her triumph, for she is fully conscious of her “place” even in the public sphere.

Hannah not only recognizes her place within this gendered economy; her very identity integrally relates to it. Geiger introduces her to his readers as “Hannah, the mother of Samuel,” and her fervent desire for a child marks her as a “complete woman.” Her identity, in Geiger’s reading, is as mother “who laments that children are denied her”; while standing “in Innigkeit,” she prays to her God for a son from “the depths of her heart” (Judenthum, 46). Her husband Elkanah comforts her by claiming that he alone is far more valuable to Hannah than even ten sons. His response to Hannah might strike one as a rather poor excuse for male insensitivity. But Geiger thinks otherwise and claims, “what intimacy (Innigkeit) those few words express!” (Judenthum, 46) Elkanah is, for Geiger, the devoted husband who requires only domestic bliss from his wife. To see her weeping and in such sorrow disturbs that private peace, and so he asks Hannah to focus on the husband she loves rather than on the son she will never bear. And in the Fichtean image now transplanted into biblical history, Hannah should want this too. But Geiger praises Hannah’s sense of self as intimately related to a child rather than to her husband. Here we have, in Geiger’s image, a man at the center (“am I not better to you than ten sons?”), and a childless woman who follows not her husband but her natural desire for a son.

Even Ruth is worthy in Geiger’s eyes only “to be the ancestress of David.” Husbands all but disappear in Geiger’s account of Ruth, as they do, indeed, in the biblical text. He marks the home of children and fellowship as a feminine site of modesty and innocence, but one always in the service of the male political and civil sphere. The “cult of domesticity” is woman’s desired work as enabler of the male public sphere. The private sphere of family life, in Geiger’s biblical readings, serves the male role as public actor.

The passive women in Geiger’s biblical text are all beautiful people. They represent affectionate, lovely, caring, selfless, obedient and devoted women who maintain domestic and reproductive bliss for their male companions. This portrayal of the woman of valor glorifies the site of private virtue. For Geiger, feminine value lies in character, not moral strength, in beauty and charm, not boldness, in tranquility and comfort, not political tenacity. Geiger even praises the biblical accounts of female heroes as “told with childlike simplicity, without embellishing pomp, because it is so deep in the nature of Israel” (Judenthum, 46). That very simplicity continues in Geiger’s reading of the Song of Songs, a “feminine” book that retains fresh, natural, emotional and sensual qualities. Exclusively devoted to the meaning of a “fine, pure love,” the Song of Songs remains aloof to the more combative historical narratives of Israel.

But the world of romantic love also reveals the political stories of Israel’s history that promote and shape “pure love.” Religion and history belong to the public realm of male dominance. Women are beautiful, pure, and private characters who enable and make possible public history and religion. But these women do not enjoy public identities in Geiger’s biblical exegesis, even though they serve and are defined by the public sphere.

This sense of service and devotion to public goods emerges in Geiger’s tribute to the woman of valor in Proverbs 31—a text which observant Jewish husbands recite to their wives every Sabbath. Geiger highlights this central theme toward the end of Proverbs 31: “Her children arise and call her blessed, her husband also, and he praises her.” That praise and blessing mark the honorable woman as mother and wife, and so Geiger joyfully concludes his chapter on Jewish women by declaring that “the pure estimation of woman, the moral eminence of matrimonial life, remain the fundamental principle” (Judenthum, 47).

Geiger links inner spirituality with feminine innocence, and outer public ritual acts with masculine virility. As the religious spirit moves from the inner halls of refined sensibility to the material sphere of bodily expression, so too does the feminine migrate from its familial modesty to male social acts. Geiger’s idealist appeal to a feminine interiority that becomes fully expressive in public ritual is the focus of his early essay on women, entitled “The Status of the Female Sex in the Judaism of our Time” (“Die Stellung”). Though the focus is on women in contemporary Judaism, the text reads as a lengthy defense for women in Jewish history.

Geiger turns to the cultural landscape outside the text to argue that, inside the text, the rabbis remain out of step with developments in women’s lives. Surely women participated in “the truest expression of the spiritual movement of the people,” but one would not think so from reading the Talmud. Geiger appeals yet again to women “with the most beautiful, most sublime virtues and love of the highest devotion.” But such virtue and “view of life” stood at odds with rabbinic law. The Talmud resolves this tension between law and life by suppressing female piety, forcing Judaism to suffocate the female “receptive sense for religiosity.” Women had been “released” from public worship and thereafter denied “the most nourishing food of religious interiority.” They watched on the side as men worshipped “in a foreign language.”

The inner virtue that Geiger associates with female piety had been locked out and made foreign by the male usurpation of public space. Yet piecemeal initiatives that grant women a few obligatory commandments, or support new schools for both sexes, cannot undo the repression of the inner feminine spirit. The structural problems remain intact: female inner virtue and higher devotion remain stifled, without any means for public religious expression. This is all too clear in the marriage ceremony, where men “buy” their women. Although Jewish men treat their spouses as proper subjects rather than acquired objects, the symbolic power of the marriage ceremony undercuts female religiosity (“Stellung,” 7–9). The notion of a woman as acquired property silences female religious activity and expression.

But Geiger believes a pragmatic remedy still exists: rabbinic scholars should grant equal covenantal obligations to men and women, allow women full participation in public worship, and reject entirely the notion that they are spiritually underage (“Stellung,” 13). In this way, “both Jewish girls and Jewish women, practiced in faith, will live with interiority in faith” (“Stellung,” 14). Still, Geiger associates notions of interiority, virtue and aesthetic beauty with female bodies. And he never once challenges the claim that rabbinic leaders should control and determine the limits of female expression and identity. Rabbis do and should control and define; but at present they do so in the wrong way. In a later essay, Geiger even defends the acquisition of the bride in marriage without her public spoken acceptance. The husband gives, the bride merely accepts, and this appropriately mirrors the domestic order. Though he claims to support equality between men and women, Geiger subordinates female place and power to male agency. The male voice and judgments are decisive. A “virtuous” woman, Geiger concludes, should remain silent when receiving the marriage ring because this replicates the natural order of male dominance and the fitting acquiescence of private virtue (“Versammlung,” 11–12).

Geiger’s essay on the status of women, together with his later discussion of the marriage ceremony, suggest that even as the inner feminine spirit should blossom in ritual expression, only men act in the social world of ritual performance. Though women are “practiced in faith,” Geiger focuses on how women “live with interiority in faith.” Further, male rabbis like Geiger determine and limit the scope of both private and public activity. So even as Geiger demands the full material expression of inner feminine piety, that expression must manifest itself in male bodily forms.

Though feminine spirituality ideally transforms itself into material religious acts, it can do so only in paradigmatic male figures. In this, Geiger reveals his own anxiety of feminine authority in ritual performance. So much of Geiger’s religious idealism drives women into the public sphere, and his articles on the status of women in Judaism even compel such reforms. But his reformist idealism unravels when confronted by the possible loss of male religious authority. To restore that authority in the wake of possible feminine incursions, Geiger genders his idealism in figuring the spirit as feminine and its material ritual expression as masculine. In so doing, he reaffirms male authority in the public sphere. Even Geiger’s claim of commitment to equal status, in ritual and liturgy, owes less to the notions of equality and justice, and more to the power of feminine “interiority.” Female piety and virtue, for Geiger’s liberal Judaism, must be embodied in public ritual acts, yet women remain fundamentally closed to those social performances.

One can surely imagine a gendered politics, fashioned on notions of female interiority, transforming women’s status and identity within liberal Judaism. Indeed, there had been movement in this direction in the early stages of Reform history. In the 1846 rabbinic conference in Breslau, the Reform rabbi Samuel Adler (1809–1891) presented a rather lengthy report on the religious status of women. Yet Geiger, as president of the conference, delayed its discussion for the next rabbinic conference which, in part due to the 1848 European upheavals, was never held. The fact that these liberal rabbis never openly debated the status of women in Judaism suggests more than a failure of time or historical contingency. It reveals a deep seated fear and uncertainty about female ritual performance (Protokolle, 253–266).

Riv-Ellen Prell has argued that Jewish reformers transformed the legal status of women, but failed to challenge the gendered cultural practices in which men still dominated. Geiger’s account of women bears this out; even as his religious idealism propels female piety into public displays of religious ritual, that ideology also serves to reinforce the female place within domestic subservience.

SELECTED WORKS BY ABRAHAM GEIGER

Urschrift und Übersetzungen der Bibel. Breslau: 1857; Das Judenthum und seine Geschichte. Breslau: 1865; Judaism and Its History in Two Parts. Lanham, MD.: 1985; “Die Stellung des weiblichen Geschlechtes in dem Judenthume unserer Zeit.” Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift für jüdische Theologie 3 (1837): 1–14; “Die Versammlung zu Leipzig und die zu Philadelphia.” Jüdische Zeitschrift für Wissenschaft und Leben 8 (1870): 1–27.

Bibliography

Funkenstein, Amos. Perceptions of Jewish History. Berkeley: 1993; Geiger, Ludwig. Abraham Geiger: Leben und Lebenswerk. Berlin: 1910; Idem. “Abraham Geigers Briefe an J. Derenbourg, 1833–1848.” Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums 60/5 (1896): 52–55; Goldman, Karla. Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism. Cambridge, MA and London: 2000; Heschel, Susannah. Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus. Chicago: 1998; Hull, Isabel. Sexuality, State, and Civil Society in Germany, 1700–1815. Ithaca and London: 1996; Hyman, Paula E. Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History. Seattle and London: 1995; Idem. “Gender and the Jewish Family in Modern Europe.” In Women in the Holocaust, edited by Dalia Ofer and Lenore Weitzman, 25–38. New Haven and London: 1998; Kaplan, Marion A. The Making of the Jewish Middle Class: Women, Family, and Identity in Imperial Germany. New York and Oxford: 1991; Magnus, Shulamit. “Pauline Wengeroff and the Voice of Jewish Modernity.” In Gender and Judaism: The Transformation of Tradition, edited by T. M. Rudavsky, 181–190. New York and London: 1995; Meyer, Michael. Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism. Oxford: 1988; Idem. “German-Jewish Identity in Nineteenth-Century America.” In Toward Modernity: The European Jewish Model, edited by Jacob Katz, 247–267. New Brunswick: 1987; Prell, Riv-Ellen. “The Vision of Woman in Classical Reform Judaism.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 50/4 (1982): 575–589; Protokolle der dritten Versammlung deutscher Rabbiner, abgehalten zu Breslau. Breslau: 1847). Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. New York: 1985; Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820–1860.” American Quarterly 18/2 (1966): 151–174; Wiener, Max. Abraham Geiger and Liberal Judaism: The Challenge of the Nineteenth Century. Philadelphia: 1962.

How to cite this page

Koltun-Fromm, Ken. "Abraham Geiger." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 23, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/geiger-abraham>.

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