By: Rabbi Walter Homolka, rector of the
Abraham Geiger College
for the training of rabbis and a professor of Jewish Studies at
This Shabbat is called Shabbat Shira, because this week’s Torah reading, B’shalah, includes
, the song the Israelites sang after they crossed the Red Sea. It opens with the words, “I will sing to the Lord, for the Lord has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver the Lord has hurled into the sea” and ends with “Adonai will reign forever and ever.”
In a world of forgetting, Judaism is all about memory. How often are we urged ‘to remember’ what God did for us “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm”. Remembrance is the very basis for our trust in God’s faithfulness and love: “
This is My Name forever, and this is My remembrance from generation to generation
” (Exodus 3:15; 2:23-5).
And the same is true for our teachers. We are asked to remember their teachings and keep them in high regard. Even more when these teachers opened a gate for a new understanding of the Jewish existence challenged by civil emancipation after the French Revolution which resulted in a the need to preserve our Jewish tradition by interpreting it anew.
One such great and decisive leader worth remembering in our past is Rabbi Abraham Geiger (1810–1876), after whom our rabbinical seminary in Germany is named today. The beginnings of modern education and training of rabbis and the formulation of a Jewish theology (“Wissenschaft des Judentums”) are very closely linked to him. More than a century after the beginnings of this development, Rabbi Leo Baeck described Geiger’s situation as follows: “[t]he past was discovered and with it the fundament of the present was won; a new generation that was conscious again of its Judaism was gradually created.” What is described here has been the task then and I think remains our task now.
At the outset of the 19th century, the traditional profile of the rabbi, e.g., leading the house of learning and deciding on matters of Jewish Law, lost importance. Ruben Samuel Gumpertz (1769–1851), then one of Berlin’s community elders, made clear to the state authorities that the rabbi – after relinquishment of all judicial autonomy – was no more than a “guardian of the kosher,” and thus did not compare to Christian clergy.
Against this rather dull assessment of the professional future of the rabbi, Geiger’s goal was, “to fashion out of Judaism a new and freshly-animated Jewry.” And for this he needed a new type of rabbi. In 1835, Geiger wrote that the duties of rabbis include welding together “the inherited with the demands of the present.” “We need those men who can show how Judaism has become that what it is over time, who do not shy away from arguing against a faith stuck in the past, with the reasoning that not that much is delivered tradition, that not that much is determined through correct exegesis, but rather has emerged at the time of its origin, and thus also can be lifted again throughout the passing of time.” Abraham Geiger referred to the rabbi as “priest of the true science who reveals the secrets of the whole coherence of ideas in his times.” Geiger made it clear: the instrument of the modern rabbi is the sharp knife of academic reasoning. But this is not the only newcomer in a contemporary rabbi’s tool box.
It should be noted that Geiger was fundamentally a pragmatic and strategic thinker. In 1837 he wrote for instance to his friend Joseph Dernburg: “[w]e lack a rabbi who has great personal dignity and an impressive level of energy, who knows how to win over the intelligent part of the community and who addresses the masses accordingly without fear.” Geiger looked for the ultimate blend: academic excellence and talent for practical community building. The essential question was: how to get these kinds of rabbis?
As early as 1830, Geiger had called for the establishment of a Jewish theological faculty. Six years later, he argued: “[t]he only means […] through which Jewish theology could truthfully claim its standing as a science, through which we would receive dignified and sufficiently equipped theologians, with the true calling, insight, and true strength for life – would be the establishment of an institution specifically and wholly designed for Jewish theology and the teachings thereof, the founding of a Jewish theological faculty at a university.”
Abraham Geiger had just recently become a community rabbi in Berlin, when in 1870 moves were made to found the famous Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums. Geiger developed a detailed curriculum and lived to see the foundation in 1872. Two years later, Geiger died.
Sixty years later, in 1933, a time of utmost darkness and catastrophe began for Judaism in Germany. The plan was to erase Jews, Judaism and the science of Judaism. And it almost succeeded. Consequently, the rabbinical seminaries were closed and Abraham Geiger’s call for a Jewish theological department at a state university became nothing but a footnote in history. Nobody remembered for a long time; and the German heritage survived in London, tended by the Leo Baeck College and the German teachers who had found a new home here in London.
In the meantime, many decades later, we have experienced that Jewish life in Germany has, once again, a meaningful future. Since the foundation of Abraham Geiger College in 1999, I may say that rabbinical education has a purpose in Germany once more. The Abraham Geiger College at the University of Potsdam can today say with self-confidence: “We train rabbis for Europe.” Because we remembered the great vision of Abraham Geiger we finally fulfil his dream of 1836 and integrate rabbinic studies as a department at Potsdam University in 2013 as a duty of the public purse. Jewish theology will become an academic subject in Germany at last, equal to the training of pastors, imams and priests. Thus, Jewish life in Germany today pays tribute to the achievements and teachings of former generations.
I repeat: In a world of forgetting, Judaism is all about memory. The problems regarding the duties and position of the rabbi in the community remain as topical as they were in Geiger’s times. Our memory can revive again the long lost dreams and hopes of leaders such as Abraham Geiger. He showed us the way how best to formalize rabbinic education after enlightenment. His profile of the modern rabbi has become the norm how we would like to see our spiritual leader: not a “guardian of the kosher” but a university-educated person who masters the Jewish teachings in an intellectually stimulating context, with personal dignity and the energy to get us going as a congregation; brave and without fear, well-versed, with instinct and with a varied tool box to apply it to everyone of us. So that we are enabled to keep Adonai’s remembrance from generation to generation.
Rabbi Walter Homolka (PhD King’s College London, D.H.L. Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion New York) is the rector of the Abraham Geiger College for the training of rabbis and a professor of Jewish Studies at Potsdam University in Germany. The former chief rabbi of Lower Saxony is an executive board member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.