Schechter, Solomon

views updated May 21 2018


SCHECHTER, SOLOMON (c. 18471915), was a Talmud scholar and educator. A product of four distinct European cultural ambiences, Solomon Schechter came to New York in 1902 to lead a reorganized Jewish Theological Seminary of America. During the thirteen years of his presidency he exerted a formative influence on an emergent American Judaism by facilitating the gradual transfer of the academic study of Judaism from the old to the new world and by creating the institutions, leaders, and rhetoric of a movement for Conservative Judaism.

Born in the still largely traditional Jewish society of eastern Romania, Schechter came to Vienna in his mid-twenties with a formidable mastery of classical Jewish texts. A four-year stay in the 1860s at the rabbinical school founded by Adolf Jellinek gave him rabbinic ordination, command of the new Western methods of Jewish scholarship, and a lasting affection for his teacher, Meir Friedmann. In 1879 Schechter moved on to Berlin to continue his training as a Jewish scholar at the recently opened Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, where he came under the influence of Israel Lewy, the outstanding critical Talmudist of his generation. In 1882 he received an invitation from Claude Montefiore, whom he had befriended at the Hochschule, to come to England as Montefiore's tutor in rabbinic literature. Five years later he gave resounding evidence of his scholarly abilities with a model critical edition of an early homiletical rabbinic text, Avot de Rabbi Natan. Dedicated to Montefiore, it combined Friedmann's love of midrash with Lewy's critical method.

By 1890 Schechter had achieved academic respectability, though not financial security, with a lectureship (later a readership) in rabbinics at Cambridge University. During the next decade he moved quickly to the forefront of a lackluster generation of Jewish specialists ensnared by the pulpit and polemics. His scholarship was marked by a sweep, competence, and originality usually associated with the polymaths who had founded the Wissenschaft des Judentums. Prior to his departure for America, Schechter published the first fruits of his eventual synthesis of rabbinic theology (18941896), a collection of popular essays on Jewish history and literature (1896), a good part of the Hebrew original of Ben Sira (1899), and the first volume of a large Yemenite midrash on the Pentateuch (1902). Of still greater consequence was Schechter's dramatic foray in January 1897 into the long-abandoned genizah of Cairo, where he was compelled "to swallow the dust of centuries" in order to exhume and bring to Cambridge an inexhaustible trove of manuscripts from ancient and medieval sources related to Jewish society and culture.

A scholar of international renown, a superb expositor of Judaism in English, a charismatic personality, a religious moderate, and a man of culturethese were the qualities that made Schechter so attractive to the plutocracy of American Jews of German descent who were eager to revitalize the Jewish Theological Seminary. For his part, Schechter wished to escape the growing burdensomeness of his religious isolation and inadequate salary at Cambridge.

Once in New York, Schechter moved to replicate the academic model pioneered in Breslau, Vienna, Berlin, and Budapest: a nonpartisan rabbinical school free of outside rabbinic control whose graduates would be immersed in the academic study of Judaism. Schechter insisted that every applicant have the B.A. degree, "bearing evidence of his classical training," and recruited a young, largely European-trained faculty of great promise to challenge the often unsympathetic Christian scholarship on Judaism.

Religiously, Schechter articulated an inchoate conception of Judaism that was anti-Reform, pro-Zionist, while remaining open to all historical expressions of Judaism, all-embracing, and responsive to change. He rejected Reform's excessive rationalism, eagerness to "occidentalize" Judaism, preoccupation with Judaism's mission, and minimal commitment to the Hebrew language. His own broad embrace is best documented in his inimitable three-volume Studies in Judaism (London, 1896, 1908; Philadelphia, 1924), which cherishes every historical expression of Judaism. Choice and change are ultimately effected "by the collective conscience of Catholic Israel," and history supplements scripture as a medium of revelation. Despite the implicit historicism of this view, Schechter failed to enunciate a procedure for sanctioning change and, indeed, dedicated most of his energy to defending what the past had sanctified. In 1906 he dared to defy his own benefactors, the wealthy and anti-Zionist Jews who had brought him to the United States, by avowing Zionism as an antidote to the erosion of Jewish identity.

The persistent weakness of the seminary forced Schechter by the end of his first decade of leadership to consider building a congregational base that would provide additional support. After protracted deliberations, the United Synagogue of America was founded in 1913 with Schechter as its first president. The occasion, however, did not provide for further ideological clarification. The omission of any reference to "Conservative" in the organization's preamble epitomized the reluctance of Schechter and his associate Cyrus Adler to form a "third party in Israel." The coalescence of a religious movement was to be the achievement of others during the interwar period, after Schechter's death.

See Also

Conservative Judaism.


Ben-Horin, Meir. "Solomon Schechter to Judge Mayer Sulzberger." Jewish Social Studies 25 (1963): 249286, 27 (1965): 75102, and 30 (1968): 262271.

Bentwich, Norman De Mattos. Solomon Schechter. Philadelphia, 1948.

Millgram, Abraham E., and Emma G. Ehrlich. "Nine Letters from Solomon Schechter to Henrietta Szold." Conservative Judaism 32 (Winter 1979): 2530.

Oko, Adolph S. Solomon Schechter: A Bibliography. Cambridge, 1938.

Parzen, Herbert. Architects of Conservative Judaism. New York, 1964.

Rosenblum, Herbert. "The Founding of the United Synagogue of America, 1913." Ph. D. diss., Brandeis University, 1970.

New Sources

Karp, Abraham J. Jewish Continuity in America: Creative Survival in a Free Society. Tuscaloosa, Ala., 1998.

Montefiore, Claude Goldsmid. Lieber Freund: The Letters of Claude Goldsmid Montefiore to Solomon Schechter, 18851902. Edited by Joshua B. Stein. Studies in Judaism. Lanham, Md., 1988.

Starr, David Benjamin. "The Importance of Being Frank: Solomon Schechter's Departure from Cambridge." Jewish Quarterly Review 94 (2004): 1218.

Ismar Schorsch (1987)

Revised Bibliography

Schechter, Solomon

views updated May 08 2018


SCHECHTER, SOLOMON (Shneur Zalman ; 1847–1915), rabbinic scholar and president of the *Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Schechter was born in Focsani, Romania. His father, a Chabad Ḥasid, was a ritual slaughterer (Ger. Schaechter). In his teens he studied with the rabbinic author Joseph Saul Nathanson in Lemberg. From about 1875 to 1879 he attended the Vienna bet ha-midrash. He acquired a lifelong devotion to scientific study of the tradition and developed the central notion of the community of Israel as decisive for Jewish living and thinking. He was to call it "Catholic Israel." From 1879 he studied at the Berlin Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums and at the University of Berlin. When, in 1882, a fellow student at the Hochschule, Claude Goldsmid Montefiore, invited him to be his tutor in rabbinics in London, Schechter accepted. In England he rose to prominence as a rabbinic scholar and spokesman for Jewish traditionalism. In 1890 he was appointed lecturer in talmudics and in 1892 reader in rabbinics at Cambridge University. In 1899 he also became professor of Hebrew at University College, London.

Schechter's first substantial work was his edition of Avot de-Rabbi Nathan (1887). His fame rests on the scholarly recovery of the Cairo *Genizah. It created a sensation in the world of scholarship, and in its wake Jewish history and the history of Mediterranean society have been rewritten. Over one hundred thousand manuscripts and manuscript fragments were brought to England and presented to Cambridge University by Schechter and Charles Taylor, the master of St. John's College who had made Schechter's trip possible. Together they published the newly discovered fragments of the Hebrew original of Ben *Sira (The Wisdom of Ben Sira, 1899).

Late in 1901 Schechter accepted an invitation by a number of leading American Jews, notably his friend, Judge Mayer Sulzberger of Philadelphia, to assume the post of president of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He served in this capacity from 1902 until his death. He was able to attract a distinguished faculty, including Louis Ginzberg. Alexander Marx, Israel Friedlaender, Israel Davidson, and Mordecai M. Kaplan. The Seminary became one of the most important centers of Jewish learning and of Jewish intellectual and, indeed, national revival. Schechter's Studies in Judaism (3 vols., 1896–1924), his Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (in book form, 1909; based on essays in the Jewish Quarterly Review, 1894–1896), and Seminary Addresses and Other Papers (1915) remain indispensable documents of American Jewish religious Conservatism. Steering a course between Orthodoxy and Reform, Schechter combined scholarliness and objectivity with piety, and piety with a measure of flexibility and innovation in doctrine and practice. In 1913 Schechter was instrumental in founding the *United Synagogue of America (his original designation read "Agudath Jeshurun – A Union for Promoting Traditional Judaism in America"), which became a major national institution of Conservative Judaism in the United States. In 1905 he acknowledged Zionism as "the great bulwark against assimilation." He felt close to religious and spiritual Zionism and in 1913 attended the 11th Zionist Congress in Vienna. Over the strenuous objections of Seminary board members Jacob H. Schiff and Louis Marshall, he opened the Seminary to Zionist activity. But he remained, essentially, a builder of religious Judaism in the American diaspora.

Schechter is considered the chief architect of Conservative Judaism in the United States. In his view, this version of Jewish religious life and thought was organically related to the Historical School, founded by Zunz, Frankel, and Graetz. Schechter defined the theological position of the school: "It is not the mere revealed Bible that is of first importance to the Jew but the Bible as it repeats itself in history, in other words, as it is interpreted by Tradition… Since then the interpretation of Scripture or the Secondary Meaning is mainly a product of changing historical influences, it follows that the center of authority is actually removed from the Bible and placed in some living body, which, by reason of its being in touch with the ideal aspirations and the religious needs of the age, is best able to determine the nature of the Secondary Meaning. This living body, however, is not represented by any section of the nation, or any corporate priesthood, or Rabbihood, but by the collective conscience of Catholic Israel, as embodied in the Universal Synagogue" (Studies in Judaism, Series One, jps, 1896, xvii–xviii).

Though a staunch traditionalist, Schechter admitted the possibility of change. However, he felt that changes should not be introduced arbitrarily or deliberately. Rather, "the norm as well as the sanction of Judaism is the practice actually in vogue. Its consecration is the consecration of general use – or, in other words, of Catholic Israel" (ibid., xix). Schechter insisted (ibid., 180ff.) Judaism must be understood as regulating not only our actions but also our thoughts: "It is true that every great religion is a 'concentration of many ideas and ideals' which make this religion able to adapt itself to various modes of thinking and living. But there must always be a point round which all these ideas concentrate themselves. This center is Dogma."


N. Bentwich, Solomon Schechter: A Biography (1938); A.S. Oko, Solomon Schechter: A Bibliography (1938); M. Davis, The Emergence of Conservative Judaism (1963); A. Marx, Essays in Jewish Biography (1947), 229–50; B. Mandelbaum, The Wisdom of Solomon Schechter (1963); M. Ben-Horin, in: jsos, 25 (1963), 249–86; 27 (1965), 75–102; 30 (1968), 262–71; idem, in: ajhsq, 56 (1966/67), 208–31); idem, in: jqr Seventy-fifth Anniversary Volume (1967), 47–59; H.H. and M.L. Rubenovitz, The Walking Heart (1967), 14–20; A. Parzen, Architects of Conservative Judaism (1964); A. Karp, in: The Jewish Experience in America, 5 (1969), 111–29; A. Scheiber, in: huca, 33 (1962), 255–75. add. bibliography: C. Adler, in: The American Jewish Year Book, 18 (1916–1917), 24–67; N. Bentwich, in: Melilah, 2 (1946), 25–36 (Heb.); G. Cohen, in: Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly, 44 (1982), 57–68; R. Fierstien and J. Waxman (eds.), Solomon Schechter in America: A Centennial Tribute (2002); D. Fine, in: Judaism, 46:1 (Winter 1997), 3–24; S. Goldman (ed.), Schechter Memorial: jts Students' Annual, 3 (1916); S. Greenberg, in: Conservative Judaism, 39:4 (Summer 1987), 7–29; Ch.I. Hoffman in: C. Adler (ed.), The Jewish Theological Seminary Semi-Centennial Volume (1939), 49–64; J. Kabakoff, in: Bitzaron, 9 (Summer–Winter 1987–88), 70–81 (Heb.); P. Nadell, Conservative Judaism in America: A Biographical Dictionary and Sourcebook (1988), 222–27 with bibliography; I. Schorsch, in: Conservative Judaism, 55:2 (Winter 2003), 3–23; S. Siegel, in: Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly, 39 (1977), 44–55; J. Wertheimer (ed.), Tradition Renewed: A History of the Jewish Theological Seminary (1997), i, 43–102, 293–326; 2, 446–449; A. Ya'ari, Iggerot Shneior Zalman Schechter el Poznanski (1944); Y. Zussman, in: Mada'ei ha-Yahadut, 38 (1998), 213–30 (Heb.).

[Meir Ben-Horon]

Solomon Schechter

views updated May 23 2018

Solomon Schechter

Solomon Schechter (1849-1915), Romanian-American scholar and religious leader, laid the foundation for the development of Conservative Judaism in the United States in his capacity as president of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Solomon Schechter was born into a family of Hasidic background in Focsani, Romania, in December 1849. After a traditional education in Jewish schools in Romania and Poland, Schechter studied at the rabbinical seminary of Vienna and at the universities of Vienna and Berlin. In 1882 he settled in London as a tutor. In 1887 he married Matilda Roth. In 1890 he was appointed reader in rabbinics at Cambridge University. During the next twelve years he held several academic posts, including curator of Hebrew manuscripts in the Cambridge Library and professor of Hebrew at University College in London.

During this period, in addition to numerous journal articles on Jewish history and theology—later published in book form as Studies in Judaism (1896, 1908, 1924) and Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1909—Schechter published critical editions of rabbinic texts: the Talmudic tractate Aboth de Rabbi Nathan (1887) and two Midrashic texts, one on the "Song of Songs" (1896) and one on Genesis (1902).

Schechter's most notable achievement, however, was bringing to England much of the archive of an ancient Cairo synagogue, including thousands of fragments of manuscripts and documents shedding light on a millennium of Jewish history. Schechter's scholarly work henceforth centered on this material. His chief works were The Wisdom of Ben Sira (with C. Taylor, 1899), portions of the Hebrew original of the Apocryphal Book of Ecclesiasticus; Saadyana (1903), new material on the 9th-century Jewish scholar Saadia Gaon; and Documents of Jewish Sectaries (1910), dealing with the 1st-century Zadokites and the Karaites, a medieval sect.

In 1902 Schechter assumed the presidency of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York and devoted the rest of his life to developing this institution and its constituency. In England, Schechter had been mainly a scholar; he now became the spiritual leader of Conservative Judaism and, to a certain extent, a leader of American Judaism. He advocated the concept of the unity and solidarity of Jews throughout the world. He viewed "the collective conscience of Catholic Israel as embodied in the Universal Synagogue … as the sole true guide for the present and future" development of Judaism.

In 1913, attempting to unify American Jewry, he established, and served as first president of, the United Synagogue of America, an organization of Conservative Jewish congregations in America. Viewing the rebirth of Jewish nationalism as embodied in the Zionist movement as integral to the revival of Judaism, he was active in American Zionism. His other contributions included service as chairman of the committee that prepared the new English translation of the Bible later published by the Jewish Publication Society of America; editor of the department of Talmud for several volumes of the Jewish Encyclopedia; and coeditor of the new series of the Jewish Quarterly Review. He died on Nov. 20, 1915.

Further Reading

A collection of papers from Schechter's American period is in his Seminary Addresses and Other Papers (1915; repr. 1969). The best study of Schechter is Norman Bentwich, Solomon Schechter (1938). □

Schechter, Solomon

views updated May 29 2018

Schechter, Solomon (1847–1915). Jewish scholar. Schechter came from an ḥasidic background. Through his efforts, the manuscripts and fragments of the Cairo Geniza were recovered and brought to England. From 1902, he was President of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and his Studies in Judaism (1896–1924) and Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1909) are classics of Conservative Judaism. He defended traditional ways and values against what he took to be assimilationist tendencies in Reform Judaism.

United Synagogue of America

views updated May 11 2018

United Synagogue of America. Association of Conservative Jewish synagogues in the USA and Canada. The organization was founded by Solomon Schechter in 1913.

Cairo Genizah

views updated May 11 2018

Cairo Genizah (Heb., ‘storing’). A storeroom attached to the Ezra synagogue in Cairo which contained valuable Hebrew historical documents. It was rediscovered and explored by Solomon Schechter in 1896.

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