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Schechter, Solomon (1847–1915), Jewish Scholar

Schechter, Solomon
(1847–1915), Jewish scholar.

Solomon Schechter was born in Focsani, Romania, on December 7, 1847. His father was a Habad Hasid. Solomon left Romania for Lemberg, Austria, where he studied in a rabbinical school with Joseph Nathanson. Schechter was twenty-four when he decided to study for a degree at the rabbinical school in Vienna and earned his living as a private tutor.

He felt somewhat out of place as a pious Hasidic Jew in fashionable Vienna. While he changed his Hasidic garb for a tailcoat, a stiff shirt, and trousers, he still wore his beard. From 1875 to 1879 he devoted himself to rabbinical studies at the Jewish Seminary in Vienna and at the University of Vienna and from there he went to the Berlin, where he continued his studies with such scholars as Israel Lewy. At the University of Berlin he took courses in philosophy and history. He liked his studies but did not like the anti-Semitism of Germany.

In 1882 Claude Goldsmid Montefiore, invited him to be his tutor in rabbinics in London. Through Claude Montefiore he met Joseph Jacobs, an expert on Jewish folklore; and Israel Zangwill, editor of a Jewish weekly. Schechter, Jacobs, and Zangwill had a common interest in keeping Jewish culture and religion alive.

Schechter met Mathilde Roth, they fell in love, and in 1887 were married. He taught, and spent much time at the British Museum and at the Oxford library, where he found an obscure manuscript of Pirkeh Aboth de Rabbi Nathan (Teachings of the Fathers of Rabbi Nathan). After many months of work he published another edition of the Pirkeh Aboth and dedicated it to Claude Montefiore. Schechter's reputation was established, and two years later his essay on Leopold Zunz (a Jewish scholar in Germany) won Schechter the New York Jewish Ministers' Association prize.

In August 1888 Ruth, their first child, was born. Two years later Frank was born just as Schechter was appointed to teach rabbinics at the University of Cambridge. In 1890 he became a lecturer in Talmud, and in 1899 he became professor of Hebrew at University College, London.

Fragments of ancient Hebrew documents found in Cairo, Egypt, inspired Schechter to find the source of those documents. One was part of the Jerusalem Talmud, and the other turned out to be part of a book written by Ben Sira titled Ecclesiasticus, written in the second century b.c.e.

Two of his colleagues, Dr. Charles Taylor, master of St. John's College at Cambridge, and Donald Mac-Alister, a Scottish professor, encouraged Schechter to go to Cairo. Oxford sponsored his research trip.

The grand rabbi of Cairo showed him where the Genizah (repository for old books and manuscripts) of the ancient synagogue could be found. Schechter uncovered thousands of documents scattered amid dust and sand. He persuaded the rabbi that the documents should be taken to London, where they could be more thoroughly studied. Schechter had gathered more than a hundred thousand document fragments.

Before returning to London, Schechter traveled to the Holy Land to visit with his brother at Zichron Yaakov. Wherever Schechter walked in the land of Israel he felt that he was walking on holy ground.

Schechter brought back the Genizah manuscripts and the ancient Ark of Cairo's Old Synagogue. Schechter received an honorary degree from Cambridge University, the first ever awarded to a Jew by that university.

In 1899 Schechter and Taylor published The Wisdom of Ben Sira.

In 1901 Schechter accepted the presidency of the faculty of the fledgling Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. He was to pioneer training rabbis in Conservative Judaism. While he loved his work at Cambridge and the Genizah discoveries, he found it difficult to raise his children there according to the Jewish tradition. In the spring of 1902 he arrived in New York and began to organize the Jewish Theological Seminary into an important center of Jewish learning. His impact on Jewish education in the United States was considerable. He brought such famous Jewish scholars as Louis Ginzberg, Talmudist; Alexander Marx, historian; Israel Friedlander, Bible scholar and historian; and Israel Davidson, a specialist in Jewish medieval literature, to the Jewish Theological Seminary.

He was a traditionalist, but was willing to accept change if it was introduced deliberately rather than arbitrarily. As a religious Zionist he believed that Zionism could restore "Jewish nationality in the Promised Land, accompanied by a renewal of Jewish life."

Schechter worked to improve the quality of teaching and the level of the teachers who would instruct a new generation of Jews to be proud rather than embarrassed that they were of the Jewish faith. He had seen how prosperous English Jews had lost interest in their religion and sought to counter this trend when he came to the United States. He believed that children could receive a good Jewish education only if their schools were well run. He instituted training courses for teachers and appointed Dr. Mordechai Kaplan, one of the seminary's lecturers, to head the Jewish Theological Seminary.

On the eve of the Sabbath, November 20, 1915, he died of a heart attack. He had chosen the burning bush as the seminary's symbol. For Schechter the Eternal Light of the Torah would forever keep Judaism and the Jewish people alive, in the United States and throughout the world. As a result of the thirteen years he served as president of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the foundation was laid for American Judaism as a vital area of scholarly concern.

See alsoAnti-Semitism; Hasidim; Jewish Identity; Jewish Observance; Judaism; Rabbinate; Religious Studies; Zionism.

Bibliography

Davis, Moshe. The EmergenceofConservative Judaism (1963).

De Mattos, Norman. SolomonSchechter: A Biography (1948).

Eisenberg, Azriel Louis. Fill aBlankPage: A Biographyof Solomon Schechter (1965).

Schechter, Solomon. Some Aspectsof Rabbinic Theology. 1909.

Schechter, Solomon. Studies inJudaism. 1896.

Herbert Druks

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