Friday, November 27, 2009

Yahrtzeits of Conservative Movement gedolim: Sunday, 12 Kislev; The man who was named after a day school

I present this two days early. But I understand that there are some (ok, one) who print out my blogs and bring them to Shul on Shabbat.

This post is long. But Solomon Schechter (1847-1915, הרב שניור זלמן בן יצחק הכהן) is a man whose ideologies are the foundation of my worldview. So read to the end. See who this man is:

There are portraits throughout JTS of great minds of the past.

There’s a cluster right next to Alperin Lobby.

Cyrus Adler guards the bathrooms on the first floor.

Abraham Joshua Heschel gets his spot in the library.

But Solomon Schechter’s portrait gets its own location. His piercing eyes stare out of a face with a disheveled beard, his body draped in an enveloping red cloak. In some ways it’s a little like Hogwarts, Schechter’s eyes following you each time you head to the cafeteria line.

Mel Scult’s article on Schechter in Tradition Renewed dubs JTS “Schechter’s Seminary,” a feature of the influence he had when he led the institution, and the vision he had into the future, as well.

To say that JTS is still “Schechter’s Seminary” is hyperbolic. Yet that Chancellor Arnold Eisen’s 2007 inaugural address featured the living ideologies of Schechter’s 1902 inaugural speaks volumes of Schechter’s transcendent message. As Eisen stated two years ago, after African drums ushered him in:

“Let me remind you, as I did at the opening assembly last year, of Solomon Schechter’s emphasis on diversity in his inaugural address of 1902, and particularly of his horror at the thought of a faculty and student body who always agreed with him. We are not here to nod pleasantly at one another. For we have important work to do. If the year ahead passes without the unsettling of some settled convictions and the questioning of at least a few truths until now deemed self-evident, we all will have failed to meet one fundamental purpose of our teaching and learning together…

At JTS we have always known that honest difference for the sake of heaven makes us stronger—just as in-depth knowledge and thoughtful criticism of our tradition make Torah stronger. As Schechter put it in his inaugural lecture, “Faith and scholarship are not irreconcilable…

He meant that as an understatement. So do I. Shamor and zachor must be part of every dibbur we utter at JTS. Nuanced remembrance is key to all that we observe and preserve, including most especially what we preserve by changing it. This is never simple, of course, and there are many who would see the fidelity to both scholarship and Torah as an oxymoron.”

Schechter lays out the Seminary mission quite explicitly: a no-apologies engagement of Jewish tradition in the modern world. It is no surprise that the mission is so applicable to Jewish life a century after his first Seminary address.

A glance at Schechter’s eulogies gives perspective to the scope of his influence during his life (click for the NYT editorial):

“Not only American Jewry, but the Jewry of the world, may well exclaim in the words of old, talmid hacham shemet mi mevi lanu halifto “A great scholar died; who shall bring unto us a substitute for him?” stated Reform Rabbi Samuel Schulman. “As the distinguished and revered president of the Hebrew Union College (Kauffman Kohler) and co-worker in a great enterprise with Solomon Schechter already said, ‘There is no substitute for Solomon Schechter.' And truly it can be asserted that no one can take his place. There was a romance in the life of Solomon Schechter. And this romance reflects the romance in the life of the modern Jew. Many a Jew in this last one hundred years began his career in an humble town within the ghetto walls and, under God’s blessing, unfolded his powers, assimilating all that the modern spirit had to offer and becoming an influence of international scope.’” 1

As Mordecai Kaplan described in his journal:
"The crowd of people that had gathered though large (about 1,500-2,000) was by no means commensurate with the significance of Dr. Schechter to Judaism. We may now be prepared for changes of an eventful character." 2

Schechter lived the final thirteen years of his life in America. Yet he pioneered unique and fitting visions for the American Jewish scene with the eyes of an outsider. Small examples include that he claimed that every rabbi should know how to play baseball — there was no way to bring Judaism to American society without it. His collection of essays, Seminary Addresses and Other Papers features an essay on Abraham Lincoln, on his 100th anniversary, a beautiful ode to the American bridge-builder (I shall editorialize here that Googlebooks rocks).

Brought from Cambridge University specifically to lead the newly reestablished Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Schechter’s scholarship of the Cairo Genizah, secular education and scientific approach to Judaism preceded his arrival to America.

Even before activating change at the helm of the Seminary, the American Jewish Yearbook gave him a prophetic billing: “In the near future, [America will become] the centre and focus of Jewish religious activity and the chosen home of Jewish learning.” 3

Schechter’s death marked much more than the death of just a man; people despaired that no individual could possibly replace him on the American Jewish scene, and thus the religion as a whole would suffer drastically.

Along with a certain mystique in the walls of the Seminary, his philosophy of Jewish life would reappear throughout Kaplan’s conceptions of Jewish peoplehood and community, and in Finkelstein’s attempts to secure the Seminary as the centerpiece of religious life in America, even the world, during his tenure.

While Schechter did not dub Judaism a “civilization,” his vision of Judaism as an all-encompassing entity, defined in both universal and national terms rings with Kaplan’s conceptions of viewing Judaism as an evolving civilization. Though Schechter would not go near to allowing his greater theology to change the nature of halakha, perhaps the reason why Kaplan was most thoroughly castigated, Schechter viewed Judaism as an evolving religion:

“Judaism was an organism with a natural growth, rooted in the Torah… That certain foreign beliefs and foreign usages should creep in was unavoidable, as Israel neither could nor would shut itself from the influences of the outside world.” 4

Schechter is widely known for his conceptions of the Jewish people being a nation of “Catholic Israel,” an ideal which manifested the unity of the Jewish people throughout the course of Jewish history. Kaplan, in fact, used Schechter’s rhetoric to describe the nature of the Jewish people being an organic community:

“Since the interpretation of Scripture or the Secondary Meaning is mainly a product of changing historical influence, 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 aspiration and religions needs of the age, is best able to determine the nature of the Secondary Meaning.” 5

With the belief in the authority of community, Schechter thus philosophically felt that a unified body, not a denomination would shape the modern American experience; specifically for Schechter, the Seminary would seek to be the embodiment of Catholic Israel, thereby giving the institution the ability, even the mandate, to integrate modern sensibilities with Judaism. 6

Of course, this assumes that there is an entity that could possibly represent the views of the entirety of the Jewish people.

Granted, the Seminary could not truly be the centerpiece of world Jewry, as modernity allowed and mandated for personal autonomy and freedom of thought. However, Finkelstein’s efforts to position the Seminary as the beacon of Judaism gave it a particular influence whose base was set with Schechter.

In his inaugural speech, Schechter articulated the notion of the Seminary being a location for all Jews to study – this would not be the headquarters of Conservative Judaism, rather the epicenter of Judaism at large:

“Such a community is indeed a mystery. And this has become perplexing; for it is amidst all these Judaisms and non-Judaisms that my colleagues and myself are called upon to create a theological centre [sic.] which should be all things to all men, reconciling all parts and appealing to all sections of the community. If I understand correctly the intention of those who honored me with their call, and if I interpret my own feelings aright, this school should never become partisan ground or a hotbed of polemics, making ‘confusion worse confounded.’” 7

Defining the Seminary in the broadest possible terms, particularly at its inception, should not be surprising. As with a presidential inauguration, Schechter sought to give a vision for his entire career at the helm of what he hoped to be the bastion of Jewish learning in America. But the speech particularly resonates with Schechter’s ideological conceptions of “Catholic Israel,” which could have functioned independently from his helm at the Seminary. As Mel Scult explains, at least from the outset of his tenure as head of the Seminary, Schechter sought for the Seminary to what Kaplan would later dub, “adjectiveless Judaism.” 8

Finkelstein would seize upon these founding principles as a particular justification why he reached outside of the Seminary during his term, stating in 1945:

“I do not think it is an accident that the Seminary should find itself pushed, as it were, out of the Jewish scene and on the world scene. It did not do it out of choice. It was not that all of a sudden we got a brainstorm and decided we must go had and try to help build peace in the world. It is because the institution itself was built on these very foundations of peace and understanding people who are different, encouraging differences and being grateful for differences.” 9 [emphasis mine]

Schechter’s influence in the Jewish community, as well as his personal qualities, were omnipresent at the Seminary under Finkelstein’s term, so much so that over forty years after he gave his inaugural speech, this precedent could be used as a particular strong reason for why Finkelstein would foster a particular spirit at the Seminary.

If Schechter viewed denominationalism at all during his term, it was between Reform and everybody else, and as Neil Gillman described, the Seminary represented, “everybody else.”

Yet Schechter worked toward including the Reform factions in the community of Catholic Israel despite the deep ideological divides, notably stating in a 1913 speech:

“Thank God, there are still a great many things and aims for which both parties can work in harmony and perfect peace, and unite us… There is also the great work which Judaism can do for humanity at large, in which both parties can combine... We have become so infatuated with the doctrine of the survival of the fittest that we have lost all sensibility to the great moral catastrophes which are passing before our eyes.” 10

During a time when Reform Judaism attracted the largest portion of American Jews, Schechter did not try to convert Reformers to his viewpoint, but rather viewed that notions of denominationalism were particularly dangerous to the fabric of Judaism as a whole. 11

However, anyone else was welcome, anyone “who [had] not accepted the Union Prayer Book nor performed their religious devotion with uncovered heads.” 13 In his 1915 Seminary, Schechter again differentiated between “Reform and everybody else”:

“The greater part of a rather lengthy lecute is devoted to proving that not only was the application of scientific methods to Jewish studies not incompatible with the spirit of conservative 14 , but that it was largely conservative Jews, or at least, men indifferent to Reform tendencies, who availed themselves of the scientific method and became subsequently the most prominent representatives of the scientific movement….” 15

Notably, Rabbi Robert Gordis pointed to the qualification of the term Catholic Israel to illustrate that Kaplan could not be included in this community because of his abandonment of religious law as a binding factor in Jewish life. 16

With the justification of unifying Catholic Israel, Schechter established the United Synagogue of America, an organization that sought to unify the traditional forces in America, manifesting in its name its status as a non-denominational entity. 17 As Finkelstein would indicate in the forties, Schechter saw a unification of American Jewry as the only way to overcome what were inevitable struggles Judaism would have within the scope of modernity.

In his 1913 platform for the United Synagogue, Schechter explained that without a unified front against the inherent problems that would beset Judaism, the religion would dissolve:

“Yes, in view of the danger threatening the historic faith dear to Conservative and Orthodox alike, we regard is as a sacred duty that all forces unite, irrespective of the differences which otherwise divide them. Such cooperation should not be construed as the organization’s approval of all those innovations which some of its bodies have introduced….

Close observation for ten years and more has convinced me that unless we succeed in effecting an organization, which loyal to the Torah, to the teachings of the sages, to the traditions of the fathers, to the usages and customs of Israel, shall and the same time, introduce the English sermon and adopt scientific methods in our seminaries, in our training of Rabbis and schoolmasters for our synagogues and Talmud Torahs, and bring order and decorum in our synagogues, unless this is done, I declare unhesitatingly that Traditional Judaism will not survive another generation in this country.” 18

While “Conservative Judaism” may have been implanted on the movement from the outside, like with the name of the United Synagogue of America, Schechter noted that the name of the “Jewish Theological Seminary of America” was quite purposeful, chosen because it did not include references to a particular branch of Judaism; the directors of the institution had “distinctly shown their intention of avoiding sectarianism, for it is an especial American feature that no preference is given to any denomination or sect or theological richtung. All alike are welcome.” 19

Kaplan’s rhetoric more than forty years later in an address commemorating the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Seminary Teacher’s College resonated with Schechter’s inclusive ideology, seeking to create a Seminary that was true to the realities of its name:

“The precedent of having undergone metamorphoses twice before in the course of its career, as well as the inner restiveness both on its career, as well as the part of its graduates and lay adherents, should impel the Seminary to measure up to the need and opposition of these new times, and become the kind of institution that would resurrect the Jew’s faith in his people and its religion. In order to achieve this, the Seminary must avoid the pitfall of denominationalism.”20

Schechter’s emphasis to unite all non-Reform forces in America seems to indicate that he sought particularly to enact his ideology of “Catholic Israel” at the Seminary; certainly, the lack of a strong statement such as Reform’s 1885 “Pittsburgh Platform” marked the Seminary as not following the only known precedent for creating a new movement in Judaism. Additionally the Wissenschaft scholarship of the Seminary differentiated the institution from those to the right of Schechter’s Seminary. However, this situated the Seminary as a special subset of traditional Judaism, not a new movement in toto.

From his opening address, Schechter emphasized the importance of studying the gamut of the history of the Jewish religion, where he specifically named the importance of the scientific study of approach to Judaism, not necessarily as the Truth, but as a viable approach in the history of the religion:

“We cannot, naturally, hope to carry the student through all these vast fields of learning at the cultivation of which humanity has now worked for nearly four thousand years. But this fact must not prevent us from making the attempt to bring the students on terms of acquaintance at least with all those manifestations of Jewish life and Jewish thought which may prove useful to them as future ministers, and suggestive and stimulating to them as prospective scholars….

[Founder of the Wissenschaft approach to Judaism, Leopold] Zunz’s motto was ‘Real knowledge creates action’ and the existence of such men as R. Saadya Gaon and R. Hai Gaon, Maimonides, and Nachmanides, R. Joseph Caro and R. Isaac Abrabanel, Samson Raphael Hirsch and Abraham Geiger, and an innumerable host of other spiritual kings in Israel, all ‘mighty in the battles of the Torah,’ and voluminous authors, and at the same time living among their people and for their people and influencing their contemporaries, and still at this very moment swaying the actions and opinions of men – all these bear ample testimony to the truth of Zunz’s maxim.”21

For Schechter, incorporating the entirety of the Jewish experience was the only educationally honest way to approach learning; ignoring Wissenschaft approaches because of the antagonistic argument that deconstructing religious texts with modern techniques was heretical, was an evasion of the issues. (It should be noted that Biblical criticism was not studied at the Seminary until well into Finkelstein’s term as the head of the institution. During the first several decades of the 20th century, Biblical criticism was wielded as an anti-Semitic axe).

Jews, he said, had an obligation to question, and an additional approach did not have to be threatening: “There is no cause to be afraid of much learning, or rather, of much teaching. The difficulty under which we labor is rather that there are subjects which cannot be taught, and yet do form an essential part of the equipment of a Jewish minister.” 22

Schechter emphasized a complete involvement in Wissenschaft, to the exclusion of other aspects of a rabbinic life, even disliking the term “rabbi” itself.

Schechter sought to establish an institution that, above all, sponsored a feeling of intellectual freedom:

“The Torah gave spiritual accommodation for thousands of years to all sorts and conditions of men, sages, philosophers, scholars, mystics, casuists, school men and skeptics; and it should also prove broad enough to harbor the different minds of the present century…. The teaching in the Seminary will be in keeping with this spirit, and thus largely confined to the exposition and elucidation of historical Judaism in its various manifestations.” 23

The portrait of Schechter hanging down the hallway from the library gives me goosebumps nearly every time I pass it. His visions for living an immersive Jewish and American life still resonate with me unlike many other thinkers in Jewish history. In addition to studying the gamut of Jewish studies, his vision for being a vivid and vital rabbi in America still pushes me as I continue in my rabbinic journey.


1. Rabbi Samuel Schulman, “Solomon Schechter,”
Proceedings, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1916

2. Kaplan journal, Nov. 20, 1915 in Communings of the Spirit, 98

3. Jonathan Sarna,
American Judaism (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2004)188

4. Myer S. Kripke, “Solomon Schechter’s Philosophy of Judaism,”
The Reconstructionist, 1937

5. Kaplan, “Toward the Formulation of Guiding Principles of the Conservation Movement,” to be delivered December 6, 1949, labeled confidential, Ratner Center; also published as a supplement to
Conservative Judaism, Vol. VI, No. 4, May, 1950, 1-24

6. The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1904, s.v. “Judaism

7. Solomon Schechter, “Inaugural Address of Solomon Schechter as President of the Faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America,” New York, 1903, delivered Nov. 20, 1902, 7

8. Scult, “Schechter’s Seminary,” in
Tradition Renewed, 59

9. R.A.,
Proceedings, 1945 in Greenbaum, Louis Finkelstein and the Conservative Movement, 235

10. Herbert Parzen,
Architects of Conservative Judaism (New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 1964), 53

11. Ibid., 52

12. Ibid., 73

13. Ibid., 72

14. Schechter used the term “conservative” several times throughout his career as an adjective to describe the type of Judaism practiced at the Seminary. He never used Conservative with a capital “C” to describe the movement, however.

15. Schechter, “The Preface,” in
Tradition and Change, 100

16. Gordis, “Authority in Jewish Law,” Proceedings, Rabbinical Assembly, 1942, 83

17. In 1991, the Union would change its name to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, illustrating its commitment specifically to the Conservative movement.

18. Report United Synagogue of America, 1913, in Parzen, 68-69

19. Max Arzt, “Conservative Judaism as a Unify Force,”
Conservative Judaism, Vol. V, No. 4, June 1949, 13

20. Kaplan, “From Strength to Strength: A Proposal for a University of Judaism,” delivered February 4, 1945, Ratner Center Archives, 13

21. Solomon Schechter, “Inaugural Address,” 18-19

22. Ibid., 19

23. Ibid., 24-25


  1. I think that I know the person who prints your blogs and brings them to shul on Shabbat morning to read...

  2. I just shared this amazing post with, ravnet, and corss-posted on my own blg - kol hakavod, and keep it up!
    Shabbat Shalom!

  3. I'd like to point out that I knew Magash Hakesef before his blog had a broad following. A stellar post - one that reminds me of some of the foundational principles that are still relevant at the Seminary that I cherish.

  4. Yishar Kochacha! Bautiful words of torah, and chizuk for those of us who sometimes forget our roots. Keep up your important work!