Who was Solomon Schechter?

Solomon Schechter came to these shores to serve an institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, which was in a state of transition, a transition from neo-orthodoxy to an undefined and unfocussed traditionalism in a modern setting. By this time, 1902, Professor Schechter was already renowned as a rabbinic scholar, an essayist on Jewish subjects, with classic clarity and cadence and as the re-discoverer of the Genizah in Cairo, Egypt.

Why did he accept this call for a position so ambiguous and fraught with the possibility of failure? There were many reasons for Schechter’s decision; some were deeply personal but one that has not been emphasized enough by his biographers is that Schechter was an adventurous soul. But his adventure to this new land of America had a special reason; it was the land of Abraham Lincoln, the spiritual hero of democracy. Schechter had read about Lincoln during his early years in Romania and then later on in his beloved England. Lincoln was to Schechter a truly religious personality who spoke of democracy in religious terms and who insisted that any secession, geographic or individual, was a betrayal of the democratic ideal. “Union” in the realm of human values was for Lincoln, as it was for Schechter, a transcendent mystical principle.

Professor Schechter decided that the Seminary, even as limited and modest as it was at that time, must have a faculty that would be foremost in every field of Jewish learning. And so it was. He recruited Louis Ginsberg, Alexander Marx, Israel Friedlaender and Mordechai Kaplan, stars in the firmament of Judaic scholarship. On that foundation of scholarship, he began to build an institution for the training of rabbis, teachers and then, hopefully, build a movement. He did not fully articulate, in the beginning, what the distinguishing marks of this new movement were to be. But he did describe in his essays and his pronouncements the basic principle of this new movement and that is that the source of revelation of God’s divinity in Israel is manifest both at Sinai and in the ongoing development of the rabbinic tradition.

He gave a new emphasis to the unique meaning of the “Oral Torah.” The voice of Israel’s God is not heard only at Sinai, but it was again heard in the study halls of Yavneh, Tiberias, Sura and Pumpiditha. Schechter implied that this “voice” was still to be heard in the Academies of Poland, Russia and even on the new American continent. He took to heart the rabbinic translation of the words of Deuteronomy, “And God’s voice (at Sinai) did not cease.” There was, and continues to be, an ongoing and continuous revelation of God’s spirit within the Synods and the Academies.

Who will be vested with the authority to interpret this “voice” heard at Sinai and later in the Academy? What will be the distinguishing marks of the authenticity of its interpretations? In response to these questions, Schechter laid the foundation for the Masorti Conservative Judaism of today. “The real authorities are those who draw their inspiration from the past, also understand how to reconcile with the present and prepare us for the future.”

Sketch of Solomon Schechter is based on a photograph, courtesy of the Jewish Theological Seminary