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Solomon Schechter

Studies in Judaism: First Series by Solomon Schechter, introduction by Ismar Schorsch, Studies in Judaism: Second Series by Solomon Schechter, Studies in Judaism: Third Series by Solomon Schechter, (Jewish Studies Classics 3: Gorgias Press), scholar, theologian, and architect of American Conservative Judaism was born in Romania, taught at Cambridge (to where he brought the bulk of the Cairo Genizah from 1890 to 1902) and thereafter in New York, where he headed the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and laid the groundwork for the Conservative movement. He attracted a faculty of outstanding European scholars, presided over the movement's growth, and in 1913 created the United Synagogue of America (later United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism).

Schechter avoided broad programmatic statements, but the philosophy im­plicit in his writings still provides a major part of the ideological foundation of Conservative Judaism. His theology reflects a shift of emphasis from God, as a philosophical concept, to Israel as a historical entity. According to Schechter revelation is manifest in tradition: the scriptures reveal history, and it is in the history of the Jewish people that the raw material for any Jewish theology has to be found. Schechter's most influential contribution to American Jewish life was his populari­zation of the concept of a "catholic (i.e., all-embracing as opposed to denominational) Israel." This was meant to provide a theoretical basis for the continuation of the Historical movement's search for Jewish unity. He stressed the "secondary meaning of the Bible" (i.e., the Bible as interpreted by Jewish tradition) over the Bible as a textbook of dogmatic theology, the authority of which was vested in "the collective conscience of cath­olic Israel as embodied in the universal synagogue." Ju­daism was a living organism that had developed through the ages within the framework of rabbinic tradition. Schechter saw Jewish nationalism as part of the essence of Judaism and supported Zionism. He maintained contact with Reform leaders, although he continued to crit­icize them. His writings include editions of ancient texts Avot de-Rabbi Natan [London, 1887]; the Hebrew text of Ben Sira; Documents of Jewish Sectaries [Cambridge, 1910], the first publication of the Damascus Document and theological studies, including three volumes of Studies in Judaism (Philadelphia, 1896, 1908, 1924). Reviewed below:

Schechter has often been criticized for failing to enunciate a coherent and cogent philosophy of Conservative Judaism. The fault is undeniable, partly because he tried to position the Seminary above the denominational fray and partly because of his preference for a theology that was neither consistent nor systematic. But that does not mean that he left the Seminary theologically rudderless. Schechter embodied rather than formulated the nature of Conser­vative Judaism, and a closer look at his larger-than-life persona, I think, will readily yield a vision of Judaism that is distinctly not Or­thodox or Reform.

Schechter had frequent contact with his students. He inter-viewed them when they applied, taught them while in residence and assisted them in their search for a suitable pulpit. Not surprisingly then, it was a student after Schechtér died who penned one of the most incisive cameos of him that I know.

Judaism was embodied in him; he was its incarnation. He was kin to the great characters whom he interpreted in his Studies, and he understood them without effort, as a man knows himself. When he spoke, his utterances were the expression of all the centuries of Jewish life and experience, and we were awed, feeling that we heard the voice of Judaism speaking through him.

What lends this portrait its ring of truth is that it highlights not only Schechter's vast knowledge of Jewish sources and history, but also the spectrum of Jewish communities in which he had sojourned for years. His biography recapitulated the odyssey of his people. He had deep firsthand experience of the diversity of Jewish life in the Carpathian Mountains of Moldavia, German-speaking central Europe, England and America. He knew the fervor of a Judaism born of insularity and oppression as well as the anxiety-ridden Judaism evoked by partial emancipation. Schechter spoke effortlessly of the permutations of Judaism because he had absorbed them from books and in life. The experience of homelessness enriched the insights of scholarship.

In an age of specialists, Schechter was entranced by the total­ity of the Jewish religious experience. Growing up in a part of the Jewish world still untouched by modernity imprinted him with the memory of just how truncated was its view of the Jewish past. Any reader of his three-volume Studies of Judaism (long a requirement for incoming JTS rabbinical students) is immediately struck by the bracing range of its topics. Schechter wrote with an impressive measure of expertise on the biblical, intertestamental, rabbinic, me­dieval and modern periods of Jewish history. His essays on Jewish mysticism, where he definitely broke new ground, were perhaps most noteworthy. Yet in general he moved effortlessly from Ben Sira to Jesus to the Vilna Gaon, from rabbinic theology to social history to the history of Jewish studies in the nineteenth century. At the end of an extensive review of an anonymously published theological novel on Jesus, Schechter put forth an agenda that ech­oed his own:

Those who are so anxious for the rehabilitation of Jesus in the Synagogue had best apply themselves to the rehabilitation of Israel in the Synagogue, that is, to obtain a thorough knowledge of Judaism in all its phases of thought and all the stages of its history.

The grasp for comprehensiveness attuned Schechter to the complexity of the phenomenon. The study of history constantly added to his appreciation of the fluidity inherent in the formation of Judaism. Against the backdrop of the profusion of plurality, Schechter came to personify a Judaism of polarities firmly held in balance. Time and again, he refused to cut the Gordian knot. Much like the nodes of a battery, the polarities generated the electricity that gave his Judaism its dynamism, his writing its vitality of expression. Though on occasion he yearned for the simplicity of his roots, where the Bible was looked upon as the "crown and the climax of Judaism," he conceded that history was also an arena of revelation. The irony is that while Schechter overtly rejected the "religious bimetallism" of his Wissenschaft patrimony (i.e., revelation in the form of Torah and history), he embodied it existentially. His many-sided nature with its appetite for inclusiveness and its tolerance for differences infused the Seminary with its centrist ethos.

Nothing is more off putting to the non-scholar than archives and manuscripts. Were Schechter only an exemplar of the painstak­ing tedium of hard core Wissenschaft or the epitome of the austere scholar, he would never have ignited the fervor of the leadership of the old Seminary. But three noteworthy features of his public persona, beyond the scope of his scholarship, elevated him well above his peers.

First, Schechter could tell his story as readily as unearth it. His popular works in English, which abound with knowledge and insight, are models of the narrative art. Aided by the literary and edit­ing talents of Mathilde, Schechter came across as a genial raconteur who deftly delivers his point of view with style, wit and convic­tion." Like Graetz, Schechter not only consciously lived the romance of recovering the past, but also commanded the ability to imbue his findings with drama, dignity and humanity. His powers of empathy rendered the stones and struts of manuscripts and phi­lology into architectural designs of arresting charm and lasting meaning.

Second, at the heart of Schechter's synthetic writings reso­nated a deep and abiding interest in religion. He deemed Judaism to be, above all, a religious phenomenon and labored to illuminate the character of both its normative and divergent expressions, without belittling one at the expense of the other. As he wrote to Richard Gottheil, his American Reform student in Berlin, after his unconventional essay on "The Chassidim:"

You will have observed from my paper on the Hasidim, I honor and admire every warm and inner faith. Without faith we belong to the Felix Adler religion, Ethical Science, or to the so-called historical Judaism, which is no less re­pugnant to me ... Theology without God is unendurable. Every earnest man will seek to find a harmony between his thinking and his conduct.

Schechter challenged the dominant rationalism of his age by writing with feeling about Jewish pietism and mysticism. Nor did he restrict his impressive knowledge of that literature to his essays on the subject. His pioneering Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology was also punctuated with passing references to the ideas of medieval mystics. Schechter's goal was not to turn the rabbis into Greek philosophers. On the contrary, he stressed the unreflective and erratic nature of their religious quest. Rabbis and mystics were cut from the same cloth. Mysticism was not a foreign transplant: "Those who are at all familiar with old rabbinic literature hardly need to be told that `the sea of the Talmud' has also its gulf stream of mysti­cism ..." Not as theosophy or occultism, "but as a manifestation of the spiritual and as an expression of man's agonies in his struggle after communion with God, as well as of his ineffable joy when he receives the assurance that he has found it." Judaism, in other words, was a single tapestry of spiritual profusion that deserved to be judged on its own terms, an act of equity, Schechter contended repeatedly, as yet unaccorded it by Christian savants. Hence the moment and advantage of the insider.

No one appreciated Schechter's rare capacity to do religion more incisively or earlier than Montefiore. Undeterred by the dedi­cation to him of The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, Montefiore admonished Schechter shortly after its appearance not to abandon himself to the arcane world of manuscripts.

I cannot bear the idea of your devoting yourself to texts. You must train yourself to write, and you must write not only for the learned world. Not bibliography but theology, not antiquity but history, not archeology but religion, these are your themes. The peculiar texture of your mind is not revealed by editing a Hebrew classic; speak out you can, because you have no one to fear and no one to hurt. You have theological capacity. No other scholar that I know has it, and that is why I grieve when you have to work at manuscripts

When in the fall of 1901 Schechter informed Montefiore of his decision to leave Cambridge to assume the presidency of the Seminary, he again responded with mixed emotions. The growing corpus of occasional essays of a theological nature by Schechter over the years had only reinforced his judgment.

I grieve that you should leave England with Aspects unpub­lished. It is a great pity that Weber still rightly holds the field: He is criticized, but of what use is that? He is not supplanted ... You have theological capacity. No other Jew­ish scholar that I know of has it, and that is why I grieve when you have to work at manuscripts and trivialities. The years pass; your strength wanes; and that which alone you could have done—a great systematic book on Jewish the­ology—is left undone. There may not be another Schechter for 75 years.

The final ingredient of the Schechter mystique was the excep­tional fact that his academic career had been spent at Cambridge. The Jewish scholars who spearheaded the turn to history in the nineteenth century had always held that the suitable venue for their new discipline was the university. Their tools and perspectives embodied its ethos, yet its halls were still home to the Christian views of Judaism that justified the perpetuation of Jewish disabilities. That rabbinical schools ended up as the institutional setting for most practitioners of Jüdische Wissenschaft came as a bitter disappointment.  

In the first volume of the Studies rabbinic studies and Jewish mysticism in the Middle Ages and in modern times is represented. But in order to avoid mistakes which might be implied by my silence, I think it desirable to state that there are also to be found many mystical elements in the old Rabbinic literature. Mysticism, not as a theo­sophic system or as an occult science, but as a manifestation of the spiritual and as an expression of man's agonies in his struggle after communion with God, as well as of his ineffable joy when he receives the assurance that he has found it, is not, as some maintain, foreign to the spirit of old Rabbinic Judaism. There was no need for the medieval Rabbi to borrow the elements of such a mysticism from non-Jewish sources. The perusal of the old Homilies on the Song of Songs, and on the Lessons from the Prophets, or even a fair acquaintance with the Jewish liturgy, would, in itself, suffice to refute such baseless assertions. Those who are at all familiar with old Rabbinic literature hardly need to be told that " the sea of the Talmud " has also its gulf stream of mysticism, which, taking its origin in the moralising portions of the Bible, runs through the wide ocean of Jewish thought, constantly commingling with the icy waters of legalism, and unceas­ingly washing the desolate shores of an ap­parently meaningless ceremonialism, communi­cating to it life, warmth, and spirituality. To draw attention to this fact a humble attempt has been made in the ninth essay, " The Law and recent Criticism," a subject which I have essayed to expound in a series of essays on " Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology," now appearing in The Jewish Quarterly Review.

The last five essays in volume one touch rather on certain social and familiar aspects of Judaism, and need no further comment. They are mere causeries and hardly deserve the name of studies. Per­haps it may be useful for those who judge of the heaviness of a work by its bulk to know that there is also a lighter side of Rabbinic literature.

Studies in Judaism: Second Series includes essays on  the discovery of the Genizah manuscripts The first two essays, " A Hoard of Hebrew Manuscripts," were written shortly after my return from Egypt, when the examination of the contents of the Genizah was still in its initial stage. Since then, the Genizah has been constantly revealing treasures to the world, to which only volumes of description could do justice. The publications containing matter com­ing from this treasure-trove would by this time make a little library, whilst the editions of Sirach fragments and the literature of controversies provoked by the publication of the original of this Apocryphal book might fill a fair-sized shelf in themselves. But the work is only just beginning ; and as the field is so large and the workers so few, I confess that I look with envy upon the younger students who may one day, at least in their old age, enjoy the full and ripe fruit of these discoveries in all their various branches and wide ramifications.

The third and fifth essays, " The Study of the Bible" and " On the Study of the Talmud," were called forth by my appointment as Professor of Hebrew in the University College, London. The one on " The Study of the Bible " was intended to explain my atti­tude toward a problem closely connected with a sub­ject I was called upon to expound to my class. The views I expressed on that occasion were described by a friend as " rank scepticism," doubting an interpretation of Jewish history now generally accepted as the final truth, and by men of a younger generation looked upon even as an ancient tradition. To this accusation I must plead guilty, and even confess that my scepticism has kept pace with the advance of years. The one " On the Study of the Talmud " was meant to give some directions to theologians attend­ing my class, as to the way they might best profit by their Rabbinic studies. The essay being practically a plea for a scientific study of the Talmud, it was thought that it might be profitably read by wider circles.

The fourth essay, " A Glimpse of the Social Life of the Jews in the Age of Jesus the Son of Sirach," was suggested by my work, " The Wisdom of Ben Sira," when preparing the finds of the Hebrew origi­nals of Ecclesiasticus for the press. It assumes,with many writers, that the Synagogue in the time of Sirach was, in most of its important features, already fairly developed, and that as a consequence the religious life, at 200 B. C. E. or thereabouts, did not greatly differ from what. we know it to have been at 6o B. C. E.; though, of course, the Hellenistic persecutions must have greatly contributed toward emphasizing and intensifying it in various respects. The essay in question is, however, mostly devoted to the social life of the Jews, and tries to show how little such generalities as the common conception of the conversion of a Nation into a Church, answer the real facts. The Synagogue became a part of the Nation, not the Nation a part of the Synagogue.

The sixth essay, " The Memoirs of a Jewess of the Seventeenth Century," forms a review of the well-known diary of the Jewess Glückel von Hameln (1645-1719). I found much pleasure in writing it, as the diary is quite unique as a piece of literature, and bears additional testimony to the fact that our grand-mothers were not devoid of religion, though they prayed in galleries, and did not determine the lan­guage of the ritual. Theirs was a real, living re­ligion, which found expression in action and in a sweet serenity.

The eighth essay, " Four Epistles to the Jews of England," was published as a protest against the ap­pearance on English soil of certain theological catch-words, which struck me as both misleading and obsolete. It is only fair to state that the writer's opinions did not pass unchallenged, and provoked much controversy at the time.

The seventh and ninth essays are closely con­nected ; but while "Saints and Saintliness" deals more with the thing "saintliness," " Safed " treats more of saints, and the two are intended to comple­ment each other in various ways.

A prominent English writer in a moody moment remarked, that one would love to be a saint for at least six months. I do not think that there are many who cherish a similar desire, but there may be some few who would not object to an opportunity of observing or dwelling with a saint for a few moments. They may perhaps learn that there is something better even than " modernity "—which is, eternity.

Studies in Judaism: Third Series are essays collected a full decade after the authors death. covers the full range of Dr. Schechter's literary activity from the early years of his life in England to his last days in the New World. The idea of the publication of the papers collected in this volume as a third series of "Studies in Judaism" originated with Mrs. Solomon Schechter. Shortly after the author 's death she went over all his available literary remains and selected those of a more popular nature which are contained in the present volume, as well as a series of lectures on the Genizah which still remain to be published. Three of the papers, viz. "As Others Saw Him ", "On the Study of the Talmud " (not to be confused with another paper of the same title in the second series of these "Studies ") and "The Talmud" have, as indicated in the notes, already appeared in places not readily accessible to the general reading public. Thanks are due to Messrs. T. & T. Clark, of Edinburgh, for permission to reprint the article on "The Talmud" from Hastings' "A Dic­tionary of the Bible". Three other essays, viz. "Jewish Saints in Mediaeval Germany", "Abraham Geiger" and "Zunz" are published here for the first time from the author's manuscript. For Dr. Schechter's "Notes on Jewish Philanthropy" acknowledgment is due to Rabbi Jacob Bosniak, one of his pupils, who with devotion and skill collated the notes taken by himself and other students of the Jewish Theolo­gical Seminary of America with the notebook of the lecturer.

In preparing this volume for the press the editors have scrupulously avoided making any changes either in language or arrangement except such as in their opinion would have been regarded as essential by the author, who was always most painstaking in the re-vision of his books for the press. The article on Zunz in particular required a certain amount of rearrangement in view of the fact that it was one of the author's earliest essays in the English language and that it had lain untouched for over a quarter of a century in his desk, where it was discovered with one page missing. For the convenience of the reader the lengthy analyses of Zunz 's works have been transferred in toto into appendices. A few necessary variations from the manuscript are indicated by square brackets. The author's notes have been published intact with only such additions as would bring them up to date, or as would appear from the manuscript to have been contemplated by Dr. Schechter.

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