Solomon Schechter (Hebrew: שניאור זלמן הכהן שכטר) was a Moldavian-born American rabbi, academic scholar and educator, most famous for his roles as founder and President of the United Synagogue of America, President of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and architect of American Conservative Judaism.
The Conservative Movement, known in Europe as the Historical Movement, was a reaction to what its founders viewed as the overzealousness of the Reform Movement. Many modern Jews felt that there should be innovations in Judaism, but they wanted to retain more traditional practices than the reformers were willing to accept. Unlike Holdheim and Einhorn, they didn't view traditional practices as impeding the modern contract with the Divine.
Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise tried to create a rabbinical synod which would become the Jewish authority for all Jews in America. The more traditional Jews, led by Isaac Leeser, were suspicious, and the radical reformers were dissatisfied. When the reformers tried to push through a measure that dietary laws were no longer part of the modern Jewish world, the more traditional Jews left in disgust. They began organizing their own American Jewish representation.
In the early 1880’s, they tried establishing a seminary and a movement, but they found very little support. The Reformers weren't interested, and the new Russian immigrants weren't interested. In 1902, they invited Rabbi Solomon Schechter to become president of a newly revamped school, the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Solomon Schechter was born on December 7, 1847, in Focşani, Moldavia (now Romania) to a Chabad Chassidic family. He went to a yeshiva in Piatra Neamţ at age 10 and, at age 13 studied with one of the major Talmudic scholars, Rabbi Joseph Saul Nathanson of Lemberg. In his 20s, he went to the Rabbinical College in Vienna, where he studied under the more modern Talmudic scholar Meir Friedmann.
His Chassidic upbringing did not satisfy him, however, and, in 1879, he went to study at the Berlin Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums and at the University of Berlin. In 1882, Schechter was invited to be a tutor in rabbinics in London. He quickly 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.
He gained international fame as a scholar when he discovered and brought back to London more than 100,000 pages of rare manuscripts from the Cairo Geniza. Beyond sorting and filing the documents, Schechter wrote on the newly-found Ben Sirach materials, unknown until then.
In 1902, traditional Jews reacting against the progress of the Reform movement recruited Schechter to become President of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He accepted the invitation and succeeded in attracting an outstanding group of scholars to teach. The Jewish Theological Seminary became a recognized center of Jewish learning.
In 1913, Solomon Schechter was instrumental in founding the United Synagogue of America, the umbrella organization of all Conservative congregations.
Though a staunch traditionalist, Schechter admitted that there could be change in modern Judaism. 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.
He died on November 19, 1915.
Photo: Israel Mandelkern (1861-1947), Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.