Solomon Schechter (Hebrew: שניאור זלמן שכטר; December 7, 1847- 1915) was a Moldavian-born Romanian and English 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 the American Conservative Jewish movement.
Born in Focşani to a Jewish Romanian family adhering to the Chabad Hasidic branch, he attended yeshivas in Eastern Europe. Schechter received his early education from his father who was a shochet ("ritual slaughterer"). Reportedly, he learned to read Hebrew by age three, and by five mastered Chumash. He went to a yeshiva in Piatra Neamţ at age ten and at age thirteen studied with one of the major Talmudic scholars, Rabbi Joseph Saul Nathanson of Lemberg. In his twenties he went to the Rabbinical College in Vienna, where he studied under the more modern Talmudic scholar Meir Friedmann, before in 1879 moving on to undertake further studies at the Berlin Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums and at the University of Berlin. Three years later he was invited to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, to be tutor of rabbinics to Claude Montefiore in London.
In 1890, after the death of Solomon Marcus Schiller-Szinessy, he was appointed to the faculty at Cambridge University, serving as a lecturer in Talmudics and reader in Rabbinics. To this day, the students of the Cambridge University Jewish Society hold an annual Solomon Schechter Memorial Lecture.
His greatest academic fame came from his excavation in 1896 of the papers of the Cairo Geniza, an extraordinary collection of over 100,000 pages of rare Hebrew religious manuscripts and medieval Jewish texts that were preserved at an Egyptian synagogue. The find revolutionized the study of Medieval Judaism. Jacob Saphir was the first Jewish researcher to recognize the significance of the Cairo geniza, as well as the first to publicize the existence of the Midrash ha-Gadol, both later studied with great panache by Schechter.
Initially, Schechter forwarded the collection unopened to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, but in 1896 two Scottish sisters, Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson, showed him some leaves from the Geniza that contained the Hebrew text of Ecclesiasticus, which had for centuries only been known in Greek and Latin translation. He quickly found support for another expedition to the Cairo Geniza, and carefully selected for the Cambridge University Library a trove three times the size of any other collection: this is now part of the Taylor-Schechter Collection.
Charles Taylor took a great interest in Solomon Schechter's work in Cairo, and the genizah fragments presented to the University of Cambridge are known as the Taylor-Schechter Collection. He was joint editor with Schechter of The Wisdom of Ben Sira, 1899. He published separately Cairo Genizah Palimpsests, 1900.
He became a Professor of Hebrew at University College London in 1899.
American Jewish community
In 1902, traditional Jews reacting against the progress of the American Reform Judaism movement, which was trying to establish an authoritative "synod" of American rabbis, recruited Schechter to become President of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS).
Schechter served as the second President of the seminary, from 1902 to 1915, during which time he founded the United Synagogue of America, later renamed as the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
Under his leadership the Seminary obtained a distinguished faculty, and a dynamic momentum.
Religious and cultural beliefs
Schechter emphasized the centrality of Jewish law (Halakha) in Jewish life in a speech in his inaugural address as President of the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1902:
- "Judaism is not a religion which does not oppose itself to anything in particular. Judaism is opposed to any number of things and says distinctly "thou shalt not." It permeates the whole of your life. It demands control over all of your actions, and interferes even with your menu. It sanctifies the seasons, and regulates your history, both in the past and in the future. Above all, it teaches that disobedience is the strength of sin. It insists upon the observance of both the spirit and of the letter; spirit without letter belongs to the species known to the mystics as "nude souls" nishmatim artilain, wandering about in the universe without balance and without consistency...In a word, Judaism is absolutely incompatible with the abandonment of the Torah."
Schechter, on the other hand, believed in what he termed Catholic Israel. The basic idea being that Jewish law, Halacha, is formed and evolves based on the behavior of the people. This concept of modifying the law based on national consensus is an untraditional viewpoint.
Schechter's name is synonymous with the findings of the Cairo Geniza. He placed the Jewish Theological Seminary on an institutional footing strong enough to endure for over a century. He became identified as the foremost personality of Conservative Judaism and is regarded as its founder. A network of Conservative Jewish day schools is named in his honor. There are several dozen Solomon Schechter Day Schools across the United States and Canada. The average cost per school is 10,000 dollars per year.
- Fine, David J. (1997) Solomon Schechter and the Ambivalence of Jewish Wissenschaft in: Judaism (1997) p. 4-24
- Gillman, Neil Conservative Judaism: the New Century. Behrman House
- Schechter, Solomon (1896) Studies in Judaism. 3 vols. London: A. & C. Black, 1896-1924 (Ser. III published by The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia PA)
- Schechter, Solomon (1909) Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology London: A. and C. Black (Reissued by Schocken Books, New York, 1961; again by Jewish Lights, Woodstock, Vt., 1993: including the original preface of 1909 & the introduction by Loius [sic] Finkelstein; new introduction by Neil Gilman [i.e. Gillman])
- Solomon Schechter, from Neil Gillman's book on Conservative Judaism
- Biography at the Jewish Virtual Library
- Louis Jacobs, From Cairo to Catholic Israel: Solomon Schechter, in The Jewish Religion: a Companion, OUP, 1995
- Solomon Schechter Collection at the Jewish Theological Seminary
- Works by or about Solomon Schechter in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- Solomon Schechter School of Greater Boston
- AHRC Rylands Cairo Genizah Project
- Solomon Schechter School of Queens