Solomon Schechter

Solomon Schechter (1849-1915), Romanian-American scholar and religious leader, laid the foundation for the development of Conservative Judaism in the United States in his capacity as president of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Solomon Schechter was born into a family of Hasidic background in Focsani, Romania, in December 1849. After a traditional education in Jewish schools in Romania and Poland, Schechter studied at the rabbinical seminary of Vienna and at the universities of Vienna and Berlin. In 1882 he settled in London as a tutor. In 1887 he married Matilda Roth. In 1890 he was appointed reader in rabbinics at Cambridge University. During the next twelve years he held several academic posts, including curator of Hebrew manuscripts in the Cambridge Library and professor of Hebrew at University College in London.

During this period, in addition to numerous journal articles on Jewish history and theology—later published in book form as Studies in Judaism (1896, 1908, 1924) and Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1909—Schechter published critical editions of rabbinic texts: the Talmudic tractate Aboth de Rabbi Nathan (1887) and two Midrashic texts, one on the "Song of Songs" (1896) and one on Genesis (1902).

Schechter's most notable achievement, however, was bringing to England much of the archive of an ancient Cairo synagogue, including thousands of fragments of manuscripts and documents shedding light on a millennium of Jewish history. Schechter's scholarly work henceforth centered on this material. His chief works were The Wisdom of Ben Sira (with C. Taylor, 1899), portions of the Hebrew original of the Apocryphal Book of Ecclesiasticus; Saadyana (1903), new material on the 9th-century Jewish scholar Saadia Gaon; and Documents of Jewish Sectaries (1910), dealing with the 1st-century Zadokites and the Karaites, a medieval sect.

In 1902 Schechter assumed the presidency of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York and devoted the rest of his life to developing this institution and its constituency. In England, Schechter had been mainly a scholar; he now became the spiritual leader of Conservative Judaism and, to a certain extent, a leader of American Judaism. He advocated the concept of the unity and solidarity of Jews throughout the world. He viewed "the collective conscience of Catholic Israel as embodied in the Universal Synagogue … as the sole true guide for the present and future" development of Judaism.

In 1913, attempting to unify American Jewry, he established, and served as first president of, the United Synagogue of America, an organization of Conservative Jewish congregations in America. Viewing the rebirth of Jewish nationalism as embodied in the Zionist movement as integral to the revival of Judaism, he was active in American Zionism. His other contributions included service as chairman of the committee that prepared the new English translation of the Bible later published by the Jewish Publication Society of America; editor of the department of Talmud for several volumes of the Jewish Encyclopedia; and coeditor of the new series of the Jewish Quarterly Review. He died on Nov. 20, 1915.

Further Reading on Solomon Schechter

A collection of papers from Schechter's American period is in his Seminary Addresses and Other Papers (1915; repr. 1969). The best study of Schechter is Norman Bentwich, Solomon Schechter (1938).