Solomon Schechter studying documents from the Cairo Geniza, c. 1895.
Solomon Schechter 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 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 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 exposition 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 in an Egyptian synagogue. The find revolutionized the study of Medieval Judaism.
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 an expedition to the Cairo Geniza, and carefully selected for the University Library a trove three times the size of any other collection.
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."
However, it is known that Shechter openly violated the prohibitions associated with traditional Shabbat observance.
Schechter was an early advocate of Zionism. He was the chairman of the committee that edited the Jewish Publication Society of America Version of the Hebrew Bible.
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.
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