Solomon Schechter was one of the most important leaders of religious Jewry in the 20th century.
Schechter was an interesting and unusual personality, combining within himself many disparate elements of Jewish life. He came from a Romanian hassidic family but was educated in Vienna and Berlin in the newly emerging schools of Jewish "Wissenschaft" - the scientific study of Judaism. He then moved to England and became a lecturer in Rabbinics at Cambridge, never losing his commitment to Jewish observance. He always spoke with a heavy accent, yet wrote the most elegant English prose. He was a rational scholar, but an emotional Jew. His commitment was to the Jewish people as a whole. He coined the phrase "Catholic Israel" - meaning the entire Jewish community that was loyal to Judaism.
Without Schechter, it is doubtful if the Conservative/Masorti Movement would have come into existence. By his initiatives he changed the history of Judaism.
Yet Schechter may never have intended to create a movement as such, but only to promote Judaism as he understood it. What he did hope for was that traditional Judaism would unite under one banner in the United States with his institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, at its head.
He was responsible for the growth and vigor of the Seminary, which became the leading academic institution for American Jewry and the first to prepare traditional rabbis for the modern American pulpit rabbinate. He was also the founder of the United Synagogue and the Rabbinical Assembly, which was originally the alumni association of the Seminary. Coming to America from England, Schechter took the name of the British synagogue organization and transferred it to the American scene with the hope that all synagogues that were basically loyal to Jewish tradition would join together in one organization.
Of course that did not happen. Orthodoxy did not join together with Schechter and his organizations. It saw Schechter's adherence to historical, critical scholarship as incompatible with its view of Judaism and formed its own set of organizations.
When Schechter came to America from England in 1902, American Jewry was dominated not by Orthodoxy, which would grow with the arrival of the mass immigration from Eastern Europe, but by the Reform movement, which had been established earlier by German Jews and saw itself as "American Judaism."
The gulf between Schechter and Reform Judaism of the time was enormous, indeed unbridgeable. It was seen in the attitude toward ritual, toward Jewish Law, toward the Hebrew language and toward Zionism, all of which were, in Schechter's eyes, indispensable to Judaism. Yet Schechter evinced an attitude of tolerance to Reform, even while disagreeing with it. In an address to the graduating class of the Hebrew Union College, he called Reform "His Majesty's loyal opposition."
Schechter's passion for Zionism was legendary and often put him in opposition to the Board of the Seminary which included many opponents of Zionism. He was a delegate to the first Zionist Congress and envisioned the creation of the Jewish State as the revival of Judaism. As he wrote, "The rebirth of Israel's national consciousness, and the revival of Israel's religion, or, to use a shorter term, the revival of Judaism, are inseparable. The selection of Israel, the indestructibility of God's covenant with Israel, the immortality of Israel as a nation, and the final restoration of Israel to Palestine, where the nation will live a holy life on holy ground, with all the wide-reaching consequences of the conversion of humanity and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth - all these are the common ideals and common ideas that permeate the whole of Jewish literature."
Schechter was a scholar of the first magnitude. His study of texts, his discovery of the Cairo Geniza and his work on the documents he found there set the tone for Jewish studies first in England and then in America. Yet in addition to scholarly tomes he wrote brilliant, popular essays conveying his views on the meaning of Judaism, essays still well-worth reading today. His combination of loyalty to tradition, openness to historical scholarship, deep religious faith, Zionist belief and love of the Jewish people set the tone for Conservative Judaism, which became the dominant form of American Judaism and which greatly influenced all of American Judaism. If the Reform Movement today has veered closer to tradition and to Zionism, it is certainly due in great part to the influence of Schechter and his movement.
Schechter was indeed a giant; it is no wonder that there are so many institutions named after him. He symbolizes what is best in post-emancipation Judaism. He demonstrated how it is possible to combine modernity with tradition, spirituality and enthusiasm with rationality, and thus create a Judaism which is capable of addressing the times in which we live.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.