Solomon Schechter's New Religious Movement

I'm delighted to add to our list of contributors Rachel Gordan, currently a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University after recently finishing her Ph.D. at Harvard University. She is currently working on a book about post-World War II American Judaism --PH. 

By Rachel Gordan

When I was a teenager, someone offered me a shorthand method for understanding the movements in American Judaism. For some people, he explained, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox mapped roughly onto "lazy, hazy, and crazy." It was an early clue that there was a lot of work to be done in understanding American Judaism. 

It's not surprising that Solomon Schechter is at the heart of the latest effort to understand American Judaism's “middle movement.” Few figures in early twentieth century American Jewish history attract the admiration of Rabbi Solomon Schechter. A former professor at Cambridge University, Schechter became chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the founder of the Conservative movement's United Synagogue of America. He changed the study of medieval Judaism in 1896 when he excavated the papers of the Cairo Geniza, a collection of over 100,000 pages of rare Hebrew religious manuscripts and medieval Jewish texts that were preserved at an Egyptian synagogue. Six years later, and now living in the United States, Schechter also changed the course of American Judaism. He never wanted to be the founder of a separate movement; his vision was for American Judaism to be united. Yet, Conservative Judaism became his legacy, Michael R. Cohen shows in a new book published by Columbia University Press.

When I tell people outside the academy that I teach American Jewish history, Schechter's is one of the few names that people know and ask about. Oddly, his snowy white beard and Santa Claus physique seem to add to the rabbi's mystique. Cohen's The Birth of Conservative Judaism: Solomon Schechter’s Disciples and the Creation of an American Religious Movement may not be the go-to book for finding out everything you ever wanted to know about Schechter, but Cohen does shine the spotlight on what makes Schechter so important for those of us who study and teach American religious history: he was the charismatic leader who founded a new American religious movement. Both of those categories - "charismatic leader" and "new American religious movement" are central to Cohen's innovative study

As a scholar who focuses on post-WWII American Judaism, I was particularly intrigued by the revisionist history that Cohen offers for Conservative Judaism. Why did so many postwar American leaders of Conservative Judaism, as Cohen shows, prefer to tell the story of their movement as European born, ignoring the American leadership of Solomon Schechter and his innovative idea of "Catholic Israel"? (Catholic Israel explained that the Jewish people were the ultimate source of authority in Judaism, and that they decided which parts of the tradition were binding.)

My own feeling is that after the war, with so much Catholic anti-Semitism still in recent purview, "Catholic Israel" was a term that stuck in the craw of American Jewish leaders. They preferred to honor the vanished world of European Jewry by naming their roots as nineteenth century European. It's as if these postwar leaders of Conservative Judaism felt that in order to establish their movement's Jewish bona fides, they had to give it a European origin. This postwar generation of rabbis "fell victim to deceptive retrospect," Cohen explains. "They began to write the history of their movement not as it actually occurred but rather as if Catholic Israel had been merely a temporary stumbling block instead of the essence of the movement." The result was that Schechter was frequently overlooked in the post-WWII telling of Conservative Judaism's history. 

Cohen’s book goes a long way in restoring Schechter’s place in the history American religion and in explaining how his robust relationships with disciples affected the emergence of Conservative Judaism. As Cohen tells, one rabbi who had been a student of Schechter's felt that it was his teacher's "intuitive sense of truth and value that gave color, yes, even glamour to his personality." The rabbi recalled that after he applied for admission to the Jewish Theological Seminary, Schechter invited him to his home for tea, and, "We talked as intimates about the East Side of New York, about college athletics, about his son, Frank, a young lad of my own age; and when the tea-party was over he announced to me: young man, you are admitted to the seminary; send your credentials to the registrar." It turns out that even Conservative Judaism, in the early twentieth century, was an old (Jewish) boys' club. It was Schechter and his charming English customs (we Americans tend to eat - or sip - these Briticisms right up), who made it such a cozy club. 
When I spoke with Michael Cohen, I asked him about the historiography surrounding Conservative Judaism.

Was it a desire to offer a more triumphant history that led to minimizing Schechter's role the history of American Conservative Judaism?

Well, I think it depends how you define "triumphant."  For them [post-WWII leaders of Conservative Judaism, who often felt they were trying to win congregations from the Orthodox], they needed a platform, and they found it by looking back to Europe.  So by minimizing Schechter's role, they found the platform they were looking for.

I have to admit that I finished Cohen’s book with the sense that “hazy” might still be an appropriate descriptor for parts of the history of Conservative Judaism. One of Michael Cohen’s many important contribution is in showing readers that there are still more helpful terms and categories for understanding this movement.


Tom Van Dyke said…
Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox mapped roughly onto "lazy, hazy, and crazy."

Hilarious, Rachel, and thank you. Although that characterization is found elsewhere on the internet, a quick google already has you among the top sources for it.

And pls forgive, but these things always send me scrambling for the demographics as in, How many people are we talking about, and how much of the total for its larger general group?

Hazy Jews in the US number ~1.25 million of the ~5.5 million total.

We all know it's a 3-way split between R/C/O, but the actual self-described #3 is JJ---"Just Jewish."

Edward J. Blum said…
welcome to the regular blogging routine! so glad you are here
Crushing it Rachel, well done. Can't wait to see the future posts, already illuminating. And to the always interesting Tom: numbers are useful, but not everything. There is a story to be told about out outweighted influence of American Judaism, in part to mediate between the Prots and the Caths, but also because of location, high education, high wealth, and high literacy. Surely Rachel will teach us about all this over the next few months!
Tom Van Dyke said…
I couldn't agree more about Judaism's "outsized" influence on the USA, Kevin. As you show in your own work, it's Judaism and Roman Catholicism that put the religious liberty angle of the 99% Protestant Founding to the test--and in its best moments, have vindicated it.

And now we have not one Protestant out of 9 Supreme Court justices. Perhaps this is just a statistical anomaly, but for Jews, that 2% of the population represents 1/3 of the Court is a mathematical near-impossibility, a one in a million shot.

[Actually 8 in 1,000,000 if I remember how to do the math right.]

[BTW, “Puerto Ricans, Jews, and Episcopalians each form around 2 percent of the American population,” runs an old joke from the sociologist Peter Berger. “Guess which group does not think of itself as a minority.”*]

As for my own breakdown of Judaism's theological demographic, it does tell us something about American Judaism itself: certainly at this point, Reform and "Just Jewish" combined are more normative than the Judaism of conservatives and the orthodox.

Mostly, I was curious and looked it up because there's a qualitative difference of critical mass between a heap and a handful. The Conservative movement seems to be the one with the least press although it's 26% of American Jewry [down from 38% in 1990, however**], so I too look forward to more from Rachel on this.

Tom Van Dyke said…
Hm. Just ran across this disturbing piece of anti-hagiography:

“In his private, unguarded moments, FDR repeatedly made unfriendly remarks about Jews, especially his belief that Jews were overrepresented in many professions and exercised too much influence and control on society. This prejudice helped shape his overall vision of what America should look like — and it was a vision with room for only a small number of Jews who, he said, should be ‘spread out thin.’ This helps explain why his administration went out of its way discourage and disqualify would-be immigrants [during the Holocaust], instead of just quietly allowing the immigration quotas to be filled to their legal limit.”

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