In 1905, the managing editor of the Jewish Encyclopedia, Isidore Singer (1859–1939), published an article in the journal Ost und West from a “bird’s eye perspective on the development of American Jewry in the last 250 years.” In this historical overview, Singer eventually attested that Jewish scholarship in America had an “absolute dependency on the European motherland.”1 This judgment was based on his disapproving view of the two American rabbinical seminaries that existed at that time. According to Singer, there were still no scholars at the Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati of the “already American[-born] generation of Israel.”2 In fact, Singer’s observation was appropriate because it applied to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTSA) in New York as much as to the HUC.3 Despite the history of Jewish settlement in America, around 1900 there was still no native Jewish scholarship in America. The scene was dominated by scholars educated in Europe, who often came with broken English and a strict academic sense of mission. In 1903, Kaufmann Kohler (1843–1926), born in Bavaria and trained at German universities, was chosen as the president of HUC. And a year earlier, Solomon Schechter (1847–1915) had been called to the JTSA in New York as its new president.
Nevertheless, when Schechter came to the United States in 1902, he was an interesting choice by the JTSA search committee. He had never run a seminary or any other educational institution, but he was apparently qualified for this position because he had studied and worked at different institutions in Eastern and Central Europe as well as at first-rate English universities. Moreover, he had a good command of English. Schechter had experience as a teacher, tutor, and lecturer. His attitude towards Judaism and Jewish law was not driven by a rigid reform impetus, nor did he condemn religious reform per se. He was highly regarded as an erudite textual scholar: his Aboth de-Rabbi Nathan (1887) is still considered the best critical edition of this rabbinic text. Finally, Schechter had been itinerant throughout his life. He did not fear the hardships of travel, and although he was already in his mid-fifties, he agreed to relocate to New York.
In American Jewish history, Schechter stands to this day for two major legacies: the active and systematic establishment of modern Jewish scholarship in America, and the creation of Conservative Judaism.4 Research in recent years has shown that Schechter was indeed a preeminent religious figure for what would become Conservative Judaism. However, it has also shown that Conservative Judaism was more a product of his disciples and following generations of the JTSA.5 In contrast, Schechter’s significance for Jewish scholarship in America is undisputed, particularly when the metrics of Jewish scholarship comes into play. Since Jewish studies had as yet found no place in the universities in Europe and North America, the personal and professional connections between the scholars formed, in a sense, the real institution of Jewish scholarship.6 Exchange among scholars required constant communication, a lively correspondence, and permanent mobility. Numerous Jewish scholars accepted these requirements and joined the exchange. Networks of correspondence and travel embodied the academic organization and coordination of modern Jewish scholarship, mostly in the shape of the dominant German-speaking Wissenschaft des Judentums (the term has long and imperfectly been translated as “Science of Judaism”. However, it refers to a unique German academic context and cannot be adequately translated; therefore I leave the original).7 Rabbinical seminaries, academic journals, learned societies, and also the personal networks of scholars like Schechter, formed the interfaces of these networks. Ultimately, his active participation in, and shaping of, Jewish intellectual networks, of Wissenschaft and correspondence, served to make Schechter one of the towering figures of Conservative Judaism and Jewish scholarship in America.
In addition to his published writings, Schechter’s letters in the estates and personal collections of archives and libraries are the main sources for the reconstruction of his life, contacts, and legacy. In this essay I shall take a closer look at Schechter’s correspondence with European scholars of Wissenschaft des Judentums. Besides the relatively few editions of letters, Schechter and his contemporaries’ unedited correspondence form the basis for this article. Since the list of Schechter’s correspondents is long, I shall focus on his age cohort, with whom he was in close contact. Moreover, his previously unknown letters to David Kaufmann (1852–1899), purchased in 2013 by the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP) in Jerusalem, are reason to concentrate on Jewish scholars from Budapest, including Wilhelm Bacher (1850–1913) and the orientalist Ignác Goldziher (1850–1921), as well as scholars from Breslau, Warsaw, and Berlin, such as the historian and teacher Markus Brann (1849–1920), Samuel Poznański (1864–1921), and Abraham Berliner (1833–1915).8
My essay is divided into three parts. After introducing the existing biographies on Solomon Schechter, I offer a brief overview of his life and encounters in order to identify and retrace his correspondents in his American years between 1902 and 1915, and, in the case of Kaufmann, earlier. In the second part, I analyse his correspondence over that period with the third generation of Wissenschaft des Judentums scholars from Budapest, Breslau, and Berlin. What were the main topics of their exchange? In what languages did Schechter communicate? How did Schechter manage his vast correspondence? What do his personal and institutional connections reveal about his role in Wissenschaft? In the final part, I focus on Schechter’s reforms at the seminary in New York and his network-building in the new environment. I conclude by reconsidering Schechter’s legacy in the light of his correspondence and based on his understanding of modern Jewish scholarship.
Building the network: Schechter in Europe
The accounts of Schechter’s life written by his colleagues and students form a treasure trove for learning about his biography and personal relationships. A year after Schechter’s death in 1915, the American Jewish scholar and religious leader Cyrus Adler (1863–1940) compiled the first concise biography, enriched with personal memories.9 He had first met Schechter in November 1890 in London, and had thus known him for some twenty-five years.10 In 1928, another colleague of Schechter’s at the JTSA, Louis Ginzberg (1873–1953), wrote a short appreciation of the man who brought him to the seminary.11 It is interesting, and probably not surprising due to the First World War, that no obituary on Schechter ever appeared in the Breslau Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums (Monatsschrift), then the leading journal of modern Jewish scholarship. However, besides American colleagues, European scholars of Wissenschaft des Judentums such as Ismar Elbogen and Berta Badt-Strauss (1885–1970) wrote biographical sketches.12 In 1938, Norman Bentwich (1883–1971) published the classic and often quoted biography of Schechter. Bentwich was Attorney General of Mandatory Palestine and professor for international relations at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but also a brother-in-law of Schechter’s colleague at the JTSA, Israel Friedlaender (1876–1920).13 In his book, Bentwich emphasized Schechter’s idea of a “Catholic Judaism” and described him as being “naturally Zionist”.14 These two attributions have dominated the image of Schechter to this day.15 In 1947, Alexander Marx (1878–1953), whom Schechter had also hired for the JTSA, expanded our knowledge about Schechter’s life and work with another biographical essay.16 In the 1960s, the leading historian of Conservative Judaism, Abraham Karp (1921–2003), composed a typescript (never published) that shows Schechter’s original legacy for the Conservative movement.17 In 1965, a fairly popular biography by Azriel Eisenberg (1903–1985) was published.18
Over time, however, interest in Schechter declined. It was only in the 1990s, when the history of the JTSA became a research subject of its own in the context of its centennial in 1997, that Schechter was rediscovered.19 A year later, Jacob Sussman composed a lucid essay on Schechter’s scholarship.20 In 2003, David B. Starr submitted his biographical appreciation as a doctoral dissertation in New York. Starr emphasized Schechter’s strong vision of a general Judaism and – following Bentwich – focused on Schechter’s concept of a “Catholic Israel”. As a central idea in Schechter’s thinking, “Catholic Israel” advocated Jewish religious inclusiveness and openness towards the Reform and Orthodox camps.21 Starr’s unpublished thesis paved the way for Michael Cohen’s argument about Schechter’s religious legacy. In that book, published in 2012, Cohen claims that Schechter himself did not create Conservative Judaism in America. Instead, Cohen argues that Conservative Judaism developed as a more or less clear-cut ideology only in the mid-1950s among Schechter’s students and disciples.22
The existing biographies hint in different ways at Schechter’s connections and relationships, which are important in identifying his network and in evaluating his position in modern Jewish scholarship. Schechter’s origins, however, gave no indication that he would become an avant-garde scholar and head of an important American Jewish educational institution. With a twin brother, he was born in the town of Focşani in Western Moldavia, in the then still young state of Romania. As with others of that time, Schechter’s precise birth date is not known, but most biographies give 7 December 1847.23 As is usual in Hasidic families, his father was his first teacher. Young Solomon was then sent to the yeshivot of Piatra and Lviv. In order to continue his studies, he apparently decided by himself to go to the imperial city of Vienna where he would stay until 1879. By that time or a little earlier, Schechter had married the daughter of a scholar from his home region. It was a marriage arranged by his father and turned out to be a rather meaningless relationship. Schechter did not talk about this first marriage, which remained childless.
In Vienna, Schechter enrolled in the university but also in the local Bet Midrash that had existed for a decade and was the predecessor of the rabbinical seminary that opened in 1893.24 There Schechter was trained by Rabbi Adolf Jellinek (1821–1893), who had initiated the Bet Midrash.25 Jellinek had served as a preacher in Leipzig and since the mid-1850s he had acted as a preacher and rabbi in Vienna. Schechter also studied with Rabbi Isaac Hirsch Weiss (1815–1905),26 an expert in Halakhah and rabbinic thought, and Meir Friedman (1831–1908), who specialized in the study of the Aggadic and homiletic tradition as well as in midrashim.27 These teachers made a lasting impression on the yeshivah bachur (“yeshivah fellow”, as Schechter later called himself) from the East and influenced Schechter’s research interests.28 From them Schechter learnt for the first time a modern, systematic approach to Jewish history and culture. He was introduced to a contextual understanding of the Jewish tradition and to higher criticism. At the university, he attended lectures in philosophy and history. To support himself, Schechter taught and worked for his teachers. He instructed the children of Meir Friedman in Hebrew and created the catalogue of Jellinek’s Hebrew books.
Schechter made other long-lasting acquaintances in Vienna. He met the editor of the Hebrew periodical Ha-Shahar (The Dawn), Peretz Smolenskin (1842–1885), who promoted Jewish nationalism and the rebirth of the Hebrew language. Schechter came into close contact with the merchant and book collector Salomon Halberstam (1832–1900) from Bielsko (German, Teschen) in Silesia, as well as with Richard Gottheil (1862–1936), a British-American scholar of Semitics who became his student in the Berlin years, and later professor of rabbinic literature in New York. Another important acquaintance was Pinkus Friedrich Frankl (1848–1887) who served as secretary of the Viennese Israelite Alliance.29 Frankl became Schechter’s first academic connection to the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau because he served as an editor of Monatsschrift, along with the great historian Heinrich Graetz (1817–1891), who taught at the seminary. In 1876, Frankl succeeded the eminent reform rabbi Abraham Geiger (1810–1874) in the rabbinate in Berlin. Schechter followed him and relocated to Berlin. Shortly before his departure, Isaac Hirsch Weiss and Pinkus Frankl ordained him.30 However, Schechter always avoided serving as a rabbi.31
Between 1879 and 1882, Schechter studied in Berlin, first at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums (Academy for the Wissenschaft des Judentums). He also enrolled in the University of Berlin and attended lectures in philosophy and history by the historian Gustav Droysen (1838–1908) and by Moritz Lazarus (1824–1903), the creator of national and comparative psychology (Völkerpsychologie). Although Schechter later compiled a biography of Leopold Zunz (1794–1886), it seems that during his Berlin years he never studied with the doyen of Wissenschaft des Judentums.32 Instead, he was close to the bibliographer Moritz Steinschneider (1816–1907), an associate and close friend of Zunz. In contrast to the somewhat moderately reform-oriented, East European-shaped, and thus mostly Hebrew-speaking Beit Midrash environment he had experienced in the Habsburg metropolis, Schechter encountered in Berlin the outward-oriented, German-speaking, fairly liberal, and tradition-criticizing elite of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, who set the tone for Jewish academic research at that time. One can imagine the electrifying intellectual worlds that opened up to Schechter under the influence of the outstanding scholars in Vienna and Berlin.
In Berlin, Schechter had another momentous encounter that would cause another relocation. At the Hochschule he met Claude Montefiore (1858–1838), the great-nephew of Sir Moses Montefiore (1784–1885). Schechter and Montefiore began to rely on each other. While Schechter instructed Montefiore in Jewish knowledge, Montefiore became Schechter’s lifelong friend and benefactor.33 He may also have been an indirect informant about the JTSA in New York given that, during the 1880s, he corresponded in Italian with Sabato Morais (1823–1897), rabbi of the “Mikveh Israel” congregation in Philadelphia and the principal of the then Sephardi dominated seminary.34 Apparently, Schechter was still in need of additional sources of income. For traditionally trained scholars from Eastern Europe like him, teaching was often not only a way to support themselves and their families, but also to become independent and build enduring friendships.35
When his family called Montefiore back to London in 1882 or 1883, Schechter followed him as his personal tutor. Moreover, Schechter was excited to study the Hebrew manuscript collections at the British Museum in London and the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It was at that time that he began work on his critical edition of Avot de-Rabbi Nathan.36 In the company of Montefiore, Schechter became acquainted with the Jewish high society and the English Victorian culture. He met Israel Abrahams (1958–1925),37 along with Montefiore the co-founder and editor of the Jewish Quarterly Review (JQR). At the British Museum, Schechter encountered Emanuel Deutsch (1829–1873), who became the model for a character in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876). Moreover, Schechter became acquainted with Michael Friedlaender (1833–1910), the principal of the Jews’ College in London, and whose son-in-law, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi (Hakham) Moses Gaster (1856–1939); with the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Herman Adler (1839–1911), and whose half-brother Elkan Nathan Adler (1861–1946); the folklorist Joseph Jacobs (1854–1916); the journalist Asher Isaac Myers (1848–1902), who served as the editor of the London Jewish Chronicle; and with Israel Zangwill (1864–1926), the writer and editor of the Orthodox Jewish Standard. In London, Schechter met again Rabbi Simeon Singer (1846–1906) with whom he had studied at the Beit Midrash in Vienna. These connections to Jewish communal and cultural life and his contacts with editors and journalists gave Schechter the opportunity to write for several Anglo-Jewish journals. He also gave lectures at the Jews’ College and the Jews’ College and Literary Debating Society.
Appropriately, Schechter met his second wife, Mathilde Roth Schechter (1857–1924), in the library of Jews’ College. In 1885, Mathilde Roth was visiting Michael Friedlaender’s family in London, and the rabbinical seminary was on her route.38 However, when Solomon and Mathilde discovered their mutual affection, he was still married. Schechter filed for divorce and married Mathilde Roth in June 1887 in London. Heinrich Graetz, Moses Gaster, and other noted scholars and rabbis were present at the wedding. In the following years in England, the Schechters became known for their hospitality, and this also continued in their later homes. Two of their children were born in England.
In 1890, at the age of forty-two, Schechter left London for Cambridge to become lecturer and reader in talmudics at the university. Separated from the grand London Jewish society, Schechter, as can be seen in his letters, felt isolated and experienced the oddities of an old English university. For example, he received his own key to the Hebrew section of the Cambridge library only in 1897; for seven years, the University librarian Francis Jenkinson had to let him in to his place of work.39 Nevertheless, the time in Cambridge became the period of his greatest scholarly activity. When he began to explore the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic manuscripts of the Cairo Genizah in the late 1890s, it became his academic breakthrough.40 In December 1896, Schechter’s friend and benefactor, Charles Taylor (1840–1908), the master of St. John’s College, Cambridge, financed his journey to Cairo.41 Of the more than 250,000 Genizah manuscripts, Schechter sent about 150,000 back to Cambridge where he and Taylor later presented them to the University Library. Although by this time the European scholarly public was aware of the old synagogue in Cairo, it was Schechter who was most keenly convinced of the Genizah’s unique historical significance and who demonstrated that significance by making numerous manuscripts from the Genizah, as well as the collection as a whole, widely known through his research and publications.42 Schechter published several articles in which he presented material from the Genizah.43 The manuscript research also had an impact on his network. It produced new friendships, alliances, and cooperations, and it accelerated Schechter’s correspondence with other scholars. In his letters, Schechter tried to convince orientalists and Arabic philologists among the Wissenschaft des Judentums scholars to come to Cambridge and to help him identify Judeo-Arabic fragments.44
Invitations for talks and lectures, including from the United States, quickly followed. In 1895, Schechter travelled to Philadelphia and Baltimore and delivered what later became the Gratz College lecture series “Some Aspects of Rabbinical Theology”.45 During his journey, he met Sabato Morais in Philadelphia, who became his predecessor as first principal of the JTS in New York.46
After Morais’s death two years later, not only the position of the principal but also the very future of the seminary was the subject of discussion on the JTS board.47 Among others, this was the reason why the seminary gained a new legal status in 1901. Furthermore, the philanthropist Jacob Schiff (1847–1920) and his friends decided to move the location from Lexington Avenue and 58th Street, opposite Bloomingdales, to a new site in Morningside Heights. In parallel to this development, it was evident early on that many board members were in favour of Schechter as Morais’s successor. Schiff in particular argued for Schechter’s appointment. The members of the board of trustees and the JTS Association, among them Cyrus Adler, Solomon Solis-Cohen (1858–1948), Alexander Kohut (1842–1894), Mayer Sulzberger (1843–1923), and Joseph Blumenthal started negotiations with Schechter.48 At the end of 1899, the board offered Schechter the position of President of the Faculty at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Morais Professor of Theology.49 During the negotiations, Schechter became increasingly inclined to move to America, not least because his American admirers offered him a substantial salary. Financial matters such as the education costs for his children, but also the fact that he felt isolated in Cambridge, may have bolstered his decision for New York. Robert Liberles explored the reasons why Cambridge University did not make Schechter a better offer but, rather, let him go.50 Following Liberles, one could argue that an additional motivation for Schechter’s departure was the fact that England never developed a strong Wissenschaft des Judentums movement as Schechter (and others) had hoped.51 Moreover, the religious landscape was not as various and lively as in continental Europe and North America. In the spring of 1902, Schechter, by then 55 years old, and his family moved to New York where he should remain until his death in 1915.52
Friends and colleagues were certain that besides scholarly achievements, writings, and discoveries, the most important and powerful aspect of Schechter the scholar and the man was the “core of his being,” meaning his “personality”, as Ismar Elbogen put it in 1916.53 Like many others, Elbogen emphasized Schechter’s deep faith in the unique meaning and continuous power of Judaism through revelation. Such concepts were close to the ideas and teachings of the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau, and “contravened American Reform Judaism especially”.54 In contrast to the widespread praise for Schechter’s academic skills, Ginzberg stated that Schechter “didn’t have the patience necessary for a scholar. He had an intuition but not the essential knowledge . . . [and] in our time one must have both”.55 Nevertheless, Schechter’s appearance usually made an unforgettable impression. For example, when he visited Budapest in 1913, Goldziher described him as the “greatest Jewish scholar of the time.” To Goldziher, he was a figure who embodied “much erudition” in a “greasy box”; he found Schechter’s appearance “poor”, and noted “stains on his clothing”.56 A similarly strong impression can be found in an article of 1933 by Badt-Strauss, who observed that “[w]ho ever saw this man, will never forget him: the grey brush of his woolly hair, the wide-brimmed hat, the flying coat, the rugged countenance, and the steely blue of his fervid eyes.”57
Wissenschaft and correspondence
Besides the biographies, Schechter’s correspondence is crucial for retracing his scholarly network. It gives a vivid impression of his personality, his passions, and emotions.58 The inventory in the Solomon Schechter Collection at the archive of the JTSA in New York consists of 399 individuals and is divided into seven boxes. Additional correspondents in the Schechter Collection are sorted under “organizational correspondence”.59 Moreover, as noted earlier, there are other letters in personal collections and in various archives. Of this entire body of correspondence preserved in several places, only a small part has been edited.60
The records of Schechter’s contacts with European Wissenschaft scholars during his American years between 1902 and 1915 show an uneven picture. While there are many prominent writers on the list, none of the correspondence is preserved completely, as is also the case for Schechter’s correspondence with Claude Montefiore, even though the period 1885–1902 was of great relevance in their lives.61
To this day previously unknown letters turn up in archives: as noted earlier, the CAHJP recently purchased a bundle of letters written by David Kaufmann from Budapest (yet Bentwich did not refer to Schechter’s friendship with Kaufmann).62 Along with Kaufmann’s letters and postcards in the Schechter Collection at the JTSA, we have now a more or less complete correspondence between the two scholars in the 1880s and 90s. The correspondence ended in 1899 when Kaufmann suddenly died, and thus falls entirely within the European period of Schechter’s life. Their exchange contains broad discussions and explanations of Hebrew and Arabic words and phrases. They also deal with research questions, mainly from Kaufmann’s side, asking Schechter about the Gomperz and Wertheimer families, and when preparing the first edition of Glikl (Glückel) of Hameln’s memoirs.63 Moreover, Kaufmann’s younger brother, Ignatz, translated works by Schechter into German.64 For his part, Schechter sought help with his biography of Zunz65 and offered to arrange reviews of Wissenschaft books in English journals. When Schechter travelled to Cairo, the analysis of the Genizah manuscripts became a prevailing topic in his exchange with Kaufmann, who on his side intended to purchase them.66 In this context, Schechter also told Kaufmann in 1898 about his health problems caused by the “Genizah dirt” (Genizaschmutz), particularly eye problems.67
The Schechter–Kaufmann correspondence also documents judgments about colleagues, vacancies in Jewish educational institutions and universities, the recruitment policy in Wissenschaft des Judentums, establishing collaborations, and, at an institutional level, constitutes an exchange between the rabbinical seminary in Budapest and the universities in London and Cambridge. The last became particularly important when Schechter applied for the position of lecturer in rabbinic literature at Cambridge University after the death of Professor Solomon Marcus (Shlomo ben Me’ir) Schiller-Szinessy (1820–1890). In order to support his candidacy, Kaufmann and Bacher from the seminary in Budapest wrote letters of recommendation.68
Wilhelm Bacher himself also became a lifelong friend of Schechter.69 Alexander Scheiber edited seventeen letters from Schechter to Bacher covering the period 1888–1911.70 There are four more letters from Bacher to Schechter, among them Bacher’s letter in support of Schechter’s application to Cambridge and a congratulatory letter on Schechter’s new position as “leader and teacher of a Rabbinical educational institution” in New York.71 As with Kaufmann, Schechter and Bacher shared research interests, mainly in the field of midrashic and rabbinic literature. When Schechter worked on his Midrash ha-gadol, a book that was published in Cambridge in 1902, the year he moved to New York, he needed all the dictionaries and comprehensive reference books available at the time.72 Bacher was a renowned authority and his books were standard works even then (as they still are until today).73 Schechter and Bacher also helped each other by correcting and commentating on each other’s works before publication. Once the books had appeared, they quoted each other, and organized book reviews for each other’s works in local or national academic journals. Schechter generally supported Bacher and Kaufmann with publishing articles in English academic journals and magazines.74 After Kaufmann’s death, Bacher assisted Schechter in deciphering Arabic manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah. Schechter made copies of the fragments and manuscripts and had them sent to Bacher in Budapest for identification.75 Besides Schechter’s and Bacher’s personal connection, their relationship was also valuable for institutional matters, for example when students wanted to change from one seminary to another.76
The correspondence between Schechter and the famous Goldziher covers only the years between 1904 and 1908.77 It is certain, however, that Goldziher knew about Schechter’s Genizah findings from the very beginning, not least because Goldziher, too, travelled to Egypt and the Middle East.78 Schechter also turned to Goldziher to decipher Arabic manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah. In 1904, Schechter eventually invited him to New York to speak on Jewish philosophy. The travel grant was supposed to be paid by the JTSA and Gratz College in Philadelphia, and Goldziher was to deliver his lectures in German.79 However, he never undertook the journey.
In fact, invitations were also a way to build, renew, and deepen personal and professional relationships. It was not only Schechter who tried to bring famous scholars to his institutions. Schechter himself also received numerous invitations from his Wissenschaft colleagues and friends. In a letter of October 1910, Ismar Elbogen, then a lecturer at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, Schechter’s alma mater, invited him to deliver a lecture series in Berlin. Elbogen tried to tempt him by noting that he should not fear Abraham Geiger’s spirit in the Hochschule. By then, his spirit existed only in an academic sense, Elbogen asserted, and not with regard to the religious convictions of the institution, the teachers, and students.80
Particularly in the American years, recommendations, questions about students, or lectures connected Schechter with the rabbinical seminary in Budapest and with the Hochschule in Berlin. When he was looking for new teaching staff for the JTSA, other individuals and institutions got involved. For example, Abraham Berliner, a lecturer at the Rabbiner-Seminar für das Orthodoxe Judentum (Rabbinical Seminary for Orthodox Judaism) in Berlin, who was acquainted with the Schechters, asked about the vacancies at the JTSA in a letter of October 1902. Berliner noted that he had been informed about the open positions during a vacation in Königstein where he met Philipp Schiff. In the same letter, he asked about the negotiations with Samuel Krauss (1866–1948) and Samuel Poznański (1864–1921) who, according to Schiff, had been invited to teach at the JTSA.81 At the same time, Markus Brann from the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau asked Schechter about the negotiations with Krauss and Poznański. Since both candidates hesitated, Brann pointed Schechter to another promising candidate, David Simonsen (1853–1932) from Copenhagen, a student of the Breslau seminary who later became the chief rabbi of Denmark.82 Poznański was also a student of the Hochschule in Berlin. Being almost twenty years younger than Schechter, he was a later student of Moritz Steinschneider’s, who recommended him to Schechter. Although Poznański and Schechter did not know each other in person, a lively Hebrew correspondence evolved between them shortly before Schechter’s departure for New York in January 1902, and it lasted until 1914.83 Poznański finally decided to stay in his hometown of Warsaw to fulfill his obligations as the rabbi of the Great Synagogue. Krauss, the other candidate on Schechter’s list and a student of Hungarian rabbinical seminary, also chose to stay in Budapest. In 1906, he became the principal of the rabbinical seminary in Vienna.
In general, Schechter loved to exchange views about divrei torah vehokhmah (Torah knowledge and wisdom, that is, Wissenschaft des Judentums matters), but he also enjoyed lashon ha-ra’ah (gossiping).84 He disliked most of his English colleagues, particularly his predecessor Schiller-Szinessy, but also the Hebrew librarian at Oxford University, Adolph Neubauer (1832–1907). In contrast, he admired Zunz and Steinschneider as well as scholars of his generation such as the Hungarians. For example, Schechter had Goldziher’s photograph in his office, together with other “great men of Israel”, as he stated in a letter to Goldziher.85
Schechter conducted his correspondence mainly in English, German, and Hebrew. Although he was perceived as a polyglot, he was not a perfectionist and had only limited command of some of these languages.86 This becomes clear when we examine his German letters. Until the mid-twentieth century, German was widely accepted as an international language and used in general as well as in Jewish academia. It was possible then to submit letters of recommendation in German to all academic institutions, even in England.87 However, from his letters it becomes clear that German was not Schechter’s strongest language. This might be why his wife Mathilde took over much of his correspondence with the European Wissenschaft scholars. Not only did she know the scholars and their wives personally, but her German and her English were also much better than her husband’s. She was a trained teacher and translated Heinrich Heine into English and Zangwill into German. When Schechter sent German letters, it is almost certain that Mathilde had composed and sometimes even written them.88 A letter from Schechter to Kaufmann in 1897 documents Schechter’s awareness of his language style: “I find my letter is a mixture of bad German and miserable English. I apologize. . . . I would write a new letter; but it would probably turn out to be even more stupid. Excuse [sic]. You should not count on an Ex-Bachur.”89 Schechter also apologized for his handwriting in his letters.90 Moreover, Mathilde Schechter’s handwriting was neater. She made fun of her occupation as her husband’s assistant, finishing one letter: “Best regards! The secretary, Mathilde S. Schechter”.91 When Schechter settled in America, he wrote his letters mostly in English and Hebrew with German insertions.92 In his Hebrew letters, Schechter imitated a midrashic and rabbinic style, inserting biblical quotations and phrases, as was usual at that time for scholars in this field.
Solomon Schechter’s connections and networks also become visible when we look at the scholars mentioned in the letters. Apart from his contacts with scholars of the Jewish institutions of higher learning in Budapest and Berlin, there is a strong orientation towards the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau. The vast – and largely neglected – correspondence of Heinrich Graetz’s successor at the seminary, Markus Brann, shows that the exchange between the seminaries was frequent.93 Schechter and Brann also discussed the mutual recognition of institutions’ curricula and students applying to the respective other institution.94 After Schechter became the head of the seminary in New York, the exchange with the seminaries in Budapest, Berlin, Vienna, and London became more regular and steady.
In addition to professional closeness, Brann indicated in a letter to Schechter that there was a circle of Breslau “local friends”.95 The reason for the strong ties was that Mathilde had grown up in Breslau and her older brother Siegismund Simon Roth (1856–1910) still lived there.96 Consequently, Breslau was always on the travel schedule, even after the Schechters had moved to America.
Frequent travels to Europe became another essential instrument to build, maintain, and widen Schechter’s networks. From his letters and other correspondence, we know about his private and professional journeys. Unlike other scholars, who preferred to go to the Bohemian and Moravian spas, the private destinations of the Schechter family were, besides Breslau, Bad Kissingen (summer 1886),97 Paris (spring 1897),98 Budapest (August 1908,)99 South Africa (1910–11),100 Bad Nauheim and Frankfurt am Main just before the First World War (July 1914),101 where he met the librarian and bibliographer Aron Freimann (1871–1948).102 Like his contemporaries, Schechter travelled in order to explore libraries and private collections, and to discuss ideas, texts, planned publications, and joint projects. In 1893, he visited the oriental collections in Italian libraries; in 1895 he went to America to deliver his lecture series;103 in 1896 he went to Cairo and Jerusalem; and for the late summer of 1899 the Schechters planned to go to Budapest to meet Kaufmann and his wife, Irma.104 The Schechter couple undertook the journey again in August 1913,105 followed by a stopover in Breslau in September.106 Having just arrived overseas, Schechter travelled back to England and continental Europe in the summer of 1903 in search of a new faculty; and eight years later, in March and April 1911, the Schechter family visited Berlin, Munich, and Italy.107 Accordingly, Elbogen noted that there was several times a “season of the Americans” in Berlin.108
Connecting and keeping in touch: Schechter in America
The greatest transformation and reorientation in Schechter’s network took place when he moved to New York. In the first five years, until 1907, he joined American Jewish networks, establishing new connections and expanding them with the help of his own resources, networks, and ideas.109
Outside the JTSA, he took a great step into American Jewish scholarship when he joined the committee of the first academic reference work for Jewish history, religion, and culture, the Jewish Encyclopedia, which was published between 1901 and 1906 in twelve volumes. In succession to the Philadelphian rabbi and scholar Markus Jastrow (1829–1903), Schechter became the editor of the Talmud section in this project. Like Jastrow, Schechter’s appointment was intended to balance the predominantly Reform editors.110 The encyclopedia eventually became a vehicle for the construction of original American Jewish scholarship, and Schechter was a vital part of this process.111 In the same vein, Schechter became part of the Bible translation and commentary committee of the Jewish Publication Society (JPS).112 He worked closely, though not always peacefully, with scholars including Max Leopold Margolis (1866–1932), Cyrus Adler, Kaufmann Kohler, Mayer Sulzberger, and Samuel Schulman (1865–1955).
Another scholarly project that Schechter joined was the editorship of the JQR.113 After Claude Montefiore and his successor in Cambridge, Israel Abrahams, had established the journal in London in 1889, the publication of the periodical lasted until 1908. Schechter and Adler revived it in 1910 in Philadelphia. The journal became the main organ of the JTSA, just like the Monatsschrift was for the European Wissenschaft community.114
Besides these activities, Schechter remained active in giving talks and lectures that were collected and published in the year of his death.115 His network became most relevant, however, when he began to hire new faculty members for the JTSA and reorganized their training programmes. In order to catch up with the influential Wissenschaft des Judentums in Europe, Schechter was determined to increase the academic standards of the JTSA.116 When he arrived New York, the JTSA faculty had included Cyrus Adler, Joseph Mayor Asher,117 Bernhard Drachman (1861–1945), Joshua A. Joffe (1862–1935), and Henry Pereira Mendes (1852–1937). Most of these men had come to America trained as rabbis but not as academics or lecturers at a rabbinical seminary. Therefore, Schechter proposed to replace the personnel gradually, and hire academically trained, professional scholars. At that time, the recommendation of candidates by European Jewish scholars and publications in the established journals of Wissenschaft des Judentums set the tone. Schechter reached out to his contacts in Europe during his travels to England, Germany, Italy, and France, and in his sabbatical in 1910–11, much of which he spent in Europe. Although his initial negotiations with Poznański and Krauss failed, the JTSA for the first time became appealing to European scholars, mostly due to Schechter’s reputation.
In the end, the scholars Schechter appointed did not arrive from Europe directly. However, they were all academically trained, mainly at prestigious European institutions. Most of them shared Schechter’s own research interests. For example, Ginzberg had already contributed several articles to the Jewish Encyclopedia. Schechter hired him as Talmud professor in 1902 from HUC, and Ginzberg would teach for more than five decades at the JTSA. Besides Ginzberg, Schechter was able to hire Israel Friedlaender (1876–1920) as Sabato Morais Professor of Biblical Literature and Exegesis in 1903.118 Although Schechter at first feared that Friedlaender was a supporter of “higher criticism”, he soon realized that Friedlaender’s main field was Arabic. Alexander Marx became the professor of Jewish history and literature as well as the head of the library. In 1905, Schechter successfully appointed Israel Davidson (1870–1939), an expert on the life and works of Saadia Gaon, and a master of Hebrew poetry. Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881–1983) was himself a graduate of the JTSA and Columbia University. In 1909, he became the organizer of the Teachers’ Institute. Schechter’s last appointment was Moses Hyamson (1862–1949), a scholar of Jewish and Roman law, who joined the faculty in the year of Schechter’s death.
For Schechter, the academization of Jewish scholarship also meant improving the curriculum.119 Following the European model of modern, academically trained rabbis (Doktor-Rabbiner), he raised and adjusted the educational standards to the high principles of the rabbinical seminaries in Europe.120 For rabbinical training in particular, Schechter created new requirements and courses. Rabbinical students were expected to have good moral character and basic knowledge of Hebrew and Biblical Aramaic. They had to prove that they were well-versed in the Pentateuch, in the second Mishnah order, Seder Moed (“Appointed Time”), and in the first part of tractate Berakhot (“Benedictions”). Moreover, a general acquaintance with the contents of the prayer book, and a general knowledge of Jewish history were requirements to enter rabbinical training.121 As in some of the European institutions, rabbinical students had to have at least a bachelor’s or equivalent degree to enter the seminary. Unlike most European seminaries, however, but also unlike the HUC, the JTSA did not offer a high school or college course.
These higher academic standards provoked massive protest, mainly from Orthodox rabbis. As early as July 1902, they began to organize an Aggudat ha-Rabbanim (“Union of Orthodox Rabbis”), whose members finally rejected the JTSA. Moreover, Schechter provoked Orthodox opposition to the seminary when he made binding decisions regarding the language issues. He not only forbade Yiddish in the classroom but also insisted that all communication at JTSA should be in English.122 Although most of the Orthodox rabbis, like Schechter, came from an East European background, the confrontation also resulted from the fact that Schechter was not willing to integrate works of traditional Judaism into the curriculum, such as the Shulkhan Arukh (“Set Table”).123
In principle, the academic study of Judaism did not find acceptance in general educational institutions and universities in Europe and North America before the 1950s. Hence, scholars organized themselves outside the universities in broad networks of correspondence and by constant travel across Europe and North America. They developed a solid reference system for modern Jewish scholarship, mainly in the shape of the dominant German-speaking Wissenschaft des Judentums, consisting of professional scholarly journals, learned societies, and rabbinical seminaries in university cities. Characteristically, individual scholars established their connections early in their career when they began their education at yeshivot, rabbinical seminaries, and universities. Fellow students and teachers became the first colleagues with whom to engage, and the relationship to them was not least the basis for future personal and collaborative networks.124 Later stages in their careers added to their existing network more colleagues, friends, and alliance partners.
Schechter focused his academic networking on the establishment of scholarly exchange in all aspects of the academic study of Judaism, as well as for his own research interests, which were mainly in the fields of rabbinic literature, medieval manuscripts, and Jewish history and culture. Schechter’s network of correspondence and travel illustrates not only the meaning of personal connections for an individual scholarly life, but also shows the scope of Jewish scholarly networks in the second half of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries. His activities were rooted in his education at the Bet Midrash in Vienna, developed further in Berlin and England, and finally led to his leadership at the JTSA in New York.
Schechter’s legacies with regard to Wissenschaft des Judentums as well as academic organization and networking can be divided into five essential aspects. Firstly, Schechter’s academic achievements were mainly in the field of rabbinic literature and thought. Consequently, he dealt with a fairly traditional or classical Jewish knowledge.125 Following modern academic self-understanding, Schechter applied historical and critical methods to the texts. From the beginning of his career, his approach to texts was respectful and careful. His intention was to stabilize Jewish texts by editing, collating, and annotating them. Based on his deep Jewish traditional knowledge, his editions and historical writings were profound and well-received in the scholarly community. Schechter’s largest treasure trove for editions and related historical studies were his discoveries in the Cairo Genizah materials he had obtained, with Taylor’s support, for Cambridge.
Secondly, since he dealt so respectfully with Jewish texts, historians have connected Schechter to positive-historical Judaism and the Breslau historical school. The founder of positive-historical Judaism, Zacharias Frankel (1801–1875), and the Breslau school understood modern Jewish scholarship as Glaubenswissenschaft (dogmatic scholarship).126 This interpretation is close to Schechter’s when we look at his ambivalence and reservation towards Bible studies. His admiration for Zunz was shaken when, in the context of his biographical studies on the father of Wissenschaft des Judentums, he engaged with Zunz’s Bible analyses.127 Schechter could not treat the biblical text in the same way as medieval Jewish texts. His respect for biblical revelation and, at the same time, Zunz’s radical historicization of the Bible provoked ambivalent feelings in him and caused him similar feelings as scholars of the Breslau school such as Kaufmann.128 Like the Breslau school, Schechter accepted a “lower” Bible criticism. However, he was sensitive when applying higher criticism. He identified higher criticism as a threat from the dominant and mostly anti-Jewish Protestant theology, characterizing it memorably and bitterly, as “higher Anti-Semitism”.129
Thirdly, and connected to the previous aspect, Schechter’s awareness of the antisemitic tensions in academia connected him with the Breslau and Orthodox Wissenschaft scholars who, unlike the Reform movement, also spoke out in public against antisemitism. Breslau and Orthodox scholars were also not willing to deny the national element in Judaism. The primacy of the tradition and the awareness of a national Jewish consciousness lead Schechter and members of his faculty to Zionism.130 Contrary to the Zionist narrative, for which the course of Jewish history required an explanation, for Schechter the occupation with Jewish history was a more textual and thus “unideological” basis for Jewish nationalism.131 Schechter shared this argument with Heinrich Graetz from the Breslau seminary and most of whose students.132
Fourthly, Schechter’s broad, open-minded and unifying view of Judaism as “Catholic Judaism”133 or “Catholic Israel” showed another similarity to the understanding of modern Judaism in the Breslau school.134 Therefore, he was not in favour of a distinct “American Judaism” or Minhag America, as promoted by reform thinkers such as Isaac M. Wise (1819–1900). For the sake of a broad definition of a “Catholic” – thus encompassing – Judaism that integrated traditional notions as well as a national Jewish consciousness, Schechter envisioned Wissenschaft as a way to understand the Jewish past and present, and to build a future for Judaism in the modern world, an understanding that was particularly promoted also by Graetz.135 His view of the centrality of “Jewish Science” or Wissenschaft is documented in his first public talk in America in 1902.136 He argued that Wissenschaft served to support the training of community leaders and commitment to tradition.137
Schechter’s legacy is, fifthly, visible in the reorganization of the JTSA in New York that followed the standards of the rabbinical seminaries in Europe. Gradually, he was able to build a faculty that provided a solid basis for the academic and religious development.138 The seminary building, the specialized library as well as the infrastructure of surrounding educational institutions became factors that played into Schechter’s hand. He was able to create an atmosphere that supported teaching and research by also giving the seminary staff time to pursue their own research. Unlike Kaufmann Kohler’s leadership at HUC, Schechter’s openness regarding dissenting opinions inside the faculty further improved the fruitful and forthright atmosphere. Naturally, to maintain the strong connection to the Breslau school was a conscious decision. In the end, however, Schechter hired scholars at the JTSA who had been mainly educated at Lithuanian yeshivot and at the Orthodox rabbinical seminary in Berlin.
In this essay I have focused on Schechter’s correspondence with Budapest-based scholars and associates of the Breslau school, yet his network was by no means restricted to contacts with these scholars. Schechter’s institutional contacts to the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau mainly resulted from his personal closeness to the faculty but also from the family background of his wife Mathilde.
As recent studies have shown, Schechter’s scholarly, professional, and academic impact took years to unfold. The effects attributed to Schechter became visible mainly in the 1950s and 60s. Then, American-born Jewish scholars had developed a strong esprit de corps that connected them to the JTSA as their alma mater. It was then, in retrospect, that Schechter came to be regarded as the icon and leader of the Conservative movement in American Judaism.