Born to a Chassidic family in Romania, Solomon Schechter (1847-1915) grew up to be a great scholar whose work had a deep and profound impact on Jewish life. After following the traditional Jewish path of study, Schechter studied at universities in both Vienna and Berlin, before eventually taking an academic post in the Judaic Studies department of Cambridge University. Through his academic work, Schechter was introduced to the “Historical Judaism” movement, which asserts that Jewish law was not static, but rather has always developed in response to changing conditions.
In 1896, Schechter received several manuscripts from the Cairo Geniza, and quickly realized their importance. Schechter traveled to Egypt and began sorting and examining the Geniza documents–more than 100,000 pages–and studying them. Many of these documents had previously been known only in translated form.
In 1902, Schechter came to the United States to head the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTSA). At the time, American Judaism was caught in a great schism between the traditionalists and reformists. JTSA was created when the traditionalists broke from the reformists after the “Pittsburgh Platform” (1885), which rejected kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws), pronounced circumcision barbaric, and, among other things, rejected the concept of Zionism and the idea of a return to Israel.
As the second president of JTSA, Schechter attracted a faculty of outstanding scholars, and the school flourished. Through JTSA, Schechter was able to develop his own beliefs in what he termed “Catholic Israel,”the idea that halacha (Jewish law) is formed and evolves based on the behavior of the people. These ideas are the foundation principles of the Conservative Movement, and the United Synagogue of America, which Schechter founded in 1913, and became the umbrella organization for Conservative Synagogues.
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