The Birth of Con­ser­v­a­tive Judaism: Solomon Schechter’s Dis­ci­ples and the Cre­ation of an Amer­i­can Reli­gious Movement

Michael R. Cohen
  • Review
By – August 1, 2012

How did Amer­i­can Judaism devel­op into four main denom­i­na­tions — Ortho­dox, Con­ser­v­a­tive, Reform, and Recon­struc­tion­ist? How did each of the move­ments shape each other’s his­to­ry? Michael R. Cohen address­es these ques­tions in his metic­u­lous­ly researched book, The Birth of Con­ser­v­a­tive Judaism: Solomon Schechter’s Dis­ci­ples and the Cre­ation of an Amer­i­can Reli­gious Move­ment.

Cohen vivid­ly describes how the Con­ser­v­a­tive move­ment grew out of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry Ger­man Jew­ish objec­tive of rec­on­cil­ing tra­di­tion and moder­ni­ty” in Judaism. Cohen doc­u­ments how the ear­ly founders of Con­ser­v­a­tive Judaism were com­mit­ted to Klal Yis­rael” — keep­ing all Jews unit­ed while at the same time allow­ing tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish law to be rec­on­ciled with mod­ern life through the sci­en­tif­ic and schol­ar­ly study of Judaism. This per­spec­tive fol­lowed immi­grants to New York City where its adher­ents estab­lished the Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary in 1886. But it wasn’t until 1902, when Solomon Schechter was hired to lead JTS, that the sem­i­nary became a thriv­ing place of learn­ing and lead­er­ship.

Schechter, who was cho­sen to lead JTS because he was wide­ly rec­og­nized as a prodi­gious schol­ar who excelled in both Tal­mu­dic and sec­u­lar stud­ies, was born in Roma­nia some­time between 1847 and 1850 into a Hasidic fam­i­ly. He attend­ed sev­er­al yeshiv­as includ­ing the one in L’vov Ukraine but moved to Berlin and then Vien­na, where he gave up wear­ing his Hasidic garb, to fur­ther his edu­ca­tion.

Schechter recruit­ed a world-class fac­ul­ty at JTS and accept­ed a diverse group of stu­dents whose prac­tices ranged from tra­di­tion­al Ortho­doxy to lib­er­al obser­vance. He envi­sioned that JTS would serve all Jews, while mak­ing Judaism com­pat­i­ble with mod­ern Amer­i­can life and with­out sac­ri­fic­ing a com­mit­ment to Jew­ish law. Under his charis­mat­ic men­tor­ship, an activist group of dis­ci­ples devel­oped who adhered to his guid­ing prin­ci­ples. These new JTS rab­bis formed a group con­scious­ness” through friend­ship and shared expe­ri­ence. But by the 1950s, most of the JTS grad­u­ates and fac­ul­ty no longer had per­son­al and intel­lec­tu­al ties to Schechter and his dis­ci­ples. It was in this peri­od that JTS fac­ul­ty and rab­bini­cal grad­u­ates, along with mem­bers of the laity, reshaped the Con­ser­v­a­tive move­ment into a third stream of Judaism and ini­ti­at­ed steps that ensured it was dis­tin­guished from the Ortho­dox and Reform move­ments.

One might ask, Why read a book about the devel­op­ment of Con­ser­v­a­tive Judaism if you are not an adher­ent of that per­spec­tive?” The answer is because read­ing this book will pro­vide all read­ers with insight into Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry and the social forces that have shaped it. And because it’s an inter­est­ing and well-writ­ten book. Abbre­vi­a­tions, index, notes, photos.

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions