Solomon Schechter established his reputation as an important scholar in England and then solidified his place in Jewish history in his role as president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
Schechter also stressed what he called “Catholic Israel.” This means that the ultimate source of authority in Judaism is the Jewish people as a whole, in which a consensus emerges as to which aspects of the tradition are permanently binding and which are time conditioned.
Where is Catholic Israel to be located? Schechter’s somewhat unhelpful response is that all three movements, Reform, Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, have their role to play. Based on his experience of the British parliamentary system, Schechter once described Orthodoxy as “His Majesty’s Government” and Reform as “His Majesty’s Opposition,” both part of the same historical body and each with its own insights, the one in the direction of loyalty to the past, the other in the need for progress.
The great question that can be put to Schechter’s understanding, and to that of Conservative Judaism, is how contradictory ideas about the very nature of Judaism can be reconciled. This problem still awaits its solution. It is revealing that, in his famous essay on the dogmas of Judaism, Schechter refuses to consider which of the dogmas can be accepted by the modern Jew. It should be added that Schechter’s theological writings have won the admiration of Christian scholars, contributing to a far better appreciation than ever before in the non-Jewish world of the riches of traditional Judaism.
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