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  • Judaism in the Queen’s English: The Anglican Context of Schechter’s “Catholic Israel” and Associated Terminology
  • Michael Panitz (bio)

Solomon Schechter was famous, not only for what he said, but also for how he said it. Contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic praised his felicitous English style. His most cited turn of phrase, well known even today, was “Catholic Israel.”1

Why did Schechter coin that particular phrase? Schechter loved word-play,2 but word play is an insufficient explanation for the frequency of Schechter’s repetition of the expression. It is frequently surmised that “Catholic Israel” is an English translation of the rabbinic term k’neset yisra·el (“the assembly of Israel”), but a close reading of Schechter’s usage shows that this is not so. Another of Schechter’s neologisms, the “Universal Synagogue,” was, in Schechter’s lexicon, the institutional embodiment of the more abstract “Catholic Israel”—and this “Universal Synagogue,” not “Catholic Israel” itself, was the English equivalent of k’neset yisra·el.

With the disappearance of the Torah, the synagogue itself . .. may cease to be a Beth Hakneseth, suggestive of the Keneseth Israel, where the spirit of Catholic Israel dwells, and become a beth am (the house of the plebs) where multitudes enjoy “intellectual treats” even at the very expense of Judaism.3 [End Page 62]

K’neset yisra·el is not “Catholic Israel,” but rather: the place “where the spirit of Catholic Israel dwells.”

The rabbinic phrase k’lal yisra·el is the Hebrew source of the term. In a 1913 address at Hebrew Union College, Schechter explicitly equated those two terms:

[M]ay God’s blessing be upon this College, among all other colleges of Catholic Israel, k’lal yisrael, in which these great truths of Judaism shall be taught and learned . ..4

Schechter also defined Catholic Israel as “the bulk of the nation,” which was the “loyal and consecrated Israel,” standing in contrast to “the isolated opinions of this or that individual.” Simplest was his paraphrase, “general use [among Jews].”5

But the question remains: Why “Catholic Israel”? Seeing that Schechter spoke of a “Universal Synagogue,” why did he not translate k’lal yisra·el as “Universal Israel”? “Catholic” was Schechter’s deliberate rendering, not an inevitable one. Why choose it?

The answer is commonly given that “Catholic” is a Christian, specifically an Anglican Christian, term for “universal.”6 That claim is correct, although it relocates the question rather than answering it: in his defense of traditional Judaism, why would Schechter resort to a Christian term? This essay will contextualize and explicate Schechter’s use of Anglican terminology to convey information about Judaism. An awareness of this Anglican context will also facilitate an appreciation of several other strategies of presentation of Judaism in Schechter’s writings.

The usage of “Catholic” in the sense of “universal” did not characterize all contemporary Christian scholarship. Lutheran Church historians gave the term a negative valence. For them, “Catholic” meant something less than universal.

During the final quarter century of Schechter’s life, two German Church historians, Rudolf Sohm and Adolf Harnack, published theories about the origin of Catholicism. Sohm’s thesis was that the early Church was characterized by charismatic leadership, rather than by a legalistic model of governance. Catholicism emerged from early Christianity when Christians [End Page 63] departed from their original, non-nomian organization “formally binding ecclesiastical law and the doctrine handed down by tradition.”7

Sohm typified the common, negative view among Protestants of his era regarding legalism. He contrasted Catholicism, with its legalistic turn, unfavorably to Protestantism:

Protestantism has never become “Catholic,” for it has never entirely forgotten its fundamental principle of the religious freedom of the individual from the power of the Church, and hence has never developed an infallible, divine ecclesiastical law.

Likewise, Sohm praised Luther as the one who

shattered the power of ecclesiastical law over the Church of Christ. By this hard and fast distinction of the invisible Church from the legally constituted Church, Luther freed not only his own life but also Christendom, the State, science, the world, from spiritual tyranny, i.e. from the Roman Catholic ecclesiastical law.”8

Adolf Harnack, arguably the leading Church...


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