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  • Rocks versus Gravel, or: Schechter on Modern Jewish Excellence
  • Irene E. Zwiep

on “the seminary as a witness” (1903)

It is “the duty of every great religion to produce great men.” Thus spoke Solomon Schechter in an address delivered in New York at the dedication of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America building, in April 1903. His address was later published in a volume that appeared in 1915, the year of his death.1 Schechter’s words were a deliberate correction of the American poet-diplomat James Russell Lowell’s view that generating greatness was the responsibility of all great nations. For Schechter, whose commitment to diasporic Jewry outweighed his pragmatic sympathy for Zionist nationalism,2 it was Judaism as religion, not polity, that should supply the world with Great Jewish Men.

As the newly appointed president of the seminary, Schechter was in an excellent position to supplement this ambition with a proper educational program. Hardly surprising—Schechter being a thinker of enviable consistency—that program was based on his cherished principles of “eternity and catholicity” (p. 44). Seminary students should prepare for a life in the service of the great Jewish continuum, united in God and his law from time immemorial. A curriculum catering only to the demands of the banal here and now, he believed, would fail to yield great leaders. He was well aware, however, that for more than a century a new form of “isolated and detached present” had been gnawing its way into Judaism’s [End Page 155] timeless groundwork. In the current “great market of believers,” the “caprice of the mob, or a whim of fashion, or the hobby of some wilful individual” meant serious competition for the pristine truth of old-school organized religion (pp. 44–46).

Schechter did not write essays in the classical sense. His short pieces were not essays (literally: attempts) at probing the contours of human existence vis-à-vis God and the world.3 In the case of Montaigne, the tensions between ephemeral man and his infinite God had triggered a passionate scrutiny of the human self, trapped in the here and now. In Schechter, it provoked exactly the opposite. Rather than trying to fathom finite mankind, he set out to bolster eternal Judaism against the vicissitudes of a fleeting, profane present. Ever true to this mission, Schechter could not afford to merely jot down a few “loose sallies of the mind,” as Samuel Johnson once characterized the genre, stressing its lack of doctrinal rigor.4 The defense of timelessly uniform catholic Judaism against modernity surely called for sterner stuff. For substance, Schechter could draw on Judaism’s ancient, innermost sources. Form and tone, on the other hand, remind us of contemporary critiques of mass modernism, which pervaded Western thought from the early twentieth century onward. As we will see, his search for a modern Jewish ethos prefigures some of the values later expounded by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset in his famous Revolt of the Masses (1930).

Schechter’s brief sketch “The Seminary as a Witness” is a case in point. In its insistence on historical continuity, on the need to temper the new with the old and to embrace all things Jewish including the sublime Lord God, it represents hard-core (and well-researched) Schechterian theology. It is Schechter’s conception of elite, and of what made a Great Jewish Man, that I wish to consider here, for it is there that his critique of the modern Zeitgeist found its most poignant articulation.

Rocks versus gravel: that is how Schechter typified the leaders of a generation (pp. 41–42). But what was it that elevated these gallant individuals above the petty masses? For one, he argued, it was their capacity for saintliness, an ancient rabbinic quality with a more complex pedigree than the English term suggests. Schechter himself acknowledged difficulty in providing an exact definition—as the last of ten virtues leading up to the Holy Spirit (ruaḥ ha-kodesh), saintliness seemed to defy straight-forward [End Page 156] analysis. In defense of Schechter we might add that it was his talmudic source (b‘AZ 20b) that had inspired the ambiguity. There Rabbi Pin...


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