- The Saint in the Drawing Room
on “saints and saintliness” (1905)1
Sometime around 1903 Solomon Schechter was provoked by a woman, whom he somewhat archly described as “a lady of the Jewish persuasion, of high culture and wide reading.” She had remarked that
Judaism is the only one among the great religions which has never produced a saint, and that there is, indeed, no room in it for that element of saintliness which, in other creeds, forms the goal the true believer endeavors to reach.(p. 148)
That, at least, is the conceit with which he opened his essay “Saints and Saintliness,” originally delivered as a public lecture at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1905.
Let us grant the conceit. After all, Schechter probably had such a conversation, if not in New York, then perhaps earlier in London or Cambridge. Whether it happened or not, Schechter presents his interlocutor as here as a social-intellectual type, a devotee of what he elsewhere calls the “shallow Enlightenment.” The “great virtue” of her Judaism, Schechter went on to say, was “in its elasticity.” It was
adaptable to the latest result of the latest reconstruction of the Bible, and . . . compatible with any system of philosophy ever advanced,—provided of course that the system in question was the subject of languid conversation in fashionable drawing rooms.(pp. 148–49)
In imagining Schechter’s encounter with his “lady-friend,” a little over a century ago, we must remember that he was not merely a learned scholar [End Page 160] who occasionally found himself in fashionable drawing rooms. He was, despite his mastery of witty late Victorian English prose, still Shlomo Zalman the son of ritual slaughterer (hence Schechter)—a Lubavitcher Hasid whom he once described as a “a saint.”
Schechter not only described his father as a saintly, mild-mannered dreamer but said that his mother was “very quick-tempered,” and that he took after his mother.2 The younger Schechter was, in fact, well known for his quick temper, and even his mature letters sometimes read more like dictated outbursts than the sober communications of a preeminent scholar and religious leader. Indeed, on reflection, it is a little odd to begin an essay or lecture titled “Saints and Saintliness” with a bit of condescending score-settling.
There is also, it seems to me, a deeper theological and historical ambivalence in Schechter’s discussion of the topic. Modern “sane and plausible Judaism” was opposed to mysticism and enthusiasm, but, he acknowledged, “enthusiasm and mysticism are the very soil upon which saintliness survives best.” And yet, while he clearly opposes his interlocutor’s perfectly pliable and undemanding Judaism and even says that “every religion wanting in the necessary sprinkling of Saints and Saintliness is doomed in the end to degenerate into commonplace virtues in action, and Philistinism in thought, [and] certain to disappear” (p. 150), neither does he truly advocate a return to the religious enthusiasm and mystical doctrines of his saintly subjects. This is an issue to which I will return.
In his introduction to the second series of his Studies in Judaism, Schechter remarked that “Saints and Saintliness” could be read as a companion to his earlier essay on the mystics of sixteenth-century Safed. The former, he wrote, “deals more with the thing ‘saintliness’, “Safed” [the essay] treats more of saints.”3 In fact, Schechter returned to these topics repeatedly in his writings, but let us now examine his account of saintliness in Judaism more closely.4
Schechter takes as the best Hebrew equivalent of saint the term “chasid,” which he stipulates should not be taken as referring to “organisations [End Page 161] or societies bearing that name.”5 What distinguishes chasid more or less throughout Jewish history is, he says, a kind of spiritual individualism:
The golden mean, so much praised by the philosophers and teachers of ethics, has no existence for him, and he is rather inclined to excesses. Nor can he be measured by the standard of the Law, for it is one of the characteristics of the saint that he never waits for a distinctive commandment.(p. 152)
Schechter admits that, if this is the...