by Julia Glauberman
The 19th-century historian Thomas Carlyle famously claimed that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” While many historians have since disagreed, Michael R. Cohen seems to have taken Carlyle’s assertion to heart in his new book, The Birth of Conservative Judaism: Solomon Schechter’s Disciples and the Creation of an American Religious Movement.
Drawing on the framework for understanding authority established by German sociologist, philosopher and political economist Max Weber, Cohen deftly lays out a well-researched argument for Schechter’s significant impact on American Jewry as a charismatic leader. From there, Cohen explains the development of Conservative Judaism as fundamentally linked to Schechter’s influence even after his death. This leads Cohen to his overarching thesis, which can essentially be boiled down to this: “Schechter’s rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary–-his disciples–-created Conservative Judaism to spread their teacher’s ideals and carry out his legacy.”
Along the way to proving Schechter’s importance to Conservative Judaism, Cohen addresses two noteworthy counterarguments: the local school (sometimes referred to as the laity/congregation theory) and the historical school. These counterarguments, and Cohen’s refutations of them, are particularly interesting because they represent the two most widely held impressions of the Conservative movement’s beginnings. Advocates of the local school claim that Conservative Judaism cropped up in a number of American synagogues whose congregants were second-generation immigrants seeking a balance between the Old World orthodoxy and Reform Judaism. This is a school of thought that, from a historiographical perspective, seems to have come about to reinforce modern ideas about the power of laity.
By contrast, the historical school claims older origins for the Conservative movement. This is the Conservative Judaism origin story I grew up learning in Hebrew school, set in mid-19th-century Germany and starring figures like Zacharias Frankel. Proponents of the historical school maintain that Conservative Judaism has always been characterized by a distinct ideology that separated it from more Orthodox practices, and that the movement emerged from the rejection of Reform “non-observance” that accompanied assimilation. Cohen suggests that this theory’s popularity stems from a desire to give Conservative Judaism a greater sense of historical gravitas.
In fact, it wasn’t until 1919 that Conservative Jewish leaders decided that “the time had come… to state frankly and emphatically what we believe in.” Cohen argues that even after this realization of the importance of creating a clear definition, nearly a decade passed before Conservative Judaism actually solidified into a movement in the proper sense of the word. Throughout this period of uncertainty, many of the leading figures in the United Synagogue as well as other JTS alumni found themselves occupied by the kind of bureaucratic infighting and political jockeying that often seems to accompany organized religion.
The fascinating dynamics of the splintering factions within American Judaism at the start of the 20th century are at moments drowned out by Cohen’s focus on the minutiae of Schechter’s disciples’ lives, as well as their seemingly endless words of praise for their mentor. Nonetheless, Cohen manages to weave together an engaging and cohesive narrative as well as a convincing argument for the primacy of Schechter’s influence in the early evolution of Conservative Judaism.