The Birth of Conservative Judaism: Solomon Schechter's Disciples and the Creation of an American Religious Movement

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The Birth of Conservative Judaism: Solomon Schechter's Disciples and the Creation of an American Religious Movement. By Michael R. Cohen. New York: Columbia University Press 2012. ix +163 pp.

Michael Cohen's book returns discussion of the Conservative movement to the charismatic figure of Solomon Schechter and the disciples who set out from New York City's Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) to re-make American Jewry. Cohen rejects earlier foci on either the European ideological origins of Breslau's Judisches Theologisches Seminar or the earlier American version of JTS founded in the 1880s by Sabato Morais, Alexander Kohut and others. Instead, Cohen argues from an impressive number of previously ignored seminary records, unpublished letters from disciples, and other sources that Conservative Judaism must be understood as a twentieth-century American phenomenon. Cohen's argument may come as no surprise given the sort of inquiries into Reform Judaism inaugurated by Leon Jick's The Americanization of the Synagogue and Jeffrey Gurock's numerous studies of American Orthodoxy. But nobody in recent years has examined the Conservative movement along these lines, and the results of Cohen's inquiry are persuasive. Cohen succeeds in showing that Schechter (and his wife Mathilde) exerted the kind of charismatic appeal limned in Max Weber's theory and that Schechter's disciples successfully routinized his vision after his death in 1915.

Cohen also goes beyond the standard characterization of the Conservative movement as a product of a rabbinic leadership mediating the demands of a non-observant laity and an imperious seminary faculty. While acknowledging the tension between folk and elite, Cohen demonstrates the myriad ways in which Schechter's disciples (including Louis Epstein, Solomon Goldman, Charles Hoffman, Jacob Kohn, Israel Levinthal and Herman Rubenovitz) applied Schechter's vision in the respective congregations they served. In many cases, they provided each other the encouragement to stay the course against challenges from the Orthodox right, the Reform left, and their own congregations. The role of their rabbinic colleagues gets highlighted relative to the role of their rebbetzins, which might have been explored further, following Shuly Rubin Schwartz's work.

While Cohen discusses the usual suspects such as Louis Finkelstein, Louis Ginzberg and Mordecai Kaplan, one of the great merits of Cohen's book is to cast light on these lesser luminaries. …