When Rabbi Chaim Jachter, a Gemara rebbi in New Jersey, confronted the doubts of his own star pupil, he knew he had to provide answsers — with a comprehensive book on emunah
“For many, observance is a mile wide, but an inch deep.” Rabbi Chaim Jachter decided it was time to put down some solid answers (Photos: Amir Levy)
avid was bright, studious, and highly scrupulous in mitzvah observance, one of the best kids in his 11th grade Gemara class in the Torah Academy of Bergen County. And so, when he asked to speak to his rebbi — Rav Chaim Jachter — in private after class, the veteran high school rebbi was completely unsuspecting of what was about to occur. David handed Rabbi Jachter a stack of papers and with the utmost seriousness, told his rebbi that the packet contained 25 questions about the Torah that had been bothering him.
“I don’t know how I can commit if I don’t have answers to these questions,” he said. Rabbi Jachter was caught off guard. Although he knew that it was not uncommon and natural for high school students to have doubts, he couldn’t believe one of his star pupils was staying up at night with doubts in emunah. But what surprised him even more was that when he read the questions, he realized that he himself didn’t have compelling answers on his fingertips to many of them.
As a dayan, get administrator, congregational rabbi, high school rebbi, teacher, and lecturer in over 200 venues over several decades, Rabbi Jachter’s varied experiences placed him in contact with Jews from across the ideological spectrum. But David’s questions eventually brought Rabbi Jachter to the conclusion that something major was missing from the educational curriculum. He noticed that too many people were what he calls “socially Orthodox” — frum by default because that’s just what the community does.
“Most lack a sophisticated understanding of why Yiddishkeit makes sense,” he says. “We keep mitzvos because we are part of the team. But for many, observance is a mile wide, but an inch deep. And from my experience, this is an issue across the board in all frum communities — from chareidi to Modern Orthodox, chassidish to Sephardi. We tend to think that people will get emunah by osmosis, but we need to truly give them clarity. Emunah has to be taught, not merely caught. Strengthening emunah is a huge way to tip the scales. It’s a game changer.”
After much research, consideration, and discussion with gedolei Torah, he came to the conclusion that emunah should be addressed directly with students instead of assuming they will pick it up by osmosis. His years of research to find adequate answers to questions such as David’s culminated in a recently published book, Reason to Believe: Rational Explanations of Orthodox Jewish Faith (Koren Publishers). The book presents countless pieces of evidence for the existence of G-d and the Divine origin of the Torah, sourced from the Gemara, Rishonim, and Acharonim, in addition to archaeology, physics, history, and ethics. Rabbi Jachter is committed to showing his students, congregants, and readers that G-d’s existence and Yiddishkeit are not only logically and historically true, but also lead to the most meaningful and rational lifestyle possible.
Rabbi Chaim Jachter is an eclectic blend of Sephardi, chassidic, and Modern Orthodox Judaism. He was born into a traditional, though non-observant, Jewish family in Flatlands, Brooklyn. Although his family took a short break from full mitzvah observance in the 1940s, following the trend of American Jewry at the time, they stem from many gedolei Yisrael throughout the ages, including Rav Moshe Isserless (the Rama), Rav Shabsai Hakohein (the Shach), and Rav Gershon Kitover (brother-in-law of the Baal Shem Tov). He’s named after his grandfather, who himself was named after the Divrei Chaim of Sanz, and the sandek at his bris was his mother’s first cousin, the legendary Rav Yosef Singer a”h of the Lower East Side. In 1967, the Six Day War and a family illness jolted the Jachter family back into full Torah observance.
“The whole atmosphere changed among secular Jews after 1967,” he recalled. “The flow out of Judaism started reversing and baruch Hashem we found ourselves back into the fold.”
A musmach of Yeshiva University, Rabbi Jachter was a talmid of roshei yeshivah Rav Hershel Schachter and Rav Mordechai Willig, but he also developed relationships with rabbanim from across the frum spectrum, such as Rav Ovadia Yosef and the Debrecener Rav, and lbch”l Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg.
His expertise in gittin was actually spurred on by a distressing personal incident: When looking into a certain shidduch for himself, it was revealed that the young lady’s mother had been married previously and had never gotten a get, technically making the daughter a mamzeres. Such a brush with the reality of American Jewish life was a painful shock, igniting a mission to thoroughly learn the laws of gittin. Rabbi Jachter traveled the world, observing hundreds of gittin from countless different batei din. He currently sits on the beis din of Elizabeth, New Jersey, as a dayan and get administrator, and chairs the Agunah Prevention and Resolution Committee. Over the course of his career he has overseen thousands of divorces.
After completing semichah, Rabbi Jachter decided to get tested by Rav Ovadiah Yosef ztz”l and received a letter of approbation from Israel’s former chief rabbi (a signature that he says is “worth more to me than a billion dollars”). At the time, he never would have guessed that he would someday be the rav of a Sephardi shul, but the visit surely proved providential: Today Rabbi Jachter is the rav of Shaarei Orah in Teaneck, New Jersey, a Sephardi congregation with members spanning 13 different Sephardic traditions.
In 1995, shortly after getting married, Rabbi Jachter started working as a high school rebbi in Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC), and he’s been there ever since. But after his star student David handed him his packet of questions on emunah, Rabbi Jachter started searching for every source he could find on rational evidence for Torah’s Divine origins. His first stop was Rabbi Leib Kelemen’s books and shiurim on the topic.
While studying philosophy in UCLA and Harvard, Rabbi Kelemen noticed that Judaism’s claims were radically different than those of every other religion in human history. He subsequently wrote two books on the topic of rational belief in G-d and the Torah, respectively entitled Permission to Believe and Permission to Receive (Targum Press). Rabbi Jachter eventually showed his class a video of one of Rabbi Kelemen’s lectures. Another one of the best kids in his class who was fully shomer Torah u’mitzvos was speechless. “I didn’t know there was rational belief behind what we do,” he said. “I thought it was all just cultural.”
Rabbi Jachter’s own Reason to Believe (not to be confused with Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb’s recent book under the same title) takes ideas from other similar works such as Rabbi Keleman’s books and condenses each concept into a few paragraphs in a reader-friendly format. The book sets out to present a wide variety of compelling pieces of evidence for the existence of G-d and the Divine origin of the Torah, including proofs of Hashem and the Divine origin of the Torah, refutations of humanistic objections to the Torah, resolutions of scientific and archaeological contradictions, and the fulfillment of prophecies. He also speaks extensively about Hashem’s Hand in modern Jewish history such as the against-all-odds existence of Klal Yisrael despite millennia of persecutions, the Six Day War, and the raid on Entebbe.
“Being frum is really a much more rational choice than being secular,” Rabbi Jachter explains. “A thinking person looks at the world and says, how can it be that there are so many incredible coincidences around us all the time — how can it be by sheer chance?” He tells the story of a frum woman who works as a nurse in a clinic in Oakland, California, where many, if not most, of her co-workers are involved in highly unorthodox lifestyles. Nonetheless the culture in the office is to be highly tolerant of everyone’s preferences and choices. Still, when the frum woman politely declined an offer of a non-kosher cookie from a co-worker one day, the co-worker commented that she forgets occasionally and still thinks the Orthodox woman “is normal.”
“Everyone is expected to be accepting and tolerant of all sorts of bizarre behaviors and yet kashrus observance is viewed as abnormal,” the Orthodox woman reflects. Rabbi Jachter’s wife Malca had a similar experience in a religion class she was taking in a secular university. She told the professor, who had been a vigorous advocate for appreciating and respecting each of the world’s religions, that she needed to leave class early on Friday due to observance of her religion’s Sabbath. The professor publicly embarrassed her and called her “antiquated.”
“These anecdotes reflect some of the challenges facing rabbanim and mechanchim today,” he explains. “While much of the surrounding culture views Yiddishkeit and Orthodox Judaism as unreasonable and abnormal, the reality is that the opposite is true. When one delves into topics of emunah, one realizes that the Torah viewpoint is the one that is ‘normal’ and ‘reasonable,’ far more normal and reasonable than secular viewpoint and culture.”
As far back as the Rishonim, Torah scholars have differed as to whether a Jew should focus on emunah peshutah or a more evidence-based approach, and until today there are varying opinions as to how today’s educational system should approach the question of emunah. Rabbi Jachter’s book is not necessarily taking sides in that age-old debate, but rather provides a tool for mechanchim and others who feel that more explanations are in order as a way of strengthening belief.
The book was written with the blessings and encouragement of Rav Schachter, Rav Willig and Rav Yaakov Neuberger.
About 150 years ago, Mark Twain observed that all the great empires and cultures of the past have come and gone, yet only the Jewish people remain as vigorous as they were in ancient times. Similarly, there have been many deviationist sects in Judaism since ancient times — the Sadducees, Essenes, Samaritans, and Karaites. Many of these groups were powerful, large, and highly influential for very significant periods of time. Where are they today? Most of these groups have either ceased to exist or are in their death throes.
The same pattern holds true today for non-Orthodox versions of Judaism, Rabbi Jachter notes. It is well-known and documented that non-Orthodox versions of Judaism are in rapid decline. In a 2011 op-ed entitled “Judaism Is More Than ‘Tikun Olam,’ ” Joel Alperson writes: “From studies about very high interfaith marriage rates to growing assimilation percentages, we should know by now that the non-Orthodox way of life is failing by just about every metric we have at our disposal.” In the 1950s, sociologists in both the US and Israel predicted that Orthodox Judaism would soon disappear, but today there are more than two million Orthodox Jews worldwide and they are the only Jewish religious group that is increasing in numbers.
Rabbi Jachter focuses extensively on the historical perspective, and says that anyone who takes an honest look at the historic timeline will come to some basic conclusions. He quotes from Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein ztz”l, author of the Aruch HaShulchan, who wrote in 1903 that “there is no greater sign and proof than our survival of nearly 2000 years in exile.” The usual course of history, he explains, is for a nation that is conquered to eventually assimilate into its new host culture and disappear. Being exiled from one’s homeland should certainly produce the same results. Nonetheless the Torah writes that not only will we be exiled across the four corners of the globe but we will eventually return to our homeland. The Jewish people is the only nation in human history to be exiled from their land for thousands of years and return — exactly as predicted in the Torah.
The Torah also writes that the land of Israel will remain desolate while the Jews are in exile. In the 1260s, the Ramban wrote a description of the current state of Eretz Yisrael in a letter to his son. “What shall I tell you concerning the condition of the Land… she is greatly forsaken and her desolation is great…” In 1867, Mark Twain made a similar observation: “It is a hopeless, dreary, heart-broken land.” From the time the Jews began to return to the Land in the last century, Eretz Yisrael has undergone a miraculous rebirth. Today, Israel contains less arable land than the state of New Jersey with vastly fewer water resources, yet produces more than four times more agriculture.
One of Rabbi Jachter’s favorite themes is timing. Events on their own might be dismissed as mere coincidence or the result of shrewd diplomacy, lobbying, or military prowess; however, when all the pieces are put together, Rabbi Jachter explains that these “coincidences” simply require too many perfectly-coordinated factors to be purely the result of human effort. One example he brings is the establishment of the State of Israel, which involved a confluence of so many illogical factors: that US President Harry Truman’s decision to support the establishment of the State of Israel in the United Nations was the decisive factor in procuring the two-thirds majority necessary to pass the resolution, despite the fact that Truman was himself a virulent anti-Semite and that two of his closest confidants, Secretary of State General George Marshall and Defense Secretary James Forrestal, urged against it in the strongest terms possible; that Josef Stalin, who murdered and oppressed Jews at every opportunity, temporarily decided to support the formation of the State of Israel for a very short window of time as a means to thwart British imperialism; and that the Arab nations were happy to take the Partition Plan to the UN for a vote since all indications pointed toward Israel lacking the two-thirds majority.
Hashem tells Avraham that his descendants will bring blessing to all the nations of the world. This can be understood on many different levels, but simply put, had a bystander back then been asked what chance there was of a small nomadic group someday changing the world, he would have laughed. Nonetheless, the Jews brought the world the basic moral principles upon which Western Civilization is built. Additionally, the Jewish nation is less than .2% of the world population, but holds more than 22% of Nobel Prizes — 112 times more than expected. Furthermore, the State of Israel is a world center of scientific creativity and exports disproportionately high numbers of technological inventions in water conservation, agricultural, medicine, and computers throughout the world.
“A smart person looks at the world and thinks to himself, how can it be that there are so many incredible coincidences around us all the time — how can it be by chance? We don’t speak of ‘proofs’ but of compelling arguments,” Rabbi Jachter says. “I’m presenting the evidence as to why I am 100 percent convinced and committed to Hashem and His Torah.”
Jachter’s book has already sold thousands of copies, and he says he hopes that “it will be a part of the broader framework of the Jewish arsenal to combat the yetzer hara. It’s true that a lot of people go off the derech because of the taavah for instant gratification, emotional issues, or negative experiences, but if they get a strong foundation in emunah they have more tools with which to fight the challenges of life. We need to combat the negative trend on all levels.”
An elderly European Jew once told him a sequel to the old Yiddish aphorism that no one ever died from a kasha, a hard question. The man added that although no one ever died from a question, people have been killed from bad answers. Rabbi Jachter explained that a superficial answer can leave a student with greater doubts than he started out with. “People in educational or leadership positions need to know how to answer students’ questions regarding archaeology, supposed conflicts between Torah and science, and questions as to the fairness of various halachos such as the commandment to wipe out Amalek.
“Apirkorsus is readily available on the internet and leaders need to know how to respond,” Rabbi Jachter says. “The secular approach is shallow and it really is easy to expose as long as one has the proper background to do so.”
At the end of the day, though, Rabbi Jachter acknowledges that some people will always have a desire to stray from the derech because they think they will gain from another lifestyle.
“They won’t,” he says empathically. “The Torah is Hashem’s blueprint for how to live the best life possible. Being frum is not about being obedient and pious. It’s about being smart. Someone who follows the recommendation for maintaining his car isn’t being obedient. He’s being smart. He wants his car to have a long life. Our manufacturer — the Ribbono shel Olam — gave us an owner’s manual for how to navigate this world.”
At the very end of his book he quotes Rav Moshe Feinstein ztz”l, who said that the reason so many American Jews left Yiddishkeit was because they heard their parents come home from work and sigh, “Es iz shver tzu zein a Yid — it’s hard to be a Jew.”
“We have to show our children that it’s geshmak to be a Yid! There’s no better, more rational lifestyle out there — and nothing with as much empirical evidence. We have to feel fortunate and happy to learn Torah and keep mitzvos. The sweetness of it is the oil in the machine that keeps the fire burning.” —
A Say on Everything
For decades, Rabbi Jachter devoted much of his summer vacation to writing a year’s worth of articles on halachah and related topics for Torah Academy of Bergen County’s weekly newsletter, Kol Torah, distributed to dozens of shuls throughout the New York metro area and to thousands of e-mail subscribers. The goal of each article was to trace the halachic process from the Chumash all the way through to the modern poskim to reveal G-d’s Hand in every aspect of Torah transmission.
“These articles greatly enhance the love and knowledge of Torah among our students and their families as well as the many other readers who receive them each week,” TABC Rosh Yeshivah Rabbi Yosef Adler said. “They show the true depth and rock-solid basis of halachah in a down-to-earth and easily accessible manner, which is what people really need nowadays.” Rabbi Jachter recently published four compilations of these works, with haskamos from Rav Dovid Cohen, Rav Noach Oelbaum, Rav Ephraim Greenblatt, and many others: Gray Matter Volume 1 was printed in 2000, Gray Matter II was printed in 2005, Gray Matter III in 2008 and Gray Matter IV in 2011.
“People need to understand that rabbanim don’t just make up halachah out of thin air,” he explained. “There’s a logic to everything, and it never ceases to amaze me how the Torah has a say on every technological, political, or cultural phenomenon that will ever occur.” He draws a comparison to the American Constitution. The Constitution is only 250 years old and yet it requires amendments. “The Torah, on the other hand, l’havdil, is thousands of years old and doesn’t need any amendments. How could it still be relevant in a world that has changed so radically over the past several thousand years?”
He points out a few examples of the Gemara’s uncanny ability to discuss topics long before their time. For example, the Gemara talks about transferring a fetus from one cow to another. “Why did the Gemara talk about that?” he asked. “It wasn’t physically possible until now.” The Gemara also talks about trapping a deer in a house and killing someone by opening a dam. “How often does a deer enter one’s house?” he asked. “How rare is it to kill someone that way? Yet we use those psakim every Shabbos when opening a refrigerator or walking past a light sensor. It’s so clear to a thinking person that the Yad Hashem had to be involved. There’s no parallel in the secular world.”
Some archeologists have attempted to use absence of evidence as evidence of absence in order to deny the validity of Tanach. The December 2010 issue of National Geographic magazine featured an article entitled “Kings of Controversy” which noted that until the 1993 discovery of an ancient stele inscribed with “House of David,” there was no “evidence” that Dovid Hamelech actually existed. Similarly, the Temple Mount Sifting Project has revealed evidence of a time period whose “historical credibility” archaeologists had questioned for years. With these findings, however, “the existence of the House of David came to be accepted as historical fact by the vast majority of scholars.”
Rabbi Jachter quotes Ben Gurion University archaeologist Dr. Zipora Talshir, who describes the intellectually dishonest reaction of militant secularists upon the discovery of evidence of King David’s existence:
“The appearance of the House of David as a consolidated political concept represented a real problem for deniers of Ancient Israel. They went to great lengths to try to rid themselves of this most inconvenient evidence. Davis proposed impossible alternative readings, which no self-respecting scholar would dare to mention; Lemke, despairing of any other solution, decided that the inscription was a forgery. No other scholar in the academic world has cast the slightest doubt on the reliability of the inscription, the circumstances of its discovery, or its epigraphic identity. There is nothing problematic about this inscription, other than the fact that it deals a mortal blow to priori claims against the history of the House of David.”
Another attempt to deny the authenticity of the Torah was made by archaeologists regarding the domestication of camels in the ancient Near East. Militantly secular archaeologists had argued that the absence of evidence that there were domesticated camels in the Near East prior to the 12th century BCE “proved” the inaccuracy of Sefer Bereishis, which describes the use of camels during the time of the Patriarchs (approximately 17th century BCE). Later archaeological findings, however, demonstrate that camels were domesticated as early as the end of the third millennium BCE. Rabbi Jachter notes the irony that ongoing attempts to disprove the Torah’s authenticity have actually confirmed it.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 706)
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