Rabbi Chaim Jachter remembers the conversation that sparked his newest book, “Reason to Believe: Rational Explanations of Orthodox Jewish Faith.”
It was in 2008, and it was with someone who, like Rabbi Jachter, is a teacher at a Jewish high school — though not at the Torah Academy of Bergen County, where Rabbi Jachter teaches.
“He told me his students were saying the stories in the Torah were fairy tales,” Rabbi Jachter said. “He said it’s prevalent. It’s the dominant idea at the school. It hit me that we have to do something about that.”
Rabbi Jachter realized that the fundamental principles of Orthodox Jewish belief were not being addressed in the educational system, which took belief for granted.
“In the yeshiva system, from the time I entered first grade until I got yadin yadin” — the highest level of rabbinical ordination, which empowers Rabbi Jachter to serve on a rabbinical court, the beth din of Elizabeth — “there never was any discussion on why I should believe in God or that the Torah is a divinely authored document. I was ill equipped and it seemed most of my colleagues were ill equipped to address this. Sometimes people even leave observance because their questions are not addressed.”
So Rabbi Jachter began researching the answers.
“There never really has been one book from a modern Orthodox perspective that addressed a whole range of issues like are addressed in this book,” he said. “I’m not going to say it answers every single question, but at least it’s a significant start.”
The book began as a series of articles in TABC’s school newsletter, just as the four volumes in his “Gray Matters” series had done. But these are problems not only for teenagers, Rabbi Jachter said. He also is the rabbi at Shaarei Orah — The Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. (Not that he actually is of Sephardic heritage. “I’m an adopted member of the Sephardic family, is how I like to put it,” he said.)
Chapters in the book address challenges to faith ranging from science to archeology to the Holocaust to ethical objections to Jewish law.
The book presents a range of opinions on some issues. Take the question of science and specifically certain statements of the Talmud about biology that turn out not to be scientifically accurate.
Rabbi Jachter presents the views of Rabbi Nathan Slifkin, whose books were banned by charedi Orthodox rabbis for explaining that the Talmud simply was passing on the received scientific knowledge of its time.
And he also presents the charedi explanation, virulently opposed by Rabbi Slifkin, that modern science is transitory compared to the wisdom of the divinely inspired and therefore accurate rabbis of the Talmud.
“I tell my students that we have to take a humble approach,” he said. “We were not there. It’s hard to know who’s right. It’s worth hearing what everybody has to say. Everyone can decide on their own what’s the most satisfying answer to them.”
Rabbi Jachter particularly likes the approach championed by Dr. Jeremy England, who is an Orthodox Jew and a physics professor at MIT. Dr. England investigates how life emerges from unalive matter — that is to say, the very basis of the evolution of life without outside intervention. For that, “he has been called the next Darwin,” Rabbi Jachter said. Rabbi Jachter brought Dr. England to speak to the “Torah and Science” class he teaches at TABC.
“He spoke about how Rav Soloveitchik talked about the two creation stories in Genesis. So why can’t there be three creation stories?” That is to say, the one in Genesis chapter 1, the one in Genesis 2, and then the scientists’?
“Science is one story and the Torah is another story but both are equally valid. In my mind that’s the most satisfying resolution to the problem of Torah and science.
“Other professors of physics told the class that what’s in the Torah matches what physics says. Dr. England said that’s basar v’chalav” — meat and milk. “They’re both good, but it’s not a good mixture. Trying to shoehorn the science into the Chumash really doesn’t work and shouldn’t work.”
Rabbi Jachter said his students also like another approach he discusses, that of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
“They love watching the video where he debates Richard Dawkins. Rabbi Sacks says that Torah rejects binary thinking. You can have two ways of understanding creation at the same time. You can be a fully observant Jew and not feel you have to fight the age of the universe or evolution. There’s more than one way to look at things.”
So what would he tell a yeshiva high school student who — true example — wakes up one morning and says, “You know, if I had been born into a different family, it never would have occurred to me to be an observant Jew? Aren’t I only observant because that’s what my family is, and if I were born to a Christian or Hindu family I would find that religion equally good and would never be convinced by Judaism?”
“I would tell you that’ s not atypical,” Rabbi Jachter said.
“The main point to note is that the revelation story for Jews is fundamentally different than the revelation story for other religions. Our revelation” — the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai — “is a national revelation,” as opposed to the individual revelations given to Jesus and Mohammed.
“That’s a standard argument,” he said. It’s a feature of the Kuzari, one of the first books to justify Jewish religious belief, which was written around 1140.
“I try to take this argument and strengthen it and point out that it’s not just that we’re the only people that experienced a national revelation story, but we have a history from time immemorial until this very day. We are a contentious, argumentative people. The fact that a contentious people that argued about everything with Moshe and yet accepted the Torah — to me it’s unreasonable to say that our people were misled.”
For Rabbi Jachter, Jewish history — and particularly the history of the State of Israel — is a very strong argument for the truth of Judaism.
“The Torah makes predictions that shouldn’t happen and yet they have happened. It predicts we’re going to be a small nation but one that gives blessing to the entire world. That happened. The Torah predicts that we’re going to be scattered and we’re going to return to Israel. That’s not a normal course of events.
“And the story of the last 75 years, the ongoing Chanukah miracle of the State of Israel, shows you there is something very special.”
Then there’s an approach “that convinced me when I was a teenager: The richness of the stories, the fact that every story has such rich relevance after it was written.”
That might not sound like a decisive theological proof — but “I’m not trying to present proofs. The title is not ‘proofs of the Orthodox religion,’ but rather ‘rational explanations.’ This is what convinces me and I hope others make the same choice, that it convinces them.”
Rabbi Jachter can cite at least one time these arguments worked. After a presentation on these issues at TABC, “one student, who was very devoted to observance and Torah study, said, ‘Wow! This makes sense! I thought we were just doing this because this is what my parents and community does. I didn’t realize it actually makes sense.’
“I hope people will realize that the Jewish life of observance and belief makes sense. You do have to make a choice, but it’s a reasonable choice. I think it’s more reasonable than secular choices. What’s we’re doing is the best way to live a life and the most reasonable belief system available.”