Orthodox rabbi explains personal autonomy vs. communal survival to Reform group in River Edge

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, left, and Rabbi Paul Jacobson
Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, left, and Rabbi Paul Jacobson

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter of Teaneck is Orthodox, and the university professor of Jewish history and Jewish thought and senior scholar at the Center for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University.

Rabbi Paul Jacobson of River Edge is Reform; he leads Temple Avodat Shalom there.

Perhaps surprisingly, the two rabbis not only know each other, but are friends. They met in Israel at a conference in 2009, when Rabbi Jacobson was a fellow as part of the Nachum Goldmann International Fellowship, run by the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, and Rabbi Schacter was a teacher there. Rabbi Jacobson considers Rabbi Schacter to be a mentor, and Rabbi Schacter speaks warmly of the time they and their wives spent together in Australia, where Rabbi Jacobson, who was born in Marlboro, had held a pulpit, and where Rabbi Schacter was on a speaking tour.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, Rabbi Schacter will teach and lead a discussion at Avodat Shalom. The program is called Java Nagila; it is, Rabbi Jacobson said, “the temple’s quarterly Sunday morning schmoozefest” — Java is not a typo but a nod to the coffee that fuels it — and this month it will be the venue for a serious discussion. (See box for details.)

“The title of the program is Orthodox and Reform Judaism — Our Shared Past, Present, and Future,” Rabbi Jacobson said. “We have had much interest in our congregation in interfaith relations, and now there has been interest in intrafaith relations as well, in order to have us understand each other on a deeper level. So I asked Rabbi Schacter if he would come to speak, and he said yes. We are very excited about having him.

“Our goal is to heighten the discussion of pluralism and the different possible interpretations and opportunities and approaches to Jewish life. There is a question about how many Orthodox Jews do we know personally, and how many of them have we had a chance to have a dialogue with. I asked Rabbi Schacter to come so we could speak face to face with someone who represents that part of the Jewish community, so we could open that dialogue.”

His own relationship to the Orthodox community is close and deep, Rabbi Jacobson added; his sister-in-law and her family belong to that community, and so do many of his friends in Sydney. “They have been welcoming and embracing and supportive and open to dialogue,” he said; he is hoping that his congregation will come to feel as much warmth toward the Orthodox world as he does.

Rabbi Schacter welcomes the opportunity to present Orthodoxy, in all its unyielding beauty, to Rabbi Jacobson’s Reform congregation. “I feel that there is too much distance between the different denominations in the American Jewish community,” he said. “We need to talk to one another, to understand one another.

“I feel that Orthodoxy is highly misunderstood in the liberal community, and I welcome the opportunity to explain myself and the tradition to which I am committed, and to do so with truthfulness, and with depth, and with sophistication, and to engage in a serious discussion with Jews who I consider to be serious, Jews who are interested in and caring about their own Jewishness and the future of the American Jewish community,” he said. “We are living in a time when most American Jews are not denominationally affiliated at all, and those who are affiliated essentially are struggling to hold on to a tradition in a way that will be resonant with and in consonance with and certainly to the extent to which it is possible, not in tension with contemporary culture.

“We have extremely different perspectives, and we disagree fundamentally on many important issues, but it is important to speak to each other. I always have welcomed the opportunity to engage in conversation with members and leaders of the liberal community throughout the course of my career. I believe that speaking and understanding is centrally important for the future of our community.”

From left, Yocheved and JJ Schechter and Lisa and Paul Jacobson in Sydney last year.

He makes it clear that to speak is not to yield, and to explain is not to relax. “I think that Orthodoxy gets a bad rap,” he said. “I think that Orthodoxy is perceived as not being in sync with contemporary American culture but as representing values that are at odds with contemporary culture.

“And I think that to some extent that is the case. And I think that it needs to be the case.”

Those warring values are the American belief in individualism and the Orthodox believe in community; the American need for freedom of choice and the Orthodox need, as Rabbi Schacter puts it, for submission.

There are some basic principles, he said. “Do I accept that there need to be certain aspects of the tradition that I will commit to, even if they are difficult for me, because there is something more important to me than my feeling good about the tradition? There is the sense that I am giving up something for the sake of ensuring that there is something more important that will be transmitted.

“I believe that Orthodoxy is extremely important as a vehicle to ensure the future viability of our community,” he said. “Even if there are members of the liberal community who choose not to live that lifestyle, I believe it is incumbent on me to try at the very least to help that community understand what it is that Orthodoxy represents.

“My question is the question of sustainability,” he continued. “What can we do as a religious community to establish a commitment to a religious community that is sustainable in the next generation? Should we not insist on some red lines that we transmit to our children and our students that are not negotiable? If everything is negotiable, then ultimately what does Judaism represent?

“And if it can mean whatever we want it to mean, then what core values are there that represent this tradition?

“This is why I believe that Orthodoxy, as challenging as it sometimes may be, will provide that continuity. I will want to engage members of this congregation in a discussion about their perspectives on this question.”

He understands the struggle, he said; he is part of the outside world as well as the Jewish community. “I am the product of American culture in the second half of the 20th century,” he said. “I was born and raised in America; I have a doctorate in near eastern languages from Harvard, and I have been living deeply in contemporary culture. So I appreciate and understand the value of individualism, and the all-pervasive nature of the force and power of individualism in contemporary American culture.

“But I think that if a religious tradition is to be sustainable, the key question is how do I ensure that it gets transmitted to the next generation. It is not which part of the tradition I choose to engage in because it is most meaningful to me.

“I submit to what I believe to be divine authority. I submit — I am more than happy to sacrifice my individuality for the sake of what I believe will best perpetuate this extraordinarily blessed, rich, and meaningful religious tradition.”

There is no small measure of irony in making a personal choice for submission, thus giving up personal choice. Rabbi Schacter knows that. “My own personal theology is that I have chosen to abdicate my freedom of choice when it comes to my religious commitments,” he said. “To me submission is central, and I think that part of the reason why Orthodoxy is misunderstood is because it is so radically countercultural.”

He is looking forward to a discussion of these values and choices, of individuality versus submission. “This is not a top-down talk,” he said. “It is not a lecture. It is a conversation. I hope that it will be frank and open, and I have no doubt that it will be respectful. It certainly will be respectful from my side.”

Who: Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter

What: Will teach and discuss “Orthodox and Reform Judaism: Our Shared Past, Present, and Future”

Where: At a brunch at Temple Avodat Shalom, 385 Howland Avenue in River Edge

When: On Sunday, January 28, at 9:30 a.m.

For more information: Call the synagogue at (201) 489-2463.

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