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Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter: Should We Censor Jewish History?

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter – rabbi, professor, and historian – about censorship as it relates to Jewish history.

Though censorship exists in many areas, it is particularly interesting to analyze it from the lens of Jewish history. It can be tempting to idealize the lives of gedolim when writing about them, or to whitewash parts of history that don’t fit with our modern conceptions. It can be tricky to navigate history while preserving a given set of values.

  • How should we study Jewish history?
  • Is there room for idealization or censorship?
  • Or should we always seek the historical truth?
  • What should we do when history is problematic in the face of our values?

Tune in to hear a conversation on censorship and Jewish history.

References:
Zakhor by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi
On the Morality of the Patriarchs: Must Biblical Heroes be Perfect by Rabbi JJ Schacter
Changing the Immutable by Marc Shapiro
Facing the Truths of History by Rabbi JJ Schacter
Rabbi Jacob Emden: Life and Major Works by Rabbi JJ Schacter

For more, visit https://18forty.org/censorship/.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter is a rabbi and historian of intellectual trends in Orthodox Judaism. As a Rosh Yeshiva and professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought at Yeshiva University, Rabbi Schachter lives at the crossroads of the religious and academic worlds. Rabbi Schachter holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages from Harvard University, where he wrote his dissertation on Rabbi Yaakov Emden. He is the author of several works, and is a mentor to many rabbis in the Jewish community. Rabbi Schachter brings to 18Forty his knowledge, wisdom, and nuanced thinking about the questions of censorship and how we approach Jewish history.

David Bashevkin:

Hello and welcome to the 18Forty podcast, where each month we explore a different topic, balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless, Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month we’re exploring censorship, cancel culture, all of those juicy topics that are coming up all of a sudden right now in this very moment, but specifically within the Jewish community. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big, juicy, Jewish ideas. So be sure to check out 18Forty.org, that’s 1-8-F-O-R-T-Y.org, where you can also find videos, articles, recommended readings, and so much other good stuff.

“They don’t tell these stories about me and you.” That is a common phrase. If you ever tell someone a hagiographic, which is a really fancy word for – that’s the first fancy word that yeshiva people learn, hagiographic. Those are those stories, those saintly stories that we tell about religious leaders and saints and all these people from previous generations. Very often, somebody will tell a story that you could figure out is not all that historical. We always add on an appendage to those stories. We say, “Look, I don’t know if that story is true, but they don’t tell these stories about me and you.” I think it’s a subtle wink to the fact that there is a difference between the historical record, what actually happened, and sometimes the stories that we tell that highlight the personalities, commitments, figures behind these stories,. That sometimes, those stories aren’t actually a part of the historical record, but we add and we follow up. We say, “They don’t tell these stories about me and you.”

I think we add on that appendage, “they don’t tell these stories about me and you,” because we’re subtly acknowledging the fact that even though this is not a part of the historical record necessarily, but there’s a value within this story that is worth preserving. It still reflects, perhaps, the underlying personality or incident that took place, even if historically this is not exactly how it unfolded. It really highlights a difference that I believe we’ve shared before, but it’s worth sharing again, from the absolutely must-read fabulous book from Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi called Zakhor, about Jewish history and Jewish memory. He writes as follows in his book, making this distinction between the historical record, which in this book… And you can read this book in a couple hours. It’s not a long book, but it is a seminal work of Jewish history about the preservation of Jewish history itself.

What the book is really trying to explore is, why are there certain elements of history, why didn’t Jews write Jewish history? That’s the underlying question. Why did Jews, we put out so many commentaries, works, rabbinic works, midrash, all of these things, but Jews didn’t really gravitate towards Jewish history. Why not? He makes this distinction between Jewish history and Jewish memory. He writes as follows, talking about the commandment to remember what happened in Mitzrayim, the Passover, the Pesach story. He says, “If the commandment to remember is absolute, there is nonetheless an almost desperate pathos about the biblical concern with a memory, and a shrewd wisdom that knows how short and fickle human memory can be. Not history, as is commonly supposed, but only mythic time, repeats itself. If history is real, then the Red Sea can be crossed only once, and Israel cannot stand twice at Sinai.” But what Jews, according to Yerushalmi, preserved is not history. It’s memory. Memory can be relived. Memory can be re-experienced. It is our memory, Zakhor, memory that is preserved in Jewish communities.

That is why this distinction of censorship, cancel culture, has this question underlying it. Of, what are we in fact preserving? I think that we’ve seen both sides of this. Whether it’s in the ArtScroll biographies, certain stories that some may feel don’t really stand up to the bar of the historical record, whether that is or is not true. Or the times when books get censored because they tell stories, or highlight relationships, that don’t necessarily fit inside of the canon of contemporary Jewish memory. And that’s why I am so excited about my conversation today with Rabbi Dr. JJ Schacter.

Rabbi Schacter I consider a mentor, perhaps even a friend. He’s given me guidance on countless issues. His written scholarship has really animated so much of my approach to Jewish life, because I really think it straddles the fence in-between history and memory, and corrects the record, and points out when something is memory and when something is history. I think his scholarship intersects with the questions of cancellation, the questions of censorship, in no less than three ways, much of which, nearly all of which, we discuss in this very podcast. But if you don’t have access to these articles that I’m about to mention, get a hold of them now, because they are absolutely fantastic. They are must-reads.

First and foremost – this is not in chronological order – he wrote an article over 10 years ago, in 2006, called On the Morality of the Patriarchs: Must Biblical Heroes be Perfect. It is a fantastic article, which already has so many postscripts, but it deals with this central question that is in the American consciousness now, which is, how do we ascribe perfection? Or how should we ascribe perfection to the biblical heroes, or to the heroes, the founding question in American history, to our founding fathers? Now obviously, I’ll include a lehavdil, I’m not equating the founding fathers, Washington, Madison, Jefferson, to the biblical heroes. But it’s a similar question that both communities are grappling with. What do we do when the actual founding fathers – and by that I mean Avraham, Yitzchak, Yakov, Sarah, Rachel, Leah, the avos, the imahos – what do we do when we ascribe mistakes, difficulties, failure, to those figures?

Is that something that we should be uncomfortable with? Is that something we should be okay with? What about ascribing psychological motivations to them, which has become more en vogue in certain circles, especially in Israel, the study of Tanakh and parshanut. Do we want to preserve these figures as perfect biblical figures that animate our contemporary spiritual existence? Or is it okay to psychoanalyze at times? An article that a student of Rabbi J.J. Schacter also wrote on, Rabbi Dr. Zev Eleff, an article I’ve mentioned 1,001 times. If you haven’t read it already, I don’t even know what to tell you because it’s that good. I always like the quote that I heard later. You have to read Rabbi Schacter’s article on this, because it really contends with these two approaches about how we preserve the memory of these figures in our so to speak spiritual canon. I always liked this quote from Rabbi Carmy, which he gave in an interview in Hamevaser many years ago. I’ve quoted this before, and I absolutely love it. He writes as follows, he’s actually hesitant about going all-in in subscribing psychological drama to the lives of the avos. He writes as follows, this is Rabbi Carmy I’m quoting now:

“One reason that people shrink the larger than life personalities of Tanakh to pop psychology size is that they are accustomed to treating themselves the same way. What characterizes pop psychology? Casual deterministic assumption, cliched depictions of emotion, a philosophy that cannot grasp the dramatic, absolute, momentous solemnity of the moral, religious life. This is not the way I think of myself. It is not the way I think of you. It is not the way one should think about any human being created uniquely in the image of God. Once people see nothing wrong in entertaining secular conceptions of themselves, once they take for moral and psychological insight the tired idiom of the therapeutic, it’s no wonder that they are tone-deaf to the grandeur of the avot and imahot.”

Now that’s Rabbi Carmy speaking, and Rabbi Schacter also analyzes this from these two poles. On the one hand, we want to have human role models who we can aspire to perpetuate their values. On the other hand, we don’t want to shrink anyone down to the size of these tired, pop-psychology cliches that you read in some airport self-help book. But I really think what makes Rabbi Carmy’s insights so provocative and insightful is that what he’s basically saying is that, the way that we tell other people’s stories is in many ways a reflection on the way we tell our own story. How do we look at ourselves? How do we look at our own lives? How do we want our own story to be told? Like that great closing ballad from Hamilton, which actually brought tears to my eyes the first time that I heard it.

Hamilton Cast:

Let me tell you what I wish I’d known , when I was young and dreamed of glory , you have no control , who lives, who dies, who tells your story?

David Bashevkin:

I think that song from Hamilton really underlies so much of our discussion of, who tells the story of the Jewish people, and how is that story told? So the first way that Rabbi Schacter deals with this question is in that article, On the Morality of the Patriarchs, thinking about how do we tell the stories, how do we analyze the stories of the avos and imahos? The second way that he deals with this, which we talk about at length in this interview, was when he was the editor of the Torah U-Madda Journal and published an article by Marc Shapiro, another person who we hope to get on this podcast one time, and maybe I’ll spend a little bit of time later saying why I didn’t have him specifically on this topic, because he wrote a killer book on this very topic called Changing the Immutable, an absolute must-read.

There’s no doubt we’ll have him on this show. I hope, if he says yes. I know he’s listened. We’ve corresponded maybe once or twice about this. But I specifically wanted Rabbi Schacter because a lot of the aftermath and the pushback to that original article that Dr. Marc Shapiro published, he was the editor at the time, and it was an article about the correspondence of the Seridei Eish, Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, to Rabbi Samuel Atlas, who was a professor in the Reform College at the time. It was very revealing, the correspondence. I personally found the article quite inspiring and interesting in the way that you saw a gadol b’yisrael, one of the foremost religious leaders in the Orthodox community, grapple with some of the difficulties of Orthodoxy itself. In many ways, don’t cancel me for saying this, but the correspondence he has with Professor Rabbi Atlas is in many ways a forebringer – did I pronounce that word right? A forebringer? I don’t know how to pronounce that word.

It was an early iteration of what we’re doing here on 18Forty, which is grappling. Somebody who’s deeply committed to Yiddishkeit, deeply committed to Orthodox Judaism, but grappling with some of the moral, spiritual implications that Orthodoxy has. And you see somebody who’s a world-renowned scholar, talmid chacham, grappling with those very issues, was really quite inspiring. But in the aftermath of the pushback from that article, he wrote an article called Facing the Truths of History, another absolute must-read, which discusses some of the misconceptions, some of the stories that we tell that are preserved in the canon of Jewish memory, and how the historical record doesn’t always match up with those stories. Whether it’s the closing of Volozhin Yeshiva, or the stories about the Bais Yaakov girls, all of which we discussed in the interview. But sometimes, the stories we tell don’t always cohere and match up with the proper historical record. How do you reconcile those two? Is it okay to point out those differences and distinctions?

The final area where I think Rabbi Schacter’s scholarship really matches up with this very topic is in his PhD, which he got from Harvard, which you can get a copy of if you look around and poke around in the right corners. I’ve read it cover to cover. It’s absolutely fascinating. He’s coming out with a really massive academic distillation of this person’s life, that is, Rav Yaakov Emden. Yaakov Emden, who died in 1776, speaking of the founding fathers, Rav Yaakov Emden was a fascinating personality who’s probably most well-known for his major dispute with Rav Yonasan Eybeschutz over his alleged Sabbatean connections, of being a covert follower of Shabtai Tzvi. But what really makes him so fascinating is the memoir that he published called Megilat Sefer.

In that memoir, it is so absolutely jaw-dropping what he writes about himself. The self-disclosure, the stories he shares about himself, which frankly, nowadays in contemporary times, I can’t imagine a rabbi sharing those things. I can’t imagine any religious figure, educator. I mean, this is not things that would be shared publicly. He was for sure criticized for, many people said the whole thing must be a forgery. But I thought his work on the life of Rav Yaakov Emden is actually a really important lens to approach this topic, because it really highlights the authenticity needed to share of self-disclosure, of sharing of yourself, in the public sphere. That’s something that always resonated with me. I, for sure without a doubt, overshare in the public sphere, and I do it for a reason. Meaning, I think some of these stories, self-disclosure is very important. It can really animate and help inspire other people.

When you share stories about your own struggles, whether it’s with, who knows, mental health, your family issues, whatever it is. But sometimes, if you share too much, it could end up sensationalizing and taking away from the real substance of the point that you’re making. I don’t know if I thread the needle correctly. I likely do not. But I do know that a template for this kind of raw self-disclosure, uncensored self-disclosure, is Rav Yaakov Emden. So much of his life intersects with this cancel culture. He definitely tried to cancel Rav Yonasan Eybeschutz, I think for good reason. But he also was so open about his own life, and didn’t censor a bit of his own failures and difficulties that would not make it into any contemporary, frum, published work. There’s no chance his memoir would be published in real-time. Not a chance in the universe.

I really think that his work and his life helped reorient, in many ways, the binary that we see when we look at, let’s call it, on one hand, history, the proper preservation of history, and the other hand, Jewish memory might include, I don’t know, some works of ArtScroll, your average contemporary frum book. Usually we look at this binary that it’s the ArtScroll books that are there for inspiration, there for memory, and history. That’s this raw, academic, cold-hearted look at what actually happened. I think what Rabbi Schacter has done, and I think broader, what we’ve tried to do on this topic, is not just reverse, but show how this binary of memory and history, it’s not always so rigid, in the sense that very often, the stories that we preserve in memory have very important implications for our histor. Whether it’s an ArtScroll biography that you’re reading for its incredible historical ideas, or from the fact that we chose to preserve this story even if it doesn’t align with historical record, analyzing and understanding, why did we continue to tell this story? They don’t tell these stories about you and me. So why, in fact, did this story get preserved? Why did this story continue? I think there’s a historical question that can emerge from Jewish memory.

On the flip side, what you see from Rabbi Schacter, and he does this incredibly throughout his work, is the inspiration that can emerge from Jewish history. I have always been a big proponent of this. Even if it’s written in very dense academic, in a PhD, in some peer-reviewed article. I find Jewish history, proper academic Jewish history, incredibly inspiring, with all of its warts, with all of its difficulties, with all the questions that it still preserves about the figures and personalities and incidents that we may be familiar with only through Jewish memory. But Jewish history can be incredibly, not just edifying, but uplifting and inspiring.

I think that we do not need to be afraid of the historical record. I would say the exact opposite. We can be inspired by the historical record. That a nation with so many difficulties, with so many failures, with so many setbacks, continues to persevere and continues to preserve its own story. The miraculous historical record of that story is nothing short of inspiring. I would encourage all of our listeners to immerse yourself in Jewish history, because it’s a story like no other. That’s why I am so excited for my conversation with Rabbi Dr. JJ Schacter.

Welcome, all, to the 18Forty podcast. Today is a special treat, where we are sitting with my mentor, friend of sorts, Rabbi Dr. JJ Schacter.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

It’s a pleasure to be here Rav David, thank you.

David Bashevkin:

It really does mean a great deal to me personally for you to be here. I want you to know, I printed this out beforehand, before we got started. I printed something out. I wrote this a very long time ago. I used to write an article for Mishpacha Magazine that collected these top fives of humor. These humorous columns, top five Shabbos dips, top five honorary Jewish products that Jews love, sushi. So on erev Purim a few years ago, I wrote top five top fives Mishpacha will not let me publish. And one of those is top five stuff that get yeshiva guys into Jewish studies. On that list, number three was your article that hopefully we’ll talk a little bit about today, Facing the Truths of History.

But before we get started with that, I really want to frame what our discussion is about, which is, we’re talking about cancel culture and censorship. The way that, in a Jewish community, in a religious community, or in any community, how do we create those boundaries and those values that both strengthen the community, but also allow us, in some ways, to connect to previous generations whose own values may have been different than our own.

So I guess I would begin with the following aspect of this question. And that is, we’re seeing a lot of attention recently to the monuments, whether civil war leaders or the founding fathers. We see people taking down these monuments. I’m wondering, from within our own community, very often, the leaders from previous generations, there are aspects of their lives that don’t cohere with the values that we try to cultivate and emphasize in our community. So I’d begin with the question of, what do you think our approach should be to the conversation of, when the values of previous generations don’t cohere with the values that we have now?

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

So just like you had a hakdama, I would like to have a hakdama. And my hakdama is, Rav David Bashevkin, I must tell you that it is for me a great great honor to be able to have this conversation with you. To be able to, as it were, appear on your broadcast. I consider you to be one of the wisest, smartest, most original, and creative thinkers who is in our community. You are making an incredible name for yourself, both in terms of your Torah shebaal peh and your Torah shebichsav. You wrote recently a great book, and not only do you write great books, but this particular podcast has catapulted you into the firmament of great Jewish interest and respect. I was born way too early to do the kind of things that you do. You’re amazing, your online presence. So ashrecha, Hakadosh Baruch Hu should give you incredible strength to continue your great work.

So I’m a little bit mystified, actually, by your question, and maybe you could sharpen it a little bit. When you talk about the previous generation’s reflecting values that don’t cohere so much with our own, I’m not sure what you mean. Ours is a mesorah. Ours is based on previous generations. We take our cues from previous generations, not just from what they wrote, but from the way they behaved. We’re talking about our own families, and we’re talking about our rebbeim, and we’re talking about people whose works we read and about whose lives we read. I’m trying to figure out what it is, particularly, if you can give me an example, of some kind of a value that no longer is relevant or substantive today. That would be helpful.

David Bashevkin:

That’s very fair of you. So it’s part of the reason why I wanted to talk specifically with you. And that is, you wrote an article well over a decade ago, I believe, that went through the letters of Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, known as the Seridei Eish, that he wrote to a friend of his, Dr. Samuel Atlas, who was a Reform rabbi. And the letters opened up a part of who he was that was self-disclosed. Some of his frustrations, reservations, with that very tradition that you’re talking about. And you wrote an article going through, back and forth, and I believe, and maybe you can take me through if I don’t have the facts right, there was a little bit of pushback. There was a little bit of criticism of you sharing the letters.

Now some of that may have been because the letters were private and weren’t meant to be published, but you followed up that initial article with a much longer article called Facing the Truths of History, where you spoke about how, one example that I think you started off with was, there’s an ArtScroll book, which I thought was absolutely wonderful, called My Uncle the Netziv, that was about the great Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin, the Netziv. In that ArtScroll biography, there were parts in there that people felt didn’t say, or didn’t transmit the aspect of history or the values that we would find in the present day Orthodox Judaism, 2021, or that didn’t embody the values that we have now. Sometimes we depict leaders of previous generations, maybe what they were involved in, reading newspapers, or whatever it is, that areas or segments of the community may find displeasing, or doesn’t necessarily reflect the values that they fought so hard to cultivate. That’s where I’m coming from. That’s why we’re sitting here today, in a way.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

I understand that. Let me just first begin with a few words of clarification. That particular article was not written by me. It was written by Marc Shapiro, who submitted it to the Torah U-Madda Journal volume seven. I was the editor of the journal.

David Bashevkin:

Yes, I had my facts wrong. That’s my mistake.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

I allowed it to be published. I asked Dr. Norman Lamm at that time, zichrono livracha, and I asked someone else whose opinion I greatly respect, whether I should publish it, and both of them very strongly encouraged me to publish it, and so I accepted professor Marc Shapiro’s article, and I published it. And yes, you’re right that there was significant pushback, primarily because they were private, and maybe I was being over a cherem of Rabbeinu Gershom not to publish private letters. And I felt bad about having done something that maybe, in fact, in retrospect, I should not have done. In particular, Rabbi Avraham Weingort, who was a very close beloved talmud of Rabbi Weinberg, was upset, and wrote me a long letter that I published in the subsequent issue of the Torah U-Madda Journal.

And because I was so taken by this, I decided to devote an enormous amount of energy, as you pointed out, to write this 80 page article called Facing the Truths of History. Now this had already been on my mind. I guess you could say that this is a notion that I think about a lot. I had published two articles before then. In fact, the article that you’re referencing, the issue about My Uncle, the Netziv, is in the second issue of the Torah U-Madda Journal, that’s a separate standalone article on the closing of the yeshiva in Volozhin. And I got to that because the Lakewood Cheder had sent out an English translation of parts of My Uncle, the Netziv, parts of the Mekor Baruch, of the Torah Temima, who was a nephew of the Netziv. And in this English translation, which was a fairly accurate English translation, noted that the Netziv read newspapers on Shabbos, and there was a shtickle secular studies that was going on in Volozhin.

And I read it, and… Very nice. I didn’t read it carefully. I’m on the mailing list of many tzedakos, baruch Hashem, I try to support as many tzedakos as I can, and the Lakewood Cheder, certainly worthy of support. And then I got a letter from the Lakewood Cheder recalling the book, and saying, chatanu, we made a mistake. And at that point I first pulled it out and I read it. [inaudible], then I first was me’ayin in the book and I read it very carefully. And I realized here that in a sense, it is relevant to your question, and in a sense it’s not. Because they were upset about things and values that they perceive of differently today. Namely, secular studies is inappropriate. How can you say the Netziv read newspapers bichlal, how can you say he read newspapers on Shabbos?

It’s a whole discussion, but I felt that that’s not in opposition to what I consider to be an appropriate value. I consider engagement with secular studies as an appropriate value. And so for me, I’m the rabbi. For me, I have now a tanya dimesaya, that [inaudible] the Netziv was a Zionist. That was also something that was of concern to them. And I wrote this article to set the record straight. That in fact, there is no question that there was secular studies in Volozhin. Volozhin did not close because the Russian government wanted to introduce secular studies.

David Bashevkin:

Which is one of those great truths that –

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

I’m very close with my brother-in-law Rav Beryl Weisbord, who’s the mashgiach in Ner Yisroel. I spent a lot of time in Ner Yisroel.

David Bashevkin:

As did I.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

As did you. So we’re fellow travelers in that way. And Rabbi Neuberger, who just was recently niftar, when he saw me he said to me, oy, you’ve just undermined the 14th ikkur. The 14th principle of the Rambam. That the yeshiva of Volozhin was closed because the Russian government wanted to introduce secular studies. Impossible, we’re going to close rather the whole Yeshiva than to have secular studies. So it’s not true. There was secular studies going on and I proved it. The issue was that the Russian government wanted there should secular studies six hours a day, and the yeshiva should only be open during the daylight. So in the winter time, by the time six hours are done, it’s nighttime. The yeshiva has to close. It became impossible to run a yeshiva with those kinds of requirements. So that was really what the issue was. I think what I was focusing on was, let’s see what the truth is. Another ikkur that I dealt with in a previous article many years before was, there is a mesorah about nebuch the 93 Bais Yaakov girls in Krakow who committed suicide in the forties rather than fall into Nazi hands. That also has been pretty much shown as fact.

So it’s been pretty much accepted, and certainly in the Bais Yaakov community, that that was fact. And I analyze that very carefully, and I came to the conclusion that I believe that it’s a myth. I even am suspicious as to who introduced that myth. I have a name.

David Bashevkin:

These are each incidents in a much larger question. The larger question is, how should historical truths be preserved?

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

Historical truth needs to be preserved absolutely, because it happened. And because it happened, it needs to be preserved. And we need to know about it. And even things that are unpleasant, we need to know about it. We can be very uncomfortable. We can be very sad. We live our lives very differently. They don’t reflect the values that we have today. But it’s part of the historical record, and therefore it needs to be there. What we do with it is something else. That was the key thesis of my article Facing the Truths of History. The fact is, things happen. The fact is that there were secular studies in Volozhin, lemashal. Now it doesn’t mean that therefore it’s a precedent that every yeshiva has to have secular studies. It doesn’t mean that at all. We’ll come back to, I hope at some point later on, when I was severely attacked by one of my roshei yeshiva for having written something in that article about the fact that Mr. Mendlowitz, the velt called him Mr. Mendlowitz –

David Bashevkin:

I grew up with him being called Mr. Mendlowitz –

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

I feel better, because my father was also a talmid of his when he was in high school, in Torah Vodaas, and they called him Mr. Mendlowitz, which is fascinating. So Rabbi Shraga Feivel wanted to start a college, because he didn’t want the boys to go to Brooklyn college. And there was a consortium of different yeshivas in Brooklyn that under his tutelage, and one of my roshei yeshiva, who got very, very upset and publicly excoriated me, talk about cancel culture. It was my most intense, difficult experience with this. And the point that I make is, the truth is that he wanted to do that. Now, does that mean that every yeshiva should have secular studies? Does that mean that every boy should go and leave the beis midrash to go study secular studies? Absolutely not. But the fact that it was is important for it to be on record and known. And especially because that itself is a subject of so much discussion today and so much disagreement.

David Bashevkin:

I almost want to pause, because there are two things that I want to unpack. One is a little bit more personal to you, which is how you reacted, whether it was your rosh yeshiva at the time. I don’t have as storied of a career, even close. It’s not even a shadow of a shadow of what you’ve accomplished. But I’ve had times where I’ve made mistakes. I think anybody’s made mistakes. When I share something, even that I believe in, or I find constructive, and people who I admire are very vocal in their criticism of me, I fall apart. I’m finished. So I want to know, when you get a letter from the Seridei Eish, from Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, who this article from Marc Shapiro, you’re a hundred percent correct, published in your journal. Or you get –

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

The letter was from a talmid because he was already niftar.

David Bashevkin:

Correct. Or you get excoriated by roshei yeshiva. What do you do? Someone was asking –

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

I have to discuss it with my therapist and then figure out a way. I, like you, have a thin skin, and I don’t react well to criticism. And I try to construct my life to avoid criticism. But when I have it, and I believe that I am justified, then it’s a different feel for me. There’s a difference between what I wrote in that article and a mistake. It was not a mistake. It was emes l’amita, which means it was absolute truth. So when I make a mistake, and I have to admit it, I’ve had examples in my rabbinate, and talmidim of mine who are rabbis, have made mistakes. In my case, I don’t remember making a major conceptual mistake. I remember vividly making mistakes in terms of ben adam l’chavero, interpersonal comments that I made that were not nice, and that I should not have said, and I said them publicly, and there were people present. And both times, I remember two times, once in my very early career in Sharon, Massachusetts, and then at the Jewish center where I was for a long time, I publicly, even in front of more people who heard the original misspeaking of mine… “Kol hamevaze es chavero berabim tzarich lefayso berabim.” Somebody who embarrasses someone in public needs to try to pacify them in public. So I –

David Bashevkin:

Were you being accused of embarrassing someone, or were you the one embarrassed?

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

No. I felt that I had embarrassed somebody inappropriately. That person felt badly, and that person was right. When I embarrassed that person publicly, there were two circumstances that I recall vividly. I felt badly. I had charata. I regretted what I did, and I publicly apologized. But in a case like this, I felt really bad. I’ll be happy to tell you the whole story, and it might be of interest to at least the segment of your listeners.

So I published this article in the Torah U-Madda journal called Facing the Truths of History, it came out in 1999, and it included a list of examples where the truth of history had been obfuscated, where there had been certain things that were censored, or recalled, or statements that were said that later on were regretted in writing, and in fact denied. And one of them was that Rav Shraga Feivel wanted to start a college. So it was, I think, around the year 2000, at the Agudah convention, Rav Elya Svei, my rosh yeshiva, I learned in Yeshiva Philadelphia –

David Bashevkin:

That was before or after Torah Vodaas?

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

It was before. I was in Philly for five years and I was in the Mir in Yerushalayim for a year and a half, two years. And then I went to Torah Vodaas. So I was with Rav Elya for five years. I got there when I was 12 years old. I left when I was 17. And at this Agudah convention, I got a call Motzai Shabbos. I was in New York. I remember vividly from a very wonderful friend of mine, Rav Shlomo Gottesman, who lives on the Upper West Side, who’s the editor of Yeshurun. He’s done incredible work. And we’ve had a warm relationship, even though I was a rabbi of the so-called modernishe Jewish center, but we had warm relationships. We used to call them the shtiebel community on the Upper West Side. And Rav Shlomo was very, very gracious. A year or two before, the second issue of Yeshurun, he called me and he said, “I want to publish you in Yeshurun. Give me something.” So I gave him something that I was working on and he published it. It was just such a…

David Bashevkin:

In which issue of Yeshurun are you in?

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

Volume two. It was one of the –

David Bashevkin:

I have that entire volume. There’s another article in there from a Ner Yisroel rebbe that I absolutely love. Rav Nachum [inaudible].

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

So the fact that I could be in that same volume with Rav Nachum is unbelievable. So he was very kind and very sweet and very gracious. So he calls me motzai Shabbos. The phone rings. He’s from the Agudah convention. He says, I think Rav Elya is going after you, because he asked for a copy of the Torah U-Madda Journal volume eight. So Rav Shlomo Gottesman is holding in the deep –

David Bashevkin:

And it’s nice to have a friend who can –

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

So where’s Rav Elya going to get the Torah U-Madda Journal volume eight? So somehow the word got to Rav Shlomo Gottesman. Somehow, he or someone delivers volume eight to Rav Elya, it’s motzai Shabbos at the Agudah convention, he’s going to go after you. He’s very upset about what you wrote about Rav Shraga Feivel and the college. So I was already very uncomfortable. You talked before about how you feel when you get criticized. I need Rav Elya to go after me? And this was the year after he called Dr. Lamb a sonei Hashem.

So what’s going on here? I was very upset. I called Rav Beryl Weisbord, who’s at the Agudah convention. And I said to him, do me a favor, maybe you can get to Reb Elya and just try to make it go away. What’s the point? What is he going to try to do? So he waited, found out his room number and the hotel. He stood in front of his room. Reb Elya walked out ready to go to the… This is 3000, 4000 people. This is the main –

And Reb Elya opens the door. He sidles up to Reb Elya. But Reb Elya was absolutely insistent, he said you have to make a protest. And sure enough, at the convention, in front of 3,500 people, he said that somebody wrote that Reb Shraga Feivel wanted to start a college. He didn’t mention my name, but he says, “I’m embarrassed that he studied by us in high school.” He forgot that I stayed a year in beis midrash after high school. Reb Elya Svei said about me, “I’m embarrassed to say that he was my talmid, he was in my yeshiva.” And he, and he goes, he hauls off on me. Those days they didn’t have a hookup, a live feed that I could hear.

David Bashevkin:

With the donor scrolling at the bottom.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

So immediately thereafter, my brother-in-law calls me. He said to me, “JJ, it could have been worse.” That was the hakdama, it could have been worse? He said what he said, but I felt terrible. Cancel culture, I mean he mamish went after me. And I felt terrible, not just for me, but I felt terrible for him. Because what he said, and the criticism that he leveled at me, had he turned the page, it was right in the article. He never read the Torah U-Madda Journal. Somebody got upset, somebody somewhere, and figured, who aside from Reb Elya to go after somebody. After all, last year he also went after somebody. So I’m going to stick it to him, and he’s going to go after him. But it was embarrassing, cause then the next day, I said exactly what he said, namely, just because Rav Shraga Feivel did this, it doesn’t mean that everybody has to do it. He did it. That’s a fact. He denied that he did it.

One day I’m in the office, and the editor of Yated calls me. He said, “Rabbi Schacter, what do you want to do? Do you have a statement?” I said to him, “Reb Pinny, bury it. Just bury it, forget about it. Never happened. It’s not good for me. And as far as your concerned, more significant, it’s not good for Reb Elya. It’s not right. Turn the page.” And he buried it. I subscribed to the Yated, and I eagerly waited to get it. Long five page review of what happened at the Agudah convention. It comes to Reb Elya’s speech. It never happened. Skips it over, nothing, didn’t say a word about it. Just forgot that whole thing. And I called him and I thanked him. That’s not the end of the story.

In 2002, I was already by then living in Boston, and I got invited before Pesach to speak at the University of Pennsylvania Hillel about Pesach. So I flew down from Boston to Philadelphia. I’m going to Philadelphia. So my rosh yeshiva. Five years of my life. It’s Philadelphia. I had a lot of respect for Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky. I called him up and I said, “I got invited by the Penn Hillel to come. I’m coming to Philadelphia, I’d like to see the rosh yeshiva. Maybe the rosh yeshiva can make five minutes for me. I’d like to come back to the yeshiva.” “Absolutely. By all means, feel free. Please come, it would be a pleasure. Come after mincha, we’ll daven mincha in the yeshiva and then we’ll go to my office.” I came to the yeshiva. First of all, it was very different than it was 40 years later from when I was there.

David Bashevkin:

Much bigger?

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

It was bigger and there were new buildings, it was a whole different… Still kind of low key, but the tzur was different. I find his office. I come, I got there a few minutes before him. He comes in, he walks right over to me. He takes my two hands in his two hands. He kisses me on the right cheek. He kisses me on the left cheek. He looks into my eyes and he says, “I’m sorry.”

David Bashevkin:

Really?

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

“I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. You should know Reb Elya wasn’t…” I said, “Reb Shmuel, please, stop. Stop. The rosh yeshiva may end up saying things that he’s uncomfortable with.” I always spoke to him in third person. I didn’t need him to tell me that Reb Elya wasn’t well…

David Bashevkin:

Yeah. Let him live with that pristine –

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

Oh no. He knew. He knew very well. But why is he, I’m a Talmud. I’m a former Talmud. I didn’t want him to say things that… And he was ready to explain the apology. I said, “Stop. I get it. I appreciate it.” That meant a lot to me that he said that. And it was a sad experience for me. It was a very difficult and sad experience for me. I don’t do well with criticism, especially not from one of the great gedolei yisrael, although what he had done the previous year was inappropriate. And I believe that was the last Agudath convention that Reb Elya spoke in the plenary motzai Shabbos session. I believe, I’m not a hundred percent sure.

David Bashevkin:

When you retell that, for me, my heart sinks, because I’ve had criticized, cause I’m afraid to bring in my own personal, I do that too often. But I remember the first academic article I ever wrote was for this sefarim blog, was for the 110th yahrtzeit of Reb Tzadok. And I sent the article in advance to my rebbe from Ner Yisroel. And I remember he sent me back a very terse email saying, I can’t read any further because he cited to me a passage in the Talmud that said you can’t read certain texts. Because I had quoted from the New Testament. Because Reb Tzadok wrote something that came from, he admits himself, came from non-Jewish sources. And it was a one-liner, I can’t read any further.

There’s something about having a role model who tells you that the values that you’re presenting, which are… The reason why we do this is to inspire and to uplift the Jewish people and Jewish ideas. And to hear that from a mentor, there’s nothing quite as painful. And I’m wondering for you, when you think back at your time at Philly, I’m so moved that you reached out to Reb Shmuel to have some reconciliation. What else do you do to protect yourself? You said, “I’m careful not to take too many risks.” You don’t like the criticism. So are there other ways that you protect yourself or reinforce yourself following the criticism?

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

Yeah. I mean, I don’t know how personal you want me to be or how more detached do you want me to be. I have a feeling it’s not really about me, but this conversation is about ideas. It’s not about me personally. So I’m happy to share with you personal, but I don’t know to what extent that would be of interest or that would be worth the time of your listeners to find out more about me.

David Bashevkin:

I think it would be of interest, but maybe we’ll come back to it, because I want to come back to that foundational question that we ended off with. Aside from how you personally react to criticism, that foundational question of preserving history, but not everything from history needs to become a part of our pedagogy.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.

David Bashevkin:

Where should history live then? Meaning, if we have something that was acceptable, or was done, or was done differently, clearly historical record shows it, shouldn’t that be exactly how we teach, and shouldn’t that be exactly the values that we translate into our practice and ideas and observance?

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

Just because something happened, that doesn’t mean that it should be a precedent. Just because some event occurred, that doesn’t mean that it is cloaked in the aura of respectability and the value that it needs to be continued in future generations. Somebody does something inappropriate, so we need to know about it, but that doesn’t mean that it serves as any precedent for us necessarily. Just because it happened, doesn’t mean that I should follow it.

David Bashevkin:

Meaning, there was a controversy, and it’s always interesting to me, because I feel like your negotiation with the role of history, the role of self-disclosure, the role of the way the record should be transposed into our practice, I really think it began before. If I may be a scholar of your scholarship, I think in many ways it began before Torah U-Maddah Journal, before Facing the Truths of History. I think it began with your foundational PhD on Rav Yaakov Emden. And the reason why I think those are connected is because Rav Yaakov Emden, whose life is absolutely fascinating, your PhD is one of the earliest PhDs I ever read from cover to cover. It’s a page-turner. Though we need to update the fonts, but it’s coming out as a book. It’s all typewriter, you typed it on a typewriter?

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

Somebody else typed it for me, it’s 792 pages.

David Bashevkin:

You wrote it out…

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

I wrote it out by hand.

David Bashevkin:

Still have those…?

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

No, I don’t.

David Bashevkin:

It’s an unbelievable page-turner. But there are two things that are fascinating about Rav Yaakov Emden. One is, he self-disclosed a great deal. He wrote a memoir that, you are now publishing an academic annotated version of the memoir called Megilat Sefer. And that memoir, it’s a contemporary term called oversharing, but he shares quite a bit. It’s almost jaw-dropping. You could just search for certain words in your PhD and you’ll fall out of your chair.

But secondly, he was involved in one of the major crises of rabbinic authority, namely his pursuit of heresy of the leading rabbi at the time, Rav Yonasan Eybeschutz, and accused him of being a closeted heretic for Shabtai Tzvi, which was the false Messiah of the 17th century. And this caused a great crisis in rabbinic authority. And I think it also raises this question of, what part of history should we teach? Is that a piece of history that we don’t even have a way to reconcile it? Or you have one of the leading rabbis of all time who was being accused of being a closeted heretic. You have another rabbi, the subject of your PhD, Rav Yaakov Emden, who we hold in extraordinarily high esteem. It’s like squaring the circle. How do you tell this story? How do you share the story without undermining the very fabric of rabbinic authority?

And to me, this relates to this larger question of when history itself, the record, undermines the contemporary rhythm of the way that we maybe mythologize the way previous generations were, or we project contemporary values onto the past. So in focusing on that PhD, I’m curious. Were you concerned about pushback about sharing the aspects of his life in particular, what he discloses in his memoir, struggles that he had in his personal life? And even a broader question: the very fight between Rav Yaakov Emden and Rav Yonasan Eybeschutz, which if told at all is kind of this stand still, this large question mark, were you concerned, or did anybody concern about sharing this part of history is going to have these detrimental effects on the way, the pristineness with which we’re able to look at Jewish history?

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

So I’d like to separate out these two issues. One, the issue of the implications of the Emden and Eybeschutz controversy, and second of all, the reality of the self-revelation and the extraordinary openness that he evinces in his so-called autobiography, Megilat Sefer. I see them as related, but I’d like to treat them separately. There’s no question that the Emden Eybeschutz controversy led to a significant diminution of rabbinic authority at a very crucial moment in the early modern Jewish history. This is now a time when the haskalah, or enlightenment, is beginning to gain tremendous traction. This is a time when Moses Mendelssohn is very much alive and playing a very major role in the community.

He had a fascinating correspondence with Rabbi Yaakov Emden, and modernity is now beginning to enter significantly into the Jewish world. And with modernity comes the notion of personal autonomy, comes a notion of a neutral society where Jews and Gentiles can interact with one another. There’s clearly a diminution of the fervor of the mesorah of traditional Jewish life. Traditional Jewish life is now under siege. And it isn’t to this space where two rabbis, really not so much Reb Yonasan, but the talmidim of Rabbi Yonasan, Reb Yaakov Emden, as you point out, accuses probably the greatest rabbi of the generation, in a generation that boasted incredibly great rabbis, of being a heretic. And there’s no bones about it. And puts him in cherem. And then the students of Rabbi Eybeschutz put Rabbi Yaakov Emden in cherem and excommunicate him. And then all the followers are being excommunicated. When I teach this to my students, I tell them, if you weren’t excommunicated, you were embarrassed, because it means you were a nobody. It doesn’t matter. He, I don’t have to excommunicate him. So they’re all, me, me, me, what about me? I want to be in cherem, because I have to be a somebody. And there’s no question, when rabbis are putting each other in cherem and excommunicating, it was terrible.

Now in terms of the merits of this, I really don’t know. There’s no question that the scholarly consensus is that whatever this means, and it requires careful discussion, and I think here is where the issue really needs to be worked through carefully, is that there was some Sabbatean something, according to the regnant academic perspective, in Rabbi Yonasan, based on things that he wrote. The traditional community totally rejects that. Reb Yonasan, how could it be? It’s not shayach, it’s impossible. And it’s really a complicated question. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t know enough about Kabbalah to be able to determine whether or not Reb Yonasan was or wasn’t. I don’t know. I just don’t know.

As far as I’m concerned for Reb Yaakov Emden, the only issue is, did Reb Yaakov Emden have grounds to think that Rabbi Yonasan was? Not was he, but did he have reason to believe? And I think that he did have reason to believe. Whether that translates into whether he was or wasn’t, I don’t know. How do you teach this? You teach it because what it does is, it tells us that Jewish history has always been subject of great debates and great fights and tremendous conflict and tremendous controversy. I’ve actually been interested in this aspect. Not very long ago, I taught my students about an argument that happened in Poland, in the 17th century, where one side scratches crosses on the shtender of the rabbi of the other side in the beis midrash. So this is long before Reb Yaakov Emden or Reb Yonasan Eybeschutz.

There are some really hard, harsh fights that go on. My assumption is that it’s all leshem shamayim, each one felt very strongly. There’s no doubt in my mind that Reb Yaakov Emden did this because he was really saving Judaism, because he really felt that Reb Yonasan was a potential danger. A real danger precisely because he was so great. So it teaches us that we’ve always had debates and discussions. There is no pristine. There is no pure. There is no, everybody loves each other and we’re all kumbaya in the beis midrash.

David Bashevkin:

But did anybody push back? Again, I know this is in your personal biography, but you received this dissertation from Harvard. I assume this was after you were in Yeshiva. Did any of your mentors or people –

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

No, no, no. I didn’t get any reaction to my dissertation that was negative. In my introduction to my thank yous, I thanked Reb Elya Svei. I think it’s probably the only time his name was mentioned in a Harvard PhD. And Reb Shmuel Kamenetsky. And Reb Chaim Shmuelevitz from the Mir. And Reb Chaim [inaudible] who I learned with when I was in the Mir. I felt that they made me who I was to enable me to embark on this study, which required a significant knowledge of rabbinic texts, in order to deal with somebody like Reb Yakkov Emden. But I didn’t get any pushback.

I’m now coming out, as you mentioned, with a new edition of his autobiography, and I suspect I’ll be getting some pushback. Somebody recently, not so recently, a couple of years ago, a rabbi in Monsey published an entire book claiming, a 200+ page book, a whole book, hard covered, claiming that Megilat Sefer is a forgery, because it’s impossible that Reb Yaakov Emden could have been so self-revelatory, he could have said things about others the way he said. So I suspect that the people who subscribed to that position are going to be uncomfortable. But I have no doubt that he wrote it. I have parallels, other writings of his.

David Bashevkin:

One thing where you see a little bit of your confidence and not your…

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

Yeah, I’ve devoted a lot of time to this. It’s a very important document. And Rav Aviner, a very famous rabbi in Israel, wrote an article about Megilat Sefer, and he was full of praises. He said, “Wow, it’s amazing.” He says, “Every gadol biyisrael has a yetzer hara. Every gadol biyisrael has struggles. And look what Rav Yaakov Emden was able to accomplish given what he had to deal with. And on the contrary,” he says, “that makes him even greater. The fact that he shares – ”

David Bashevkin:

To humanize –

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

It makes him human, and because he makes him human, and real. And don’t kid yourself, he says, others also have this. He’s not the only one, but he says it. He grapples with it. And he is Reb Yaakov Emden, he wrote 35 sefarim, commented on every genre of rabbinic creativity. For him, for Rabbi Aviner, raises the level of respect for Rabbi Emden. And I resonate with that. I see that. I appreciate that. I’ll tell you another story that I think about often. I taught Megilat Sefer in various places. And he writes in his book that on his wedding night, he was unable to consummate his marriage. He writes it twice, and it’s quite striking. What did you say, oversharing?

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, that was the part –

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

So that’s… And I wrote it, and I teach it to my talmidim. And two, three years later, one of my former students comes to my office, knocks on the door. He comes in, oh, I hadn’t seen him in a while. He said, “Can I close the door?” So you’re a teacher, when the student comes in, especially today, even for male students, we don’t close doors. And it’s rare. And if he says, can I close? Even then, you know, like close the door. I said ok. He said to me, “You have no idea how that was so relevant to me, because you were talking about me.”

David Bashevkin:

Wow.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

“And I promised my wife I would not tell you this until we would have our first child.” It gave me such chizzuk. Reb Yaakov Emden. Do you know Reb Yaakov Emden had 20 children? He had 20 children from three wives. Sad, beyond sad. 16 of his 20 children predeceased him.

David Bashevkin:

Wow.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

When he was nifter there were four of his children who were alive. Reb Yaakov Emden had this challenge. This young man said to me, “You saved me.” So that is really, it’s amazing. You never know, you fake it, it’s embarrassing. Who needs that? My grandchildren say, TMI Zaydie. TMI, TMI.

David Bashevkin:

Too much information.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

Too much information. And here, I did such a chessed. Reb Yaakov Emden did such a chessed. So you never know, you never know. I grapple with this, Reb David. I really do. I grapple with this. I try to devote my life to make Judaism meaningful, and to make Judaism resonate, and to defend and support the mesorah. And we’re living in very difficult and challenging times, and we’ve got to appreciate the greatness that we have. And I think that when I involve myself in these things, it’s with a great deal of thought. It’s not a simple thing for me to do. But I have concluded that it is a worthwhile endeavor. History is history. History needs to be understood and appreciated. Not necessarily followed. What was good then may not be good now. Maybe they were wrong. I mean, I’ll give you another example, if I may.

David Bashevkin:

Please.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

The chashmonaim. So last I checked, it wasn’t that long ago, we had a whole holiday.

David Bashevkin:

The Chanukah story.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

The Chanukah story. Turns out it’s not so simple. The Rambam speaks highly about the chashmonaim [inaudible]. The Ramban, at the end of Bereishis, was very upset about the chashmonaim. The arrogated kingship, on the verse “lo yasu shevet miYehuda,” that the scepter shall not depart from Judah, in the blessings of Yaakov to his children. In commenting on that verse the Ramban goes to town on the chashmonaim. What do you mean? They were kohanim. You were not from the tribe of Judah. What right did you have to arrogate onto yourself kingship? And it’s not only there, it’s in a few other places in his commentary. So here you have an example of where the Ramban, Nachmanides, very substantial Jewish authority, says that they did a terrible thing. Terrible thing. And yet they’re somehow in the galaxy of people, of movements, events, that have merited a celebration within the –

David Bashevkin:

Chanukah. My first, my kindergarten play first grade was about the Chanukah story. I was desperate to be one of the chashmonaim, because they got swords. In kindergarten you had a toy sword in a play. Could you imagine?

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

So, did you get it?

David Bashevkin:

I did not get that part. No.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

So I give you many brachos that you carry the sword of Jewish tradition and of wisdom and of knowledge so elegantly, now that you, more than –

David Bashevkin:

Oh thank you so much.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

For the sword that you missed out from kindergarten.

David Bashevkin:

But explain to me, this is something very real. Should we be concerned? I mean, this is ancient Jewish history.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

Yes.

David Bashevkin:

This story of the chashmonaim, which is not really preserved in the lived values of most people in Chanukah time, most people in their lighting Chanukah candles and having a party, they’re not going through the proper historical place of the chashmonaim. So where does that story, where should that story live?

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

You’re raising a very important question, because in Jewish tradition, the narrative, the regnant narrative of the Chanukah story, is the pach shemen, is lighting the light. It’s not the military victory. The Gemara says in Tractate Shabbos, mai Chanukah, it tells a story about there was only enough to last one night and it lasted – And there’s nothing in there about the military, virtually nothing about the military victory. In the al hanisim, which is recited during bentching and in the shemoneh esrei, there is [inaudible], that God was able to give the Jews the capacity to overcome them in a battle. So there we do see. But you’re right.

And the question is why? Why is it that chashmonaim are overlooked in subsequent Jewish history? And there’s all kinds of scholarship about that, but what place it should have? It should have a place, should definitely have a place. And we recite it as part of our liturgy. But yet, you wouldn’t get the sense from the Ramban. They are examples of one big historical error. So, it’s a monument. Do you tear down the monument? Well, we haven’t torn down the monument, we don’t act in accordance with that monument, but we haven’t torn down the monument. On the contrary, we made a holiday, sort of deflected it away from them, but still it involves them. And this is a real serious issue.

David Bashevkin:

Let me ask you, and we can come back to anything that you think we may have missed in this broader historical question. I wanted to move from the history and this incident with the Seridei Eish, which I found absolutely fascinating, and this then earlier story of your immersion in the life of Rav Yaakov Emden. I want to come back to that personal question, which is that you were a rav of a congregation. You are a mentor to countless rabbis throughout the country. And there’s always this concern now, I think even more than ever, that you’re going to say the wrong thing. That you’re going to, so to speak, get canceled. Which is a very real part of any values-driven community, that you are going to speak out of turn. So, how do you model for yourself, and what advice do you give your congregants? On the one hand, the values of authenticity, how you really live your life behind closed doors, and on the other hand, being this communal role model, and being able to be this exemplar of aspirations that your congregants hope to be one day?

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

I think we should separate out personal comportment and public statements about the issues of current events. The way one lives one’s life bechadrei chadarim, in the privacy of their own home and family, hopefully is ethical and upstanding and pious and moral and honest. And it’s the same in public. There is no difference. The rabbi, or any Jew, any human being, “tocho kebaro dbaro ketocho,” that there’s a seamless connection between the integrity of their personal lives and their public lives. And the rabbi models that very much so.

The issue that you raise comes into a play very significantly. And you’re right, it’s been much, much harder more recently. Especially in the reactions to the previous administration, and the one before that one. And now, even to some extent in the current one. Whatever you say in the realm of a public statement about an issue will be criticized. There’s no question. Because sitting in your shul, or my rabbinical students, and they’re not so much students anymore, they’re colleagues, they all know there’s no monolithic hashkafa or perspective. Whether you’re in favor of this or opposed to this, they have different positions in the shul.

Even on the issue of Israel. There are different positions in the shul on the issue of Israel, the centrality of Israel. Now, in the liberal community, my friends tell me that Israel is the third rail of the contemporary Jewish community, which makes me cry. It’s less so, but it’s not kulam hodu vihimlichu viamru, that it’s all one perspective. So whatever you say, you’re going to be open for criticism. So, what I tell my students are, first of all, your bal habatim know as much as you know about what’s going on in the world around them. In fact, probably some of them know more than you know, because they’ve read more. Some of them may even be political analysts. When I was in the Jewish center, I had a room full of, a shul full of very sophisticated leaders of the American Jewish community. They knew a lot more about what was going on than I did. And in many shuls that’s the case. So what’s your value at it? So your value at it is Torah.

So you need to frame the discussion around the context of Torah. And you ultimately need to land somewhere, because you don’t want to just be theoretical, and you need to be careful that you would be prepared to stand by how you land, knowing that some people will think it was the greatest speech ever, and some people will be motivated maybe to drop their membership from the shul. So it’s a cheshbon that you need to make. So I would tell them to leave the politics to the very end, and try to say what you want to say with great respect, and recognize that no matter what you’re going to say, you’re going to be criticized. And be prepared for it, and therefore end up saying things that you’re prepared to respond to.

David Bashevkin:

Before we get to our rapid fire questions, I wanted to close with a more general question, which is, you began your education soaking up that world of the yeshiva, and then you stepped into the world of higher education, getting a dissertation from Harvard, and going on and teaching. And you’re in circles that are far away from that earlier upbringing, and you’re probably exposed to historical truths that may have either been overlooked, or softened, or explained differently than in your prime education as a formative child, and teenager, and young adult. How do you reconcile that core sense of commitment to Jewish tradition and Jewish life, as we have it in front of us, with the messier, uglier, complex histories that emerge in the world of history, of academic proper study of history?

How do those two co-exist? I think a lot of people, and I was warned this, are afraid of history. Because it’s so challenging. It’s so complicated if you start to see how observance in life was different than it is now. So how do you remain anchored, at least to my eyes, in that early tradition of the Yeshiva while being immersed in that world of historical academic studies?

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

I very much appreciate your question, because my early many years in traditional yeshiva education have indelibly left a very strong imprint on me, and have very much impacted my life and my interests. But I’ll say two things. One is that one need not go to the university to be aware of the messiness of Jewish history. Though there are the fights between chassidim and misnagdim in the early days, some of the issues that I had mentioned to you before about scratching a cross in the shtender, in the times of Reb Yaakov Emden and Reb Yonasan Eybeschutz, the brawls got so strong that they threw shtenders at each other in the main beis midrash, in Altona and Hamburg, the different sides. They would throw stones on a body by the beis hakvaros. They would stone a coffin, because the halacha is you have to throw stones at somebody who’s a heretic.

So I don’t have to go to Harvard to know that there are major, major debates. So that’s one thing. It’s not like these are the product of an academic perspective. These are part of the world of Jewish history in general, even without a more sophisticated exposure to historical knowledge. And second of all, I would say that you’re touching on something really interesting to me. When I was in, I graduated from Brooklyn College and got semicha from Torah Vodaas at the same time. And I was going to go into Jewish history. So my main role model was professor David Berger, who I had the incredible good fortune of studying under in Brooklyn College.

David Bashevkin:

Really? You were a student of –

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

I’m a talmid muvhak of David Burger’s. He taught every, ancient Jewish history, medieval Jewish history –

David Bashevkin:

Was he fairly young then?

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

He was very young then. This is 19 –

David Bashevkin:

I took a class of his too.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

Good. So we’re in the same league. 1968, 1969, 1970. He was a recently minted PhD from Columbia. He had a full-time job teaching, he taught two nights a week in Brooklyn College from 6:25 to 10:40. Three periods, one after another.

David Bashevkin:

PM?

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

  1. The only time we stopped at 10:35 was when the Mets were in the world series. So then yes, he’s like a –

David Bashevkin:

That comes out of the closet.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

That comes out. So then he would give us five minutes and he turned on the radio because he wanted to chap 5 minutes. But otherwise, till 20 to 11, 2 nights a week. And he’s a seriously pious Jew. And he taught me Jewish history. So my earliest exposure to Jewish history, the first time I ever heard of the Emden-Eybeschutz controversy, was in his classroom. And I was struggling. Now I’m going to share a little bit personally. I had a very difficult adjustment, because I had spent five years in Philly and two years in the Mir, and then I came back to New York. And I went to Torah Vodaas, and I started to go to Brooklyn College, and I was thrown by a whole world that I really had no serious exposure to. My parents were Modern Orthodox, so I had some exposure, but in terms of my ikkur yenika, my major exposure as a young adult in my formative years was in the world, in the olam hayeshiva, in the world of the yeshiva.

And I didn’t know what I was going to do. And here, Hashem, God was so good to me that he introduced me to Professor Berger. And in class, in Brooklyn College, surrounded by girls, which was like, oh my God, I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself.

David Bashevkin:

First time in a co-educational setting?

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

First time in a co-educational setting ever. He’s talking about the Ramban, he’s talking about the Rashba, he’s talking about Reb Yaakov Emden, he’s talking about the Rambam, he’s talking about the Nodeh BeYehuda, and I said, oh, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to be able to merge my academic, secular, university training with my Torah. Because, you see, it’s all one. So that was very easy for me. Then I have to go to graduate school. I want to go to graduate school. Which graduate school? So I got accepted, baruch Hashem, and I chose to go to Harvard. Why? Because the head of the Harvard department, is a chassidishe rebbe by the name of Isador Twerski. And when we got to Harvard, Professor Twerski said, what we do here is from the geonim until the 18th century. In other programs, you have to do Bible, you have to do Talmud. So that to me is where the rubber hits the road. That’s where it really gets –

David Bashevkin:

That’s a whole separate –

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

Biblical criticism, and Talmudic. So Professor Twerski said, that’s not my business and that’s not your business. And I don’t know, I never asked him, but I suspect because he just wanted to avoid where I think your question really sits, and that is the inevitable tension between Torah Min Hashamayim and critical biblical studies. And there’s more and more going on today to try to figure this out. You’ve probably had four podcasts already about it.

David Bashevkin:

One of them doesn’t exist anymore, but we had a few.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

Oh you cancel-cultured it. You got rid of it. Okay. So.

David Bashevkin:

I thought you’d mention that.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

So you see how complex it is. So to answer your question, I had it pretty easy.

David Bashevkin:

But would you tell your students to avoid that stuff?

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

I would tell my students there’s enough going on from the geonim until the early modern period for you to insert yourself in. Although, I have become myself, I’m going to say it, use the word “curious,” because I am open, and I don’t want to close myself off. So I’m dabbling a little bit, to try to figure out a way how to find my place in that world. But I’m an old man. I didn’t do it, and I didn’t have to do it when I was younger. So for me it was relatively easy. I don’t want to call it a cop-out, but I had a maysa raa for a cop-out. My teacher also said I don’t have to know that.

David Bashevkin:

Professor Twerski, wow.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

Professor Twerski, yeah. And here is, I studied with Professor Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi.

David Bashevkin:

He was in Harvard at the time?

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

He was in Harvard at the time, gave me my doctoral exams. Professor Twerski went away. I was very, very close with him. But Professor Twerski was sort of the chairman of the department, and –

David Bashevkin:

But his whole founding, I mean, Yerushalmi, to our listeners who aren’t familiar, wrote this book called Zakhor, which is about how the Jewish community preserves history versus memory, which kind of gets to the center of here. How do we preserve values in a close community? Both can coexist, but I guess what’s happening inside of our schools, for large part, is not history driven. It’s more memories, values driven.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

Yeah. His point is that what drove the Jewish experience was memory and not history. But I think it’s important, and I think that there’s a lot to learn from it. And I think that at the end of the day, what’s most important is to try to maintain our fealty to the tradition, to be able to pass it on to our children and our grandchildren. Im yirtzeh Hashem by you.

David Bashevkin:

Amen.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

And also to our students. I commend you again. I want to end where I began –

David Bashevkin:

Wait until the rapid fire questions.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

Oh we’re not ending yet?

David Bashevkin:

Here, let’s do the three quick, rapid-fire questions. I always ask my guests these questions. What’s a book or article you would recommend for people to consider more about this world, of how we balance historical truth with the values-driven education that we have inside of the community?

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

I don’t know of a single book or article that deals with that challenge. My Facing the Truths of History grapples with it. Marc Shapiro, I mentioned his name earlier, wrote a book not very long ago, also [inaudible]. And I think it’s a matter of thinking about it oneself and trying to come to some conclusions. I don’t have a particular…

David Bashevkin:

If somebody, and this is always a tricky question for somebody who’s in the middle of writing a book, but if somebody gave you a great deal of money to take off, as long as you needed, to write a book from scratch, or go back to school and get another PhD, what do you think the subject of that book would be?

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

Here again, I feel a little bit awkward, because I have two more books on my mind that I’m planning on working on.

David Bashevkin:

Could you whisper what –

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

I’ll be happy to share with you. Right now I’m finishing this sefer of Reb Yaakov Emden. I also am finishing a commentary on the slichos for Koren publication.

David Bashevkin:

Wow.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

They asked me to write a commentary, and I’m 99% done. So that’s im yirtzeh Hashem soon going to be off my desk. I’ve been teaching on tisha ba’av as you may know for decades, and I have maybe 25 feet worth of material, papers and articles and some of my own handouts. And I have maybe 60, 70 hours of tapes. We don’t say tapes anymore.

David Bashevkin:

We don’t say tapes anymore. But I’ll give you a pass this time. We’re surrounded by technology. Honestly, simpler days when you would just plunk the –

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

Push the recordings. So I hope to write that up.

David Bashevkin:

I always ask the question, I know you’re not taking suggestions. I hope you want, and there’s probably a long footnote in your Megilat Sefer book. You write up the course that you used to give on autobiography. I’m sure a lot of that trickled its way in there, but I wasn’t in that course, but I have the sources, and it was just absolutely fascinating. My final question I always ask guests is, what time do you go to sleep, and what time do you wake up in the morning?

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

Why is that relevant?

David Bashevkin:

It’s not relevant to any of our listeners but me. I’m a terrible sleeper, and I just seek out to know the routines.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

There is no routine. Ein seder lemishna is also a seder. In other words, I have no routine. Sometimes earlier, sometimes later.

David Bashevkin:

What’s an early night? What’s a late night? Give me –

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

Average night is 11ish. And getting up, because I have a lot on my head, I generally get up 6, 6:30. Sometimes I sleep a little bit later. I generally do not set the alarm clock for shacharis because I’m pretty much up. And I try to maximize my day. I’m very conscious of the passage of time. I had a significant birthday relatively recently and I thank God every day, literally every day, to be in a position to be productive. In our family, we had two devastating losses from COVID, our mechuten and our sister-in-law, Dr. Aviva Weisbord. It was devastating, and continues to be devastating. And in that order, they died. And I’m working around, and I’m very conscious. So I try to maximize my time, and that’s really the most important thing. And to appreciate the world that Hashem gave us.

David Bashevkin:

Rabbi Schacter, what an absolute honor, privilege, and pleasure speaking with you today. It really means great deal to me.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter:

It was my pleasure.

David Bashevkin:

So I am going to be honest with you. I didn’t get his permission to share this, but I will share it with you now. And that is, Rabbi Schacter was hesitant about sharing the interview as is. He asked me afterwards, what are people going to get from this? It is so personal, like these stories that I’m telling here, it’s not going through the academic scholarship that he’s published on in writing. This is a much more personal insight into what he went through of all of these different ways that his scholarship has intersected. Whether it was the story of him potentially getting canceled, or the difficulty of sharing certain historical records or ideas, correcting the historical record. And he was rightfully hesitant that this is extraordinarily personal. So what are our listeners going to get from these very personal, non-scholarly stories? And I think the answer is exactly about this intersection between Jewish memory and Jewish history.

I think that the personal component of this is really that the stories that we choose to preserve, the stories that we choose to learn, the stories that we choose to connect to, ultimately are the building blocks of our own self-conception, and our own way in which we look at our Jewish identity. And it’s important to realize that whatever PhDs, books, articles, whatever you are reading, these are all building blocks to your own personal self-conception and commitment to where you fit into the larger Jewish story, and where your own commitment fits into that larger Jewish story. And I think Rabbi Schacter is an incredible example of somebody who is deeply immersed in the academic scholarly historical record, but through his own story and journey, has found this really remarkable way to incorporate into his own personal religious identity, not in a cynical way, not in a way of tearing down the way he views previous generations, but actually taking the historical record and transforming it as a foundation to uplift and inspire his own personal identity. And I hope all of our listeners are as inspired as I was from this conversation.

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