Reviewing: “Reason to Believe: Rational Explanations of Orthodox Jewish Faith,” by Rabbi Chaim Jachter. Menorah Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem. Hardcover, 249 pages, 2017. ISBN-13: 978-1-940516-71-4.
In Rabbi Chaim Jachter’s recently released and meticulously footnoted book, “Reason to Believe: Rational Explanations of Orthodox Jewish Faith,” we learn that one of God’s most effective methods of assisting the Jews in wartime is to bring fear and confusion upon our enemies. We have seen several instances of this in our own learning. In Shoftim, Chapter 4, Sisera was “confounded by God” and fled on foot from Barak, who had Divine help from Devorah. Barak had 10,000 men, but Sisera had 900 iron chariots. Barak also went down from Mount Tabor to begin the fight, indicating that Sisera should have seen the men coming without armor. No matter; Sisera left his men and fled on foot, leaving his soldiers, in chariots stuck in the mud, without a leader. Not one of Sisera’s men survived.
Similarly, during the Six-Day War, by the numbers, Israelis should have been at a distinct disadvantage. They had 275,000 troops, compared to the 456,000 soldiers of the combined Iraqi, Syrian, Jordanian and Egyptian armies. In just one of multiple examples that Rabbi Jachter shares, the Six-Day War saw the Egyptians, the Jordanians and the Syrians committing all manner of communications blunders. For example, while a Jordanian radar facility detected an unusually large number of aircraft heading toward the sea and immediately sent a coded emergency message to Jordan military headquarters, the message was coded to the previous day’s codes when sent on to Egypt’s defense minister in Cairo, and it was therefore not decoded and read by the Egyptians. As a result, without any warning to the Egyptians, who had anti-aircraft ammunition at the ready, the IAF obliterated six Egyptian airfields with their aircraft all out in the open—destroying 204 Egyptian planes, fully half of Egypt’s air force.
Highlighting moments in history where God’s hand is apparent is but one of the many methods Rabbi Jachter uses to bring awareness to God’s machinations in our world and strengthen our belief in Him. Bringing in theories from science, archeology and philosophy that connect to Tanach, Jachter ensures that there is something that all different types of thinkers can grasp. Through a series of five well-organized chapters, and bringing in copious sources, he coordinates and anchors a philosophical view of the questions and struggles that often plague Jews living in the modern world.
There are certain types of thinkers who will benefit more than others from this book. Those of us who study Tanach regularly and have our eyes open to the miracles brought about by God, as well as those who study Medinat Yisrael and see the miracles that brought our country into existence, are sure to enjoy Rabbi Jachter’s book and find that it bolsters our belief systems.
However, Rabbi Jachter himself clarified that he is another kind of thinker. He sees miracles first in our world and then looks to sources to investigate and understand them.
Whatever kind of thinkers we are (and there are many types, we learn) or however we arrive at our belief systems, the major takeaway of the book is that one who chooses to see God sees God. “Ultimately, God leaves it for us to choose. It should be a choice; otherwise it’s not a relationship,” Rabbi Jachter told The Jewish Link.
For other types of believers living among us, who work to co-exist and reconcile their concept of God with other types of rationalist belief system, this is a useful book. However, a more important audience for the book, possibly, are those who struggle to believe in God and have a strong belief in secularism or materialism. Rabbi Jachter maintains that even if one does not “believe,” the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle is still the best possible lifestyle and belief system for mankind.
It is also particularly important to note that Rabbi Jachter writes from within a community that is both comfortable in its religious skin and also deeply involved with secular culture, particularly in regard to the workplace. He is a Teaneck resident, an instructor at Torah Academy of Bergen County and the rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Orah. “There is a dearth of literature that addresses emunah from a non-haredi perspective. This is written from a ‘Teaneck Orthodox’ perspective,” Rabbi Jachter said. “We have ‘Permission to Receive’ and ‘Permission to Believe,’ [by Lawrence Keleman] but I believe this addresses issues much more broadly.”
Also a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth, a get administrator and an expert in eruvin, Rabbi Jachter’s books generally combine Halacha, lifestyle and the search for meaning within the two. In this book, Rabbi Jachter provides a reasoned response to the ontological struggles people face today through a variety of approaches. These struggles include philosophical and moral struggles; the humanistic and moral questions we face when we are commanded to destroy Amalek; and whether we actually can have free choice of belief if we also have “irrefutable” proofs of God’s existence.
One of the most powerful proofs, Rabbi Jachter explains, is the very survival of the Jewish people. Quoting the Aruch HaShulchan, he writes, “The only reason for our survival is because of Hashem’s providence that is not removed from us even for a moment, like a father who watches over his only child and chastises him for the latter’s benefit.” Also, the classic question of “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or the more personal version of that question, “Why did that bad thing happen to me?” is answered with depth and sensitivity.
Rabbi Jachter explains that while God performs miracles every day, the hidden miracle is preferable to the revealed or overt miracle, which generally requires a violation of the laws of nature, like the splitting of the Red Sea. “Hashem prefers hidden miracles because they require people to invest in His discovery, and this enables a legitimate relationship to blossom between humans and their God,” he writes. However, God can and does use overt miracles when necessary. One of the examples Rabbi Jachter uses is Sarah’s laughter when she is told that she will give birth to a child within a year. Sarah spent her entire youth childless, and it was not until the age of 90 that she gave birth. Accordingly, what could have been a hidden miracle thus turned into an overt miracle, considering her extreme postmenopausal state. God uses this instance to introduce the concept of rebirth or revival of the dead (techiyat metim) for the birth of Yitzchak, a baby born from a womb that was revived, to show that “the Jewish nation was created in a manner of techiyat metim, so that the Jewish people would carry the ability to renew themselves when all seems hopeless and forgotten,” Rabbi Jachter writes.
The life of Job, which is commonly served up as an explanation for suffering or for why God tests people’s faith, is also addressed in the book’s final chapter, which is arguably both the most complex and the most astounding, in both complexity and ideological gymnastics. Rabbi Jachter brings up a wide range of explanations for both Job’s suffering and the suffering of his wife, who believed, fallaciously, that one worships Hashem exclusively for the reward.
Rabbi Jachter concludes with Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s explanation of the Book of Job, noting the Rav’s perspective that Hashem seeks to teach Job about suffering after establishing that a human being cannot fully comprehend Divine will. Our sages “instruct us to avoid engaging in the fruitless exercise of trying to determine why Hashem sent us afflictions... instead we should use the suffering as an opportunity for introspection and spiritual improvement,” Rabbi Jachter writes.
Bringing in his experience as a dayan, Rabbi Jachter addresses one of the modern challenges that causes intense suffering to many, that rabbanim thus make great attempts to eradicate, a topic that “weighs heavily on those involved with personal status, such as get administrators,” that of the status of mamzerim (illegitimate children). He concludes his discussion on the topic with words that Rabbi Steven Weil summarized from the Rav: “The Rav followed the rabbinic traditions of his grandfather, Rav Chaim, who believed in striving for leniency based on the personal needs of the inquirer. However, even Rav Chaim’s skills had limits. When you reach the boundary of Halacha beyond which you dare not pass, you must say: ‘I surrender to the will of the Almighty.’”
The final chapter wraps up with a powerful section that discusses arguments in favor of a Torah lifestyle. One notable story contrasts an observant and a secular Jew who had just received their in-flight meals on a plane. The secular man mockingly offered to trade his meal for the less-appetizing kosher one, saying that he knew the other couldn’t eat non-kosher food. Smiling, the observant man replied that he could eat non-kosher; he simply chose not to. He asked the secular man if he could do the same, to which the man replied sheepishly that he “cannot not eat it.” Rabbi Jachter explains that this illustrates how the Torah enables us to achieve a unique mastery over ourselves that is both fulfilling and empowering. In a secular culture that celebrates indulgence as liberating, it is important to remind ourselves that true freedom does not come from doing whatever we want; it comes from becoming masters over ourselves, instead of “a pitiable slave to [our] biological urges.”
This conclusion is but one of many ways that Rabbi Jachter strives to imbue his fellow Jews with a sense of appreciation and pride for their faith and identity. In a world that values so much of what we deem trivial and coldly dismisses too much of what we hold dear, “Reason to Believe” gives a rational explanation why many of us believe, choose to believe or, in some cases, live a Torah lifestyle even if we don’t believe. Rabbi Jachter writes: “Orthodox Jewish belief is far from antiquated. In fact, modern times offer new reasons to affirm the traditional belief system of the Jewish people. We hope that readers of all backgrounds will find many opportunities to set forth in this work to deepen their level of belief and commitment to God and the Jewish people.”
The authors would like to thank Tani Greengart for his enlightening first reading of the book.
By Elizabeth Kratz and Rachel Retter