TORONTO — Almost 40 years after being ordained by a haredi yeshiva, a leading modern Orthodox rabbi says he is still very much in contact with the haredi world and that recent reports of marginalization of women by that community are “a reflection of militancy on the part of a very tiny minority that I don’t believe represents the true values of the world in which they were raised.”
Rabbi Jacob Schacter – the senior scholar at the Center for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University, often described as the flagship institution of modern Orthodoxy – said it’s “outrageous” that “a very tiny minority of very sick and disturbed people” are harassing little girls for attire they describe as immodest.
As well, he disagreed strongly with recent moves in the haredi community in Israel to force women to sit at the back of public buses and to prevent them from speaking at funerals and conferences.
“I think it’s important for us to be able to benefit from the wisdom of all people… [If not,] we lose out,” said Rabbi Schacter in a Friday afternoon interview Jan. 28 at Shaarei Shomayim Congregation, where he would speak that night and the following day as part of the synagogue’s “Great Weekend” series.
In a Saturday evening talk on “The Challenge of Choice: Living as a Jew in the 21st Century,” the rabbi said that religious observance does not have to come at the expense of individuality.
In the interview, he said that as a modern Orthodox Jew, he is “deeply rooted in the tradition and committed wholeheartedly to the observance of mitzvot.” At the same time, he said he finds “tremendous value in the best of the culture of the world around us that I want to access and also feel an obligation to contribute to.”
Since his 1973 ordination from Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, Rabbi Schacter said one of the biggest changes he’s seen in Orthodox Judaism is “a growing segment of the community being more assertively halachic and traditional in behaviour.”
Such a change is positive “to the extent to which it results in a greater commitment to the study of Torah and religious observance,” but negative “to the extent to which it leads to the marginalization and rejection of those who don’t agree with that perspective.”
Rabbi Schacter said that YU is home to multiple perspectives. “I see tremendous respect on the part of each of the constituents. I’m thrilled beyond words to be part of it.”
Before rejoining the YU faculty in 2005, Rabbi Schacter was dean of the Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik Institute in Brookline, Mass., which has since closed. In addition to smichah, he has a PhD in Jewish studies from Harvard University. He served as senior rabbi of the Jewish Center in New York from 1981 to 2000.
A proponent of interfaith and interdenominational dialogue, Rabbi Schacter teaches for the Wexner Foundation, which funds education of Jewish leaders. He taught one of its Toronto classes a decade ago.
The rabbi said he’s not convinced by the argument that one “gives legitimacy to someone else” through dialogue with them. “I think it’s very important for the Orthodox community to have a voice in the general Jewish community.”
However, he noted that when visiting a community he is not familiar with, he consults with a local Orthodox colleague if he is invited to participate in an interdenominational dialogue.
As well, he said, “we need to speak not only to each other but we need to have a voice in contemporary North American conversation about the values we believe are important for humanity.”