Jack Shechter has had two careers in his lifetime and performed very well in both of them. He was a pulpit rabbi in Pittsburgh, where he made his congregation one of the most vital in the country; he then went on to become the Dean of the Whizin Center of Continuing Education at the American Jewish University, where he made that school one of the most successful centers of adult education in the country.
Now, in his retirement years, Shechter has taken on two more projects. One is working with his hands, making exquisite ritual objects out of scraps and trinkets. And the other is working with his mind and seeing the spiritual potential in rituals that no one else would pay attention to.
Friends have told me that they have seen Shechter walk into a store, notice a butter dish for sale and see a spice box waiting to be born. People tell of having seen him walk into a store and see nine wineglasses for sale and realize that if they were turned upside down they would make lovely candle holders for a menorah.
Shechter’s latest book, “In Search of Religiosity in Religion,” testifies that what he does with his hands, he also does with his mind. Shechter wanders among the neglected parts of the Jewish tradition, seeing the potential spiritual truths that lie hidden within these rituals and practices.
Cynics have often maligned the rituals of the Jewish tradition as being outmoded and irrelevant. But Shechter goes through some of these neglected rituals and finds there are profound potential spiritual meanings hidden within them — if only we take a look.
Where did Rabbi Shechter derive this awareness of the holiness hidden within the mundane? I suspect that it came to him in his childhood, when he lived among pious people who had no interest in anthropology or in comparative religion, but who knew what it means to serve the Lord in joy.
In this book, Shechter sometimes writes in the style of a participant-observer or social scientist, but it is clear that he is really a person who writes from the soul as well as from the mind. For example, the first chapter deals with six words that we all know — the Shema. For many of us, it means rattling off six words that we know by heart but seldom stop to think about. Shechter asks: is that really all that it means?
It is clear that Shechter is really a person who writes from the soul as well as from the mind.
Specifically, Shechter notes that the Shema means to declare oneself a believer in the One True God — but is that really all that it means? He says that to say the Shema means to affirm the unity of the universe, declare the unity of mankind and affirm the unity of all morality — but is that really all that it means?
Rabbi Shechter discusses each of these affirmations, and he explains them very well, but it seems that these affirmations are only abstract and theoretical for him. Beneath them all, he states, is his childhood memory of the pious who closed their eyes as they meditated on God, who was, for them, above and beyond words.
The book contains more essays that deal with, for example, the meaning of the Grace after Meals, the Kaddish and the Amen through the eyes of Jewish thinkers and through the souls of those who observed these rituals. He analyzes the meaning of the Jewish dietary laws, the meaning of the Havdalah, the laws of forgiveness, and even the meaning of the mikveh. The book includes a fascinating report on a field trip to the headquarters of the Lubavitcher movement in New York and a report on how he learned that even a coke bottle can be turned into a sacred object.
The last essay in this collection deals with Jewish unity. Despite the topic — which lends itself to other oxymorons such as “military intelligence,” “postal service” and “jumbo shrimp” — Shechter takes this concept seriously. He raises three examples of how mutual respect and dignified debate have occurred in Jewish life in ways that surprise us and make us realize that some values transcend our individual beliefs. The first example we know — or think we know. The second and the third probably will surprise us all.
The first example is the story of the House of Hillel and the House of Shamai. The Talmud records that these two groups disagreed with each other in matters of Jewish Law no less than three hundred and fourteen times! And yet, the Talmud says that they ate with each other, observed holidays with each other and even married their children to each other. These two groups surely cared about Jewish law, and yet they were able to unite because they both believed that mutual respect transcended their disagreements.
Rabbi Shechter’s second example is the relationship between Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. Buber was Rosenzweig’s mentor, but the two differed sharply on many issues, including the binding nature of Jewish Law and the content of divine revelation. At one point, Rosenzweig wrote to Buber, setting forth the differences between them on these issues. Most people would have reacted with anger at such a letter. But Buber did not do that. Instead, he asked Rosenzweig for permission to publish his letter in his magazine, Der Jude. Whatever you think of Buber’s philosophy, you have to be impressed with this act of respect and his willingness to put the search for ultimate truth above his personal pride.
Shechter’s third example about unity is perhaps the most surprising of them all. It is about the relationship between the two most important Jewish thinkers of the last century, Mordecai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Kaplan was actually the one who was most instrumental in bringing Heschel to the Jewish Theological Seminary. During the years that they were together there, they were good friends despite being worlds apart in their philosophies. And it was Kaplan who first introduced Heschel to the English reading public by publishing his meditation on faith in his own periodical.
In reading this last chapter of Shechter’s book, we come away surprised and impressed at how great spiritual leaders of the past and present were able to maintain the unity of the Jewish people by placing the search for ultimate meaning over their own personal egos. And we realize that Jewish unity is more of a reality than we thought it was.
“In Search of Religiosity in Religion” is a book in which subjects we thought we knew are seen in a whole new perspective. This is a book to treasure for the new light that it sheds on parts of the Jewish tradition that we had not sufficiently appreciated before.
In Search of the Religiosity in Religion: Sacred Thought, Sacred Action Revisited
by Jack Shechter, Oaks Press, Thousand Oaks, Ca. 2020, 383 pages
Rabbi Jack Riemer is the author of two new books: “Finding God in Unexpected Places” and “The Day I Met Father Jacob at the Supermarket.”