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A Scholar and a Fighter
The life and legacy of Rav Immanuel Schochet, zt”l
abbi Dr. Immanuel Schochet, fierce defender of authentic Judaism, unique and prolific author and academic, and Canadian rav, passed away on Shabbos at the age of 77. One of the few Chabad chasidim who were encouraged by the Rebbe to pursue an advanced university degree, Rabbi Schochet used his towering expertise in the philosophy of Judaism and chasidus, as well as his razorsharp mind, to educate Jews about their faith and defend them from the danger of cults and Christian missionaries. Though he grew to be a deep explorer of Chabad thought, Rabbi Schochet’s family was not a Lubavitch one to begin with. His father, Rav Dov Yehuda was a rav in Basel, Switzerland, where Rabbi Immanuel was born, for 17 years. After the war, Rav Dov Yehuda served as the chief rabbi of The Hague and the adjacent regional towns, in the Netherlands. The Schochet family moved to Canada in the early 1950s. The family became close to the Lubavitch community in Toronto, and the young yeshivah bochur decided to go for one Shabbos to Crown Heights. He later recalled waiting outside Lubavitch World Headquarters to wish the relatively newly appointed Lubavitcher Rebbe a good Shabbos. “I followed the Rebbe into 770,” he later recalled. “When I came to the stairs, I saw that the door was open and it was the Rebbe holding the door open for me.” The meeting drew him close to the Rebbe. After receiving semichah from Tomchei Tmimim Lubavitch in 1958, Rabbi Schochet went on to attend university, following the advice of the Rebbe. He received a PhD in philosophy at McMaster University for his work, titled “The Psychological System of Maimonides.” He went
on to a distinguished secular academic career, alongside his deep study of Torah and chasidus. He taught as a professor of philosophy at Humber College in Toronto, Canada, and simultaneously taught medical ethics at the School of Medicine at the University of Toronto. At the same time, he served for close to four decades as the rav of the Kielcer Congregation in Toronto. He later became rav at the Beth Joseph Lubavitch. He also authored tens of volumes and meticulously worked on authenticating and republishing the volumes of Kesser Shem Tov and Torah Ohr, by the Baal Shem Tov and his successor the Maggid of Mezritch, respectively. He spent years comparing various versions of the texts and writing copious footnotes and appendices of the volumes that were published
by Kehot Publication Society. With the onslaught of cults and Christian missionaries in the 1970s, Rabbi Schochet used his logical outlook and knowledge of philosophy as an outspoken lecturer, and he engaged in confrontational debates with missionaries. His gift of deep thought was matched by his ability to connect with crowds. In one stirring lecture, he explained that some people examine the price of a Coke more than they examine their religious beliefs. “When you know that you could get a Coke for a dollar cheaper a few blocks down,” he said, “you would not let someone take advantage of you. ‘I will not pay the extra dollar,’ you would say. For a lousy dollar you don’t want to be considered a loser. When it comes to the foundation of your life,” he said, “you should not have
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Binyomin Lifshitz/Lubavitch Archives
By Dovid Zaklikowski
blind faith. You would not buy a Coke with blind faith, but you would sell your soul with blind faith?” He would tell non-observant crowds that they need to learn about Judaism before they think about other religions. He explained that Judaism is the only religion not based on the blind faith in one person saying that he had a conversation with G-d. “If there is no logical reason to believe,” he would say, “that is not faith, that is stupidity. The word for belief in Judaism is emunah, which has a specific meaning and translation, as it appears in the Book of Esther: ‘Vayehi omein es Hadassah.’ It means trained, which means analyzing. Judaism uses faith and belief, but doesn’t do so blindly.” He was a spirited and witty debater and once jokingly told a crowd of thousands that if anyone was the Messiah it was not someone named Yoshke. Rather it was as the verse in Yeshaya 7:14 says, that Moshiach’s name is Immanuel. His fight against missionaries was a groundbreaking one. Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, international director of Jews for Judaism, says that when he started over 30 years ago to counter the activities of missionaries, “Rabbi Schochet at the time was the only person who was countering them. He had an understanding of philosophy, of dealing with challenges to Judaism like not many others.” He says that Rabbi Schochet was not just knowledgeable, he was also very caring and personable to those he spoke to. “He did not flaunt his knowledge, and he could have lengthy conversations even with someone who intellectually was on a much lower caliber than him. I remember one time that we were travelling across the country. He happened to sit next to a person who was in a cult. He spoke to him the entire duration of the flight with such respect, as if this were his child. He knew how to adapt himself to the needs of the situation and the person sat there listening intently to all that he had to say.”
Rabbi Schochet would explain his attitude towards others by saying that ever since the Rebbe had held the door for him when he was a young bochur, he had learned to hold open doors for others. He said that that encounter had made him want to become a disciple of a Rebbe who was not only a great scholar, but also uniquely sensitive to others. He continued to fight for Judaism as new challenges arose. In the 1980s, when the issue of Who is a Jew? in regard to Israeli law became an issue of controversy for Diaspora Jewry, Rabbi Schochet used his talents and academic reputation to defend the Torah definition of a Jew, i.e., through matrilineal descent. Believing strongly in the need for Jews to base their statements on knowledge and solid mekoros, he penned a scholarly volume explaining to the public what makes a Jew a Jew. More recently, he publicly challenged the Kabbalah Centre cult, which Ami exposed in issue #15, stating that they are not a part of authentic Judaism. “What they teach is heresy,’’ Rabbi Schochet told The New York Times. “Just as the body cannot live without the soul, the soul cannot function without the body. All the kabbalists without exception emphasize that there has to be a preliminary commitment to Torah and halachah before one can engage in it.” He told another journalist that the Kabbalah Centre’s teachings are “rubbish. It’s phony, it’s manipulative, it has no spirituality whatsoever. It’s not related to the authentic kabbalah.” In 1993, the Kabbalah Centre threatened to sue Rabbi Schochet for $4.5 million for libel and slander. They eventually dropped the charges, realizing that they would most probably lose their case. Rabbi Schochet expended immense effort in his educational activities. “He was a fascinating man to work with,” says Rabbi Simcha Zirkind, of the Ezrat Israel Foundation, who did a TV
series on Judaism that Rabbi Schochet reviewed before it aired. “He meticulously reviewed the shows, caught minute details that needed to be corrected and did it in an unassuming way. Though he was a brilliant man, he did not feel that it was below his dignity to review material on basic Judaism.” His erudition and gifts meant that he had a special reputation within and without Chabad. “Those who knew him,” says Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, chairman of the ChabadLubavitch educational and social services divisions, “as I did, appreciated the breadth of his knowledge, which spanned many disciplines. An expert in Talmud, halachah, liturgy, chakirah, chasidus and kabbalah, his vast Torah knowledge complemented his erudition in the sciences and especially in philosophy.” Rabbi Krinsky says that the Rebbe, whom Rabbi Krinsky served as a secretary to for over four decades, “was particularly attentive to Rabbi Schochet, and spent considerable time with him in his private audiences. It was clear that the Rebbe recognized Rabbi Schochet’s rare abilities, and nurtured them over the years.” Just a little over three years ago, Rabbi Schochet was diagnosed with a deadly illness. Two years ago, their shul honored him and his rebbetzin. He told the crowd, “I am actually annoyed, embarrassed about how much more we could have done with the potential of which we are blessed. If this event will make all of us aware of that and inspire us to do more, it will be worthwhile.” Rabbi Krinsky says, “Rabbi Schochet’s passing represents a significant loss to the Jewish community. The Chabad community, particularly the scholars and teachers within Chabad and beyond, mourn the loss of Rabbi Schochet. He has made a substantial mark with his translations and editorial work, as well as his own original writings over the course of 50 years. With his passing, a light has gone out.”
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