The Teacher

Jack Schlachter

JACK SHLACHTER WENT FROM SCIENCE CLASS BOY WONDER to Caltech to Los Alamos. A straight line. Then, one day, he walked into a synagogue because he was lonely. And he became a rabbi.

I went to Jack’s Talmud class, where he focuses on the etymology of each word. He is a meticulous, modest, and patient teacher.

He also doesn’t believe that the Torah’s words came from Moses or God. In fact, he is skeptical about whether there is a God. Rather, he believes that Jews are united by experiences, tradition, and genealogy. And he is capable of amazing eloquence and compassion, especially when people need him most.

He’s a scientist, a rabbi, and a skeptic. And he is good with that.

Rabbi and scientist is an odd combination.

From the age of four, I think I wanted to be a scientist. I was interested in the stars, in telescopes, in astronomy. By the time I was going to school, Sputnik had been launched, and there was a general fear that the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union in science. So people were really encouraged to go into science.

I made my own six-inch mirror for my telescope when I was about 12 and learned Fortran when I was 10 or 11.

I decided to go to Caltech in Pasadena, the finest scientific institution in the country. I remember that when I finished my thesis defense, the committee debated for 10 minutes and said, We accept your thesis for a PhD. That was a Friday afternoon, and on Monday, I was a staff scientist at Los Alamos.

But I didn’t know anybody when I showed up, and I thought there are worse ways to meet people than at synagogue. So that’s the other part of my life.

I always say that – like every other Jewish boy of my era – the last I had to do with Judaism was three minutes after my Bar Mitzvah ceremony. But there was

more to Judaism than what I rejected at 13.

It wasn’t until I was at Los Alamos that I realized Judaism and science were not incompatible – they just deal with different things. Physics has us look at the world and try to understand why things work the way they do. Judaism deals with how to interact with people. How to live in a society is not a physics question.

Soon, I became interested in becoming a rabbi. The Los Alamos Jewish Center invited me to come spend a weekend at the synagogue in Los Alamos.

I asked the rabbi if he would take me on as a student. I already had an established career as a scientist at the lab, so terminating that career to go to a seminary didn’t look like a viable option. He said, I’m moving to New Mexico, and I’ll be willing to take you on as a student.

About a year later, he moved out to northern New Mexico, outside of Cuba – a place called La Jara. It’s like six goats and a chicken shack. But that’s what he wanted to do – live and write in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico.

And what is a rabbi, actually? It’s just a teacher?

What’s beautiful about Judaism is that every adult Jew has the same access to responsibilities and privileges as every other adult Jew. Rabbi means nothing.

A rabbi is just somebody who has gained certain skills and is committed to sharing that with others, just like any other adult who happens to have those skills.

Rabbi used to be a hands-on chain of transmission from Moses to Joshua to the elders. What we call ordination in English, in Hebrew is semikhah. And what is semikhah? It’s putting your hands on somebody because that’s how Moses transmitted his authority to Joshua. But there is no unbroken chain of transmission anymore.

Was there a time when you became a believer?

When people say believer, the word God is lurking there somewhere. I am a skeptic by training; I’m a physicist. I question everything. I’m not a believer as such.

What that means is I don’t take the text literally; I’m not bound by saying the Torah is the literal word of God. And I’m not bound by any definition of God that somebody else may have come up with.

I have the freedom – and I believe Judaism is unique in this regard – to say, How can we tell you what to believe? Why would anybody know any better than you?

The big questions: Why are we here? What happens after we die? Is there something that is more than just chance that operates in the universe? Nobody has the answers to those questions, in my mind. Why would one individual be in a position to say You have to believe this? It just makes no sense.



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