Rabbi Dr. Jacob Immanuel Schochet, a Chabad scholar and academic, and a preeminent defender of traditional Jewish belief, passed away on Shabbat, the 20th of Av 5773, July 27th 2013, following a long illness. He was 77.
As a congregational rabbi, professor of philosophy, and world-renowned lecturer and personal advisor, Schochet combined erudition and wit to influence and inspire generations of scholars, university students, and young Jewish men, women, teenagers and families from all walks of life.
Rabbi Schochet was born in Switzerland to Rabbi Dov Yehuda and Sarah Schochet. After the Second World War the family moved to the Hague, Holland, where Rabbi Dov Yehuda Schochet briefly served as chief rabbi, and in 1951 they relocated to Canada. From 1952 to 1959 he attended the central Chabad-Lubavitch Yeshiva, Tomchei Temimim, in New York.
It was there, as a young teenage student, that Schochet first developed a special relationship with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of righteous memory.
Then and in the following years, the Rebbe took a personal interest in the young scholar, and encouraged him to pursue his doctoral studies following rabbinic ordination. In later years Rebbe was, according to his son, “constantly urging and encouraging my father to write.”
A Prolific Scholar, Author and Translator
Rabbi Schochet began a long career as a translator and writer working on behalf of the Rebbe’s secretariat and for the central Chabad-Lubavitch publishing arm, Kehot Publication Society. Later he went on to produce authoritative English translations of such fundamental chassidic works as Tanya and Tzavaat Harivash, and various liturgical translations such as Selichot According to the Chabad Custom and the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Haggadah for Pesach With an Anthology of Reasons & Customs.
Although the Rebbe usually advised his followers not to study in secular universities, he made an exception in the case of Schochet. Following Schochet’s marriage to Mrs Jettie Schochet in 1961 the Rebbe encouraged him to achieve advanced degrees at a number of prestigious universities, including the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo. Schochet’s studies focused primarily on issues of logic, epistemology, ethics, and the philosophy of religion, and in 1974 his thesis The Psychological System of Maimonides earned him a PhD (Phil).
In 1959 Schochet became rabbi of the Kielcer Congregation in Toronto, and served in that capacity until 1996. Subsequently he served as the rabbi of Congregation Beth Joseph Lubavitch, in the same city. He served as professor of philosophy at Humber College in Toronto from 1971 to 1996; as professor of Jewish philosophy, law and mysticism at Maimonides College, Toronto from 1980 to 1990; and as adjunct professor of medical ethics at University of Toronto School of Medicine from 1983 to 1987.
Original works on Chassidic thought and history authored by Schochet include a biography of Rabbi DovBer, the Maggid of Mezritch, titled The Great Maggid (1974), Mystical Concepts in Chassidism (1979), and The Mystical Dimension (Three Vols. 1990). He has also produced critical Hebrew editions of the early chassidic texts Keter Shem Tov, Tzavaat Harivash, Maggid Devarav Leyaakovand Or Torah.
Ongoing Encouragement and Guidance
Many of these projects were undertaken at the express directive of the Rebbe, who continued to offer him close support and guidance for many years to come.
Yitzchak Schochet told of how in the mid-1980s his father was in New York and took the opportunity to receive a dollar and a blessing from the Rebbe for a book that he was completing. The Rebbe gave him a dollar, and then gave him a second dollar, saying “this is for the new book,” which Schochet clearly understood to mean that he should immediately get to work on a book about the Baal Shem Tov that he had not yet started.
A few weeks later Schochet was again in New York and went to receive a dollar and a blessing. The Rebbe again gave him a second dollar and said with a smile, “this is for the new book, and not just the new book that I mentioned three weeks ago!”
Impacted Thousands as Mentor, Adviser and Public Speaker
Schochet’s life was not only centered on writing, but on personally influencing young people who were looking for spiritual answers and solutions. Whether as a regular speaker at Shabbaton weekends in Crown Heights known as pegishas, which drew attendees from across North America, to the summer Ivy League Torah Studies program in the Catskill Mountains of New York, to lectures and one-on-one meetings in Toronto and throughout North America and further afield, Schochet influenced many young Jews to embrace and grow in their Judaism.
Beginning in the 1970s and 80s Schochet became well known for his skill as a public speaker and debater. A vocal defender of traditional Jewish beliefs, he issued an open invitation to any christian missionary who wished to compete with him in a public debate. His efforts to save Jews from missionaries and various other cult groups that were popular during that period met with great success, and his staunch defense of traditional beliefs inspired many individuals with the confidence to live the Torah way of life with pride.
Yitzchok Schochet recalls an incident that happened when he was nine years old. “My father was involved in helping a family from Toronto whose child was caught up in a cult,” said his son. “The family had brought in two very large men from Florida who were experienced in ‘the tougher aspects’ of releasing people held captive by cults.”
“I remember going out for donuts with my father and these men,” his son recalled, “and what struck me as a boy was how someone like my father, who I would hear communicating so effectively with rabbinic scholars, could have such a warm and down-to-earth relationship with everyone. It gave me something to aspire to.”
Rabbi Schochet strongly defended the traditional halachic position regarding conversion to Judaism, an issue of heated contention in recent decades, and in 1986 he published Who is a Jew?. In 1992 he published Mashiach: The Principle of Mashiach and the Messianic Era in Jewish Law and Tradition. In many ways, Schochet’s treatment of these two issues represented a definitive crystallization and elucidation of the positions espoused by the Rebbe, based upon the Shulchan Aruch and Maimonides’ code of law respectively. Between 1980 and 1987 Schochet also published a translation of the first four volumes of the Rebbe’s edited talks (Likkutei Sichot: An Anthology of Talks).
In the 1970s the Canadian Jewish News published a feature article on Rabbi Schochet, already a prominent member of Toronto’s rabbinic community.The reporter had joined Schochet as he raptly listened to a very late-night live radio broadcast of a talk by the Rebbe. The reporter spoke of Schochet’s extraordinary excitement throughout the lecture, occasionally exclaiming “Brilliant, brilliant!”
At the end of the broadcast, Schochet turned to the reporter and said: “It’s all in chassidus. The truth is all in chassidus!”
Over the course of the last few decades Rabbi Schochet became renowned as a prolific scholar with the unique ability to communicate complex ideas with the clarity and passion that makes them profoundly relevant. He lectured at the Chabad societies at the universities of Yale, UCLA, Berkeley, McGill, Oxford, London, Cape Town, Melbourne, and addressed communities throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe, Australia, South Africa, the Far East and Israel.
In recent years he was a frequent participant of the annual Sinai Scholars Academic Symposium organized by Chabad on Campus, and served on Chabad.org’s external rabbinic review board. Chabad.org is host to many lectures, essays, and even complete books by Rabbi Schochet, preserving them for posterity (click here to view).
Rabbi Schochet is survived by his wife, Rebbetzin Jettie Schochet and their children Mrs. Oryah Vogel (Wilmington, Del.); Rabbi Yitzchok Schochet (London, England); Mrs. Sharonne Zippel (Salt Lake City, Utah); R’ Yisroel Schochet (Los Angeles, Cal.); and by many grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Rabbi Schochet is also survived by his siblings, Mrs. Shulamis Bechhover (Queens, N.Y.); Rabbi Dovid Schochet (Toronto, Ontario); Mrs. Ruth Averbuch (Crown Heights, N.Y.); Rabbi Yosef Daniel Schochet (Toronto, Ontario); Rabbi Ezra Schochet (Los Angeles, Cal.); Mrs.Batya Wagner (Toronto, Ontario); Rabbi Gershon Elisha Schochet (Toronto, Ontario); Rabbi Meir Ovadia Schochet (Miami, Fla.); and Mrs.Amina Newman (Long Beach, Cal).
Memories and condolences can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org