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All in the family

As head of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Rabbi Asher Lopatin wants conversation amid controversy

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Rabbi Lopatin stands in front of maps highlighting placement of his alumni across the country.

When Rabbi Asher Lopatin moved from Chicago to the Riverdale section of the Bronx a year ago, he didn’t expect to find himself in the middle of a skirmish between a New York Times columnist and the mayor of New York.

In May, New York Times writer Michael Powell criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio for sitting by silently at a dinner for Agudath Israel as Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, leader of the ultra-Orthodox group, condemned other Jewish streams, including Reform and Conservative Judaism.

The mayor failed a “test of courage” with his silence, Mr. Powell wrote.

The New York Times, however, overlooked the true object of Rabbi Perlow’s ire: the liberal wing of Orthodoxy – often called open Orthodoxy – as exemplified by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. That’s the rabbinical seminary that Rabbi Lopatin has headed since last July. Rabbi Lopatin, 49, succeeded the school’s founder, Rabbi Avi Weiss, who turned 70 last week. Rabbi Perlow, also known as the Novominsker Rebbe, devoted a large portion of his dinner address to denouncing open Orthodoxy as heresy and a “plague.”

Rabbi Lopatin isn’t particularly disturbed by the mayor’s silence at the Agudath dinner. (A spokesman later said that the mayor hadn’t heard the speech.) For Rabbi Lopatin, the ideal mayoral response would have been gentle.

“He should have made a joke of it. His office should have said every community and family has its issues, but the mayor’s office loves everybody,” said Rabbi Lopatin in a recent interview in his office on the second floor of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Rabbi Weiss’ synagogue.

That reframing of Agudah’s righteous and angry crusade against liberalism as a squabble within an ultimately loving family might not have occurred to Mr. de Blasio, but it is the central metaphor that Rabbi Lopatin uses to deflect criticism from ideological opponents. At a time when Chovevei’s variety of Orthodoxy has demonstrated renewed vigor and consequently faced repeated criticism, Rabbi Lopatin is inclined to praise the virtue of discussion and debate rather than either come out swinging in fierce counterattack or backing off defensively.

“I’m flattered about being noticed,” he said about Rabbi Perlow’s denunciation “They feel we are having an impact, not only some of our ideas, but by going out into the hinterlands.” Rabbi Perlow had emphasized the dangers the “so-called yeshiva” posed outside New York City, where its graduates have been placed in many Orthodox pulpits.

Chovevi is far smaller than the rabbinical school affiliated with Yeshiva University. That’s the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, where Rabbi Lopatin was ordained in 1994. This year Chovevei ordained only two men; next year’s incoming class will be its largest, with 15. (The newer Yeshivat Maharat, also founded by Rabbi Weiss, ordains women, though as spiritual leaders – maharats, he calls them – rather than as rabbis.) In recent years, YU has graduated nearly 60 rabbis each year. But Chovevei has had a disproportionate impact in filling pulpits in congregations outside of Orthodoxy’s greater New York center – what New Yorkers parochially refer to as “out of town” – since its graduates are willing to take jobs in small Jewish communities that most RIETS graduates spurn.

As for the substance of Rabbi Perlow’s attack: “I listened to the YouTube of the speech – we have to listen to our critics,” said Rabbi Lopatin, who then proceeded to rebut the only two specific criticisms made by Rabbi Perlow in his speech. Both criticisms accused open Orthodox rabbis of asserting heretical views not on halacha, Jewish law, but on the actions of biblical characters. Rabbi Lopatin argued that what Rabbi Perlow called heresy was in fact kosher biblical interpretation, and that those views had been expressed by rabbis centuries ago.

One view criticized by Agudah concerned the Akedah, God’s command to Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice, as recounted in Genesis. The alleged heresy: a claim that Abraham had failed the test by saying yes to God and offering Isaac, instead of arguing against God’s command, as he had done when God disclosed his plan to destroy the city of Sodom.

“It’s in a midrash that’s thousands of years old,” Rabbi Lopatin said.

And in fact, he said, that same accusation of heresy for questioning Abraham’s response to the Akedah had been leveled 20 years ago by the faculty of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at one of modern Orthodoxy’s most successful leaders – Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, founder of Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue and now head of several yeshivot in Israel. RIETS barred Riskin, a RIETS graduate himself, from speaking in the yeshiva’s study hall. (Rabbi Lopatin was a student at the YU seminary at the time.)

The other point Rabbi Perlow singled out concerned the relationship between Jacob and Esau. Here too, Rabbi Lopatin was able to pull out a supporting comment from an impeccable traditional source, a leading 19th century Lithuanian rabbi.

“It’s a good conversation, and I want the Novominsker rebbe” – Rabbi Perlow – “to be part of the conversation and to know that we’re listening,” Rabbi Lopatin said. “I don’t want to be arrogant, has v’shalom” – God forbid. “We’re trying to make Yiddiskheit meaningful to Jews all over the world, and we need all the brilliant minds to help us with it.”

Rabbi Lopatin’s openness to others’ approaches to spreading Yiddishkeit earned the Agudah’s wrath months before its annual dinner. His formal installation last September featured a roundtable discussion with leaders of the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements.

“This is a deeply troubling and disturbing development,” fumed Agudah in a press release at the time.

Agudah’s alarmism reflects a lack of faith, Rabbi Lopatin said. That is not a charge normally brought against the charedim.

More specifically, it reflects a lack of “emunat chachamim” – the Hebrew phrase means faith in the sages, but Agudah uses it as shorthand for its doctrine of total adherence to the dictates of rabbinical leaders. For Rabbi Lopatin, however, it means faith that rabbinic debates won’t lead Judaism astray.

“Have emunat chachamim that Hashem trusts us, that we’ll argue and come up with the right answers,” he said. “Let’s learn Torah. Let’s trust that if we’re learning Torah and we trust Hashem and we trust the halachic process we’ll come up with the right answers.”

Rabbi Lopatin said this approach, welcoming engagement and criticism, sets a model for his rabbinical students. “As a rabbi, when things heat up, will your reaction be to hit back, or to take it back and transform it into something positive and meaningful?” he said.

Rabbi Lopatin has put aside the term “open Orthodoxy,” coined by Rabbi Weiss, in favor of the older “modern Orthodoxy.”

“We’re about reclaiming modern Orthodoxy,” he said.

“There was a rich modern Orthodox environment and culture that is coming back,” he continued, citing debates waged more than 40 years ago in the pages of YU’s student newspaper between Rabbis Yitz Greenberg and Aharon Lichtenstein, at the time both YU faculty members, and at the convention of the Rabbinical Council of America between Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Emanuel Rackman.

“Arguments are good. Let’s argue about it,” he said.

What he did not say is that by the end of the 1970s, the arguments had ended at the institutional level – and the liberal wing of modern Orthodoxy had been exiled. Rabbi Soloveitchik saw to it that Rabbi Rackman did not become president of YU, favoring instead the more centrist Rabbi Norman Lamm. (Rabbi Rackman moved to Israel and headed Bar-Ilan University.) And Rabbi Lichtenstein had far more influence on Yeshiva University rabbinical students as head of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel than did Rabbi Greenberg, who moved to work in non-Orthodox Jewish organizations.

When Rabbi Weiss founded Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the pendulum swung back. Now, “even though there have been people taking potshots at the yeshiva, there’s been so much support, a feeling that modern Orthodoxy is waking up from its slumber,” Rabbi Lopatin said.

He distinguished between the colleges of Yeshiva University, which he said are modern Orthodox, and the university’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, which he said “doesn’t see itself as being modern Orthodox.” RIETS leaders prefer the term “centrist Orthodoxy,” and the school’s rabbinic faculty frequently have condemned Yeshiva College for offering courses on topics seen as unkosher. That includes art history (with nudes and Christian art), the New Testament, and even Chaucer. “Chovevei Torah was the first American yeshiva established to be modern Orthodox,” he said. “Our foundation is very much modern Orthodox in all its manifestations – in its openness, in its desire to embrace the world, its desire to send people out into the world.

“We weren’t rejecting anything. We were putting something new in the American scene, the integration that modern Orthodoxy is about,” he said.

The integration is manifested, he said, in the close coordination between Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, the dean of Talmud, and Dr. Michelle Friedman, the head of pastoral counseling. “We want to make sure that what’s going on in the beis medresh” – the study hall – “is reflective of what’s going on in the world outside.”

In sharp contrast to Agudah, and to rulings by YU-affiliated rabbis, Rabbi Lopatin doesn’t see the need for sharp lines to distinguish kosher belief from heresy. Nor is he fazed by the prospect of a slippery slope.

Take the question of women in Jewish law. Could women ever be treated simply as equal to men in halacha – leading services and being counted in a minyan?

Rabbi Lopatin doesn’t want to preclude anything as being out of bounds.

The basic principles of his Orthodoxy, he said, are belief in the Torah and the authority of talmudic sages. Beyond that, he is willing to enter halachic debates with an open mind.

In discussing halachic issues, “I’m motivated by finding out what is emes” – truth – Rabbi Lopatin said. “I’m not motivated by fighting Christianity or fighting Reform or fighting anyone else,” alluding to claims by Rabbi Herschel Schachter – the foremost talmudist for RIETS, and a leading halachic authority for the Orthodox Union – that feminism must be opposed as an anti-Jewish idea with roots in Christianity.

Rabbi Lopatin argues that despite the rhetoric that comes from some corners of the Jewish world, changes in women’s roles have taken place throughout Orthodox Judaism, not only in its most liberal reaches. Women now sit on boards of Orthodox synagogues and even serve as presidents. That once was banned. Women now are studying and teaching Talmud.

“Bat mitzvahs are now being held in standard Orthodox shuls,” Rabbi Lopatin said. “When I look around, I see there really is change. It’s not fully egalitarian change, but there definitely has been movement. The tradition is one of change and movement. Being static and ossified – that’s not the tradition.

“A lot of the discussion has not been about the halachic merits of women doing this, but about tradition. Rav Schachter’s voice is very important. He’s a big gaon” – a genius. “Let’s hear his arguments and discuss them.

“When a chasidic rebbe says something, you don’t argue with him. When a rav” – that is, a non-chasidic rabbi, a Talmud scholar -“says something, you argue, you look at the sources,” he said. “I hope that when there is change there are people who shry gevalt against it, because change should not be undertaken lightly. It needs to stand up to challenge.

Rabbi Lopatin’s praise for Rabbi Schachter actually conceals a sharp dissent, because Rabbi Schachter rejects the idea that his rulings can be debated. In a ruling published this winter opposing “partnership minyans” – prayer groups that call women to the Torah and allow them to lead certain prayers – Rabbi Schachter began with a lengthy discussion of how only rare Torah giants should be allowed to rule on weighty matters, and he implied that even one of his best-known colleagues on the RIETS faculty did not pass muster in his eyes.

Following Rabbi Schachter’s ruling, RIETS told a student who had participated in a partnership minyan that he would not be ordained unless he pledged not to do that again. Attaching such a precondition to ordination was unprecedented in the history of RIETS, according to several rabbis who were ordained there.

Another topic that has earned Chovevei criticism in the Orthodox world has been TheTorah.com, a website that seeks to bring the world of academic Bible study – including its findings that the Torah is the work of multiple authors – into religious Jewish conversation. One of the leaders of TheTorah.com is Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber, a Chovevei graduate who earned a doctorate in Bible from Emory University in Atlanta. (Dr. Marc Zvi Brettler, professor of Bible at Brandeis University, and Rabbi David Steinberg of Passaic, who has a charedi background, are the site’s founders.) The site hosts divrei Torah from both Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis and scholars.

On this issue, as with the role of women, Rabbi Lopatin declined to draw a red line. “We preach and believe in classic Torah min hashamayim, a divine Torah. That’s what we teach our students. That’s what we believe,” he said.

Two weeks ago, Chovevei held its 12th annual public Bible seminar. And in contrast to the secular academic approach favored by TheTorah.com, which is taught at non-Orthodox rabbinical schools, the seminar’s classes focus on what the head of Chovevei’s Bible department, Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, leader of Teaneck’s Congregation Netivot Shalom, calls the “literary-theological method.” Unlike the academic approach, the method looks at each book of the Bible as a whole, rather than tracing its evolution.

“I want to make sure people know we’re passionately committed to the divinity of the Torah,” Rabbi Lopatin said. “At the same time, we’re a very welcoming place, and we welcome all Jews to a discussion.”

He finds the popularity of TheTorah.com “fascinating” and the question of how to study biblical criticism and still maintain faith “interesting.”

“There are many passionate Jews who keep halacha, who are committed to Torah, who even say they are committed to the doctrine of Torah from Sinai in a way,” while accepting academic claims about the Torah’s historical origins, he said. “We have to embrace them, and to embrace the conversation. Not as a way of weakening our faith in Torah miSinai, but as a way of enhancing our emunah,” our faith.

“How do we go with a firm belief that Hashem gave the entire Torah to Moshe Rabbeinu, to all the interesting patterns that academic study of Torah bring out?”

He said he didn’t want to spell out which views about the Torah’s origins Orthodox Jews must reject.

“I want to emphasize the positive approach, that this is what we believe in – Torah miSinai, the divine Torah,” he said.

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