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Stepping Into The Orthodox Wars

Stepping Into The Orthodox Wars

Asher Lopatin succeeds Avi Weiss at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, seeking a middle ground.

Associate Editor

He’s a Rhodes scholar with rabbinical degrees from Yeshiva University’s RIETS seminary and Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik’s Brisker yeshiva who studied Medieval Arabic Thought at Oxford.
He was the shul rabbi for Chicago’s liberal Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and has signed letters in support of gay marriage, but is a member of Pastor John Hagee’s deeply conservative (and ultra-Zionist) Christians United for Israel.

Criticized for being too gracious to non-Orthodox denominations, he fears the Modern Orthodox have isolated themselves from haredim.

As Rabbi Asher Lopatin, 49, is installed this weekend as the new head of the 13-year-old liberal Orthodox seminary Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, founded and led until now by Rabbi Avi Weiss, he is going to need all the intellectual dexterity he’s already shown, and then some. He is known as a warm, engaging leader and his even-keeled personality may help him beat back intense criticism from the much of the Orthodox world, which is suspicious of YCT’s openness to women’s issues and to non-Orthodox influences.

But as the Orthodox community has moved to the right in recent years, “Chovevei is an important corrective, creating a cadre of truly Modern Orthodox rabbis who take modern culture seriously and are prepared to engage it,” said Steven Bayme, director of the American Jewish Committee’s department of Contemporary Jewish Life and a close observer of the Orthodox community.

In fact, when the seminary opened its doors in 1999, Bayme remembers being “incredibly skeptical,” saying at the time the new school wasn’t “one-tenth as important” as YU’s RIETS. Thirteen years later, Bayme will be teaching at Chovevei this fall.

The transition from Avi Weiss to Asher Lopatin — who some believe is the kind of rabbi who can build bridges to the Orthodox world on his right flank — is one that excites Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, considered by many to be the pre-eminent Modern Orthodox thinker of the past 50 years. “Part of Avi’s greatness is providing for a successor; he deserves credit for that.”

Rabbi Greenberg sees a new era dawning. “The last two decades have been the haredi ‘spring,’ he said, referring to the stunning growth of the ultra-Orthodox community, especially in New York. “They not only grew and strengthened but took over much of the center.

“In the next two decades I think we’re going to see the resurgence of Modern Orthodoxy, and Asher will be part of that story.”

The challenges are steep. For all the publicity accorded Chovevei, largely because of the progressive positions it has staked out in the Orthodox world, only two men (there are no women in the school) will be ordained in the next rabbinical class. (There are 38 students in the school). Although Rabbi Weiss’s original goal was to primarily train pulpit rabbis, only 40 percent of YCT’s 85 graduates have pulpits, says Rabbi Lopatin. “The pulpit is important but there are other ways for rabbis to have an impact on the world.”

Despite the critique of those who say that YCT is more geared to training chaplains than to training rosh yeshivas, Rabbi Lopatin says the curriculum is “maybe 20 percent pastoral counseling. It’s far from just warm and fuzzy. People want an Orthodox rabbi who knows the texts, who has that depth. We might need to shift the curriculum in response to the need of different tracks, for people going to pulpits, or the campus, or to classrooms. We are teaching our talmidim [students] how to navigate the world with mentschlichkeit and a commitment to tradition and halacha.”

The absence from pulpits is partly the graduates’ choice, but it is likely exacerbated by opposition to YCT from almost every sector of Orthodoxy; these include Modern-Centrist groups, such as the Rabbinical Council of America and National Council of Young Israel synagogues, which deny membership or discourage the hiring of YCT graduates.

On the right, Agudath Israel, the largest haredi organization, took note this week that Rabbi Lopatin’s installation on Sunday will include a roundtable discussion on “Training New Rabbis for a New Generation,” featuring leaders of three non-Orthodox seminaries. In its statement, Agudah said: “This is a deeply troubling, and telling, development … That an ostensibly Orthodox rabbinical seminary would now provide a prominent public platform for leaders of those movements to share their wisdom on the subject of training new rabbis is irony of the most bitter kind.”

And yet, Rabbi Lopatin’s pluralism extends to the right, as well. “At heart, I’m chasidish,” he says. “My grandmother was born in Medzhibizh,” the village of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the chasidic movement. “In Satmar, in Chabad, there’s wonderful, amazing things going on. I want us to appreciate that more. The Modern Orthodox world has been too segregated from the haredi world.”

The installation ceremony echoes an earlier proposal by Rabbi Lopatin, who would like to see a campus shared by YCT and Reform and Conservative seminaries. “Of course,” says Rabbi Greenberg, “there were those who jumped all over him for apikorosis [heresy], when it really is just the opposite. It represents the recovery of the moral, intellectual and spiritual health of Modern Orthodoxy that always had a strong connection to Klal Yisrael, not just to a narrow sectarianism.”

Rabbi Lopatin’s office in the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (Rabbi Weiss’ shul, where YCT is housed) is as modest as Rabbi Lopatin himself, whose informality and wry, easy smile shine through a dark beard, reminding a visitor more of a young Jerry Garcia than a seminary president. Rabbi Lopatin, for now, shares an office with a colleague, in a room looking much like any synagogue classroom but divided by a dark, heavy bookshelf that separates the president’s side from the other.

Every now and then it hits him: He had planned to leave Chicago — not for YCT but for Israel, to build a community in the Negev. Aliyah was in the works for the rabbi, his wife and four children, when it was learned his 10-year-old daughter had cancer. “Thank God,” he says, she’s better. Then it came back, “and though she’s doing well, in the middle of chemo and spinal taps we couldn’t switch to a whole new [medical] system, and move to Beersheva. …

“We were in a hospital in Chicago, and the story broke of me coming to this yeshiva. One of the haredi websites,” sites often critical of YCT, “was talking about it, and I answered them, ‘Thank you for interest in Chovevei. I wish I could write more but my daughter in undergoing chemotherapy now.’ So they wrote another post — it was so touching: ‘Please pray for Rabbi Lopatin’s daughter’; it was so sweet. So there you have it, a crazy world, sometimes a crazy Orthodox world, but there’s so much love in it, it’s a family. You have fights, but families love each other.”

Some of those fights came about because of Rabbi Weiss’ historic defiance of Orthodox consensus, for instance, allowing women to become de facto rabbis. Will the new president be less polarizing than Rabbi Weiss?

“We’ll have to see,” says Rabbi Lopatin, who sometimes speaks of himself in third person: “I know that Rav Avi hopes that Asher Lopatin can make some connections that he couldn’t make. He has told me that.”

The problem isn’t connections, suggests Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, immediate past president of the RCA. “This isn’t personal. Rabbi Weiss and Rabbi Lopatin are themselves members of the RCA,” because of their ordination from RCA-accredited institutions. “I love Avi. Many of us love him and feel that his contributions to the Jewish community have been stellar. Avi was a polarizing figure only because of positions he took and the way he sometimes took them. I’ve heard very fine things about [Rabbi Lopatin].”

Nevertheless, Rabbi Goldin said, there are a set of RCA standards that anyone granting ordination has to meet, and “not all schools do.” Also, without wanting to be specific, “If a yeshiva regularly produces students who are taking non-halachic [ideological] positions, then that is something that any yeshiva would want to look at if it considers itself to be an Orthodox yeshiva abiding by normative practice.” (YCT has withdrawn its RCA application for accreditation rather than hear the verdict.)

Among the lightening rods, aside from women’s issues and liberal conversions, is that of biblical criticism, considered a taboo in most of the Orthodox world because it challenges divine authorship. “That’s exactly what [YCT] should be doing,” says the AJC’s Bayme. “I can’t think of too many other settings where that would be feasible.”

Part of the antagonism to YCT has to do with Israeli politics. YCT was the only Orthodox yeshiva to send a delegation to a convention of the Rabbis for Human Rights (now T’ruah); this was at a time when neither the convention nor the speakers from Chovevei made any mention of the rocketing of Sderot, or soldiers being held in captivity, but instead protested the upending of Palestinian olive trees by settlers.

By contrast, Rabbi Lopatin says, “I don’t know if I would want to join that group, but they are an important voice, just as there are those on the right who are an important voice when saying that Jews have a right to pray on the Temple Mount. I think we should have the right to pray on the Temple Mount. I think it’s terrible [that] Jews can’t.”

There has been discussion in YCT circles over whether the yeshiva should admit women. After all, if a woman can act as a de facto rabbi alongside a man on the pulpit, why can’t women and men share a YCT classroom?

“The yeshiva,” says Rabbi Lopatin, “is designed to train men to be rabbis. Even with the maharats [the term coined by Rabbi Weiss to women who graduated from his Yeshivat Maharat], and they have a wonderful institution, they’re still not training rabbis, they’re training maharats. I do think that in any school of higher learning, men and women should be learning from each other.

“So we are starting an evening seder [study program] on Monday nights where we are going to partner with maharats. I do think it’s a loss for men and women to be segregated. If the maharat program is successful, and it does change the dynamic, then we’ll have to look to find more ways to be studying together.”

He added, “I’ve only been here two months. Come back in two years and ask these same questions. If there’s been no movement, if we’re not learning with the maharats more than one evening a week. …. I think that’s a very good challenge. I do agree, Chovevei should be at the fore of this, and a lot else.”

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