Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, leading Orthodox thinker, dies at 98

Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, a leading Orthodox thinker and an early champion of women’s rights, died Dec. 1 in New York. He was 98.

Tributes poured in from around the world last week, many of them praising Rackman for being an Orthodox pioneer in trying to ease the plight of agunot — women whose recalcitrant husbands denied them a religious bill of divorce.

“One did not have to agree with everything he said or believed or proposed, but one had to admit that he was a remarkable human being and a remarkable Jew,” said Rabbi Norman Lamm, former president and now chancellor of Yeshiva University. “He made invaluable contributions to the Jewish community at large, to Israel and especially to the Modern Orthodox community in America.

“He taught the rest of us to have guts,” Lamm continued. “I sometimes thought he relished opposition: It sharpened his own perceptions. Besides, he enjoyed a clean argument ‘for the sake of Heaven.'”

Rackman also was an early supporter of interdenominational dialogue. He was among the first rabbis to travel to the Soviet Union after the fall of Stalin, and upon his return, he drew attention to the plight of Jewish refuseniks.

“They were, he taught us, our responsibility,” said historian Deborah Lipstadt in her eulogy, recalling the sermon Rackman delivered upon his return. ” When I took my first trip to the Soviet Union in 1972 in order to meet with refuseniks, I remembered his words.”

Rackman’s list of achievements is prodigious. Born in 1910, he earned a law degree and a doctorate in political science at Columbia University while studying for the rabbinate at Yeshiva University. He served as a military chaplain in the U.S. Army Air Corps Reserve in World War II, retiring with the rank of colonel.

Rackman went on to the leadership of New York’s Fifth Avenue Synagogue and Congregation Shaarey Tefila in Queens. He was also a president of both the New York Board of Rabbis and the Rabbinical Council of America.

In 1970 he became provost of Yeshiva University and in 1977 was named president of Bar-Ilan University in Israel. Rackman served as chancellor there until his death.

“The university and the Jewish world have lost a giant of a man whose greatness was derived not only by his intellect, but his passion and sense of social justice,” said Moshe Kaveh, Bar-Ilan president.

One of Rackman’s most controversial achievements — and, some say, his greatest — was in the realm of Jewish law, where he was among the earliest rabbis to demonstrate sensitivity to the plight of agunot or so-called “chained women.” In the 1990s he helped establish Beit Din L’Ba’ayot Agunot, the Court for the Problems of Chained Women, which annulled hundreds of marriages using innovative Talmudic reasoning.

The court was widely condemned in the Orthodox world, and many rabbis refused to officiate at marriages of women whose original nuptials were annulled by Rackman. The fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America accused Rackman of “arrogance” and the use of “spurious” legal reasoning, while comparatively more liberal British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks charged Rackman with contributing to the very problem he was trying to solve.

Rackman maintained that his activities were within the realm of Jewish law and drew on recognized halachic precedents. Even Lamm, who approved of Rackman’s objectives if not his tactics on the agunah question, nevertheless credits the late rabbi with drawing attention to an issue many would have preferred to sweep under the rug.

“He put this agonizing problem on the map with great personal power and persuasiveness,” Lamm said. “History will certainly give him credit for that. Even those who disagreed with his Bet Din for Agunot will honor his memory for his courage and good will.”

After a funeral service in New York on Dec. 1, Rackman was buried Dec. 3 in Israel.

He is survived by three sons, Michael, Joseph and Bennett.

King and Heschel Remembered

There is a famous picture taken in Selma, Ala., in 1965 at
the site of a historic civil rights march for voter registration.

Abraham Joshua Heschel is marching in line with Martin
Luther King Jr. and a number of other key civil rights demonstrators. At the
end of the demonstration, a journalist asked Heschel to describe his feelings
about marching with King. He answered: “My feet were praying.”

Heschel was prominent as a scholar, teacher and theologian,
and widely respected because of his numerous publications. He was also well
known as a result of his participation in Vatican II. Vatican II was the
gathering in the early 1960s during which the Catholic Church introduced many
significant internal changes. One of the changes included a historical
reckoning: a formal process was begun that would eventually lead to the public
announcement by the Church that “the Jews” did not kill Christ. From his
participation in Vatican II, Heschel received the nickname from Catholics
throughout the world of “Father Abraham.”

Heschel descended from a long line of Chasidic rebbes. In
his adolescent years, he left the world of Chasidism and chose to embrace a
more historical approach to Jewish tradition. In his later years, though, when
he became a teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York (and when
the famous picture of King and himself was taken in Selma), he looked like
someone from his ancestry. He had a long gray beard, long gray hair and always
wore a yarmulke.

The picture of King and Heschel marching together in Selma
has become something of an icon. It represents the pride American Jews feel
having played, as a group, a prominent role in the civil rights movement.

According to Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, who is a
professor of history and religion at Dartmouth College, her father and King
were close friends during the last five years of King’s life. During this
period, they had a profound influence on one another. When King’s funeral
arrangements needed to be made, Heschel was one of the first individuals, among
all the dignitaries and officials who spoke at this historic event, that
Coretta Scott King specifically requested to deliver a eulogy.

In an essay Susannah Heschel wrote in the Journal of
Conservative Judaism in the spring of 1998, she points out something
interesting in King’s speeches. In his early years, particularly before January
of 1963 when Heschel and King formally met, King evoked images in his speeches
of the Christian Bible and of traditional Christian commentators. After King
and Heschel became acquainted, the dominant biblical metaphor in King’s
speeches changed. He now emphasized the Exodus from Egypt.

The second most commonly used biblical metaphor became the
prophet, specifically the call of the biblical prophets for social justice.
Susannah Heschel interprets this fact as no coincidence. When Heschel earned a
doctorate at the University of Berlin in the early 1930s, he wrote his
dissertation on The Prophets.

King did not need Heschel to teach him about biblical
events. He did need Heschel, though, to emphasize the power that these biblical
metaphors contained, that these metaphors were inherently more inclusive and
could be used to gain the broadest segment of support from the American public.

Heschel was one of the first prominent Americans to publicly
fulminate against United States participation in the war in Southeast Asia. It
is documented that he encouraged King in public discussions and in written
correspondence to take a public stand against this war.

Twenty-nine years ago, died on the 18th day of the Hebrew
month of Tevet. Tevet is a month that comes during the winter season. It often
corresponds with January, the month in which Americans pay tribute to King with
a national holiday. It is appropriate that the birthday of King and the
yahrtzeit of Heschel come at this time of year. The example of their leadership
continues to cast light on our dark struggling society.

Elliot Fein teaches high school students Jewish studies at the Tarbut V’Torah Community School in Irvine.

Understanding and Responding to Evil

The subject of evil is something that has entered my mind often this past year. Since Sept. 11, and also from the ongoing news

coverage from Israel, I have had many questions and have engaged in frequent discussions about this subject.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis is a theologian and scholar who has thought very profoundly about the subject of evil. He is a spiritual leader whose influence goes well beyond the walls of his synagogue, Congregation Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. When he earned a Ph.D. in theology from the Pacific School of Religion, the title of Schulweis’s dissertation, which later became a published book, was “Evil and the Morality of God.”

I recently drove up to his office to see if Schulweis could help me in my struggle. I was not disappointed.

The following is some of what he shared.

Elliot Fein: Encino is located right next to Northridge. You lived through the Northridge Earthquake. Where was God in this event?

Harold Schulweis: We do not give enough attention to a question like this. Unfortunately, theology and philosophy are considered to be extraneous to Judaism and to everyday life, something that is of interest to only intellectuals, rabbis and other clergy. It is important for everyone to develop a theology or philosophy on life that is honest, something that one can actually believe.

If I want to find out what caused the earthquake, I will go to the physicist, not the theologian. In explaining the event, he will not use terms like sin and punishment but rather cause and consequences. His explanation is not a judgment. If a lion and a lamb meet, the lion will eat the lamb. That is just the way lions are. It is not a judgment on the lamb. The lamb has not sinned, nor has the lion transgressed.

There are two complementary conceptions of God in the Hebrew Bible that are reflected in the two most commonly used Hebrew names for God: Elohim and Adonai.

Elohim is the God who creates nature. This is the name for God that is used almost exclusively in the first chapter of Genesis. This is the God that creates everything: lions and lambs, anthrax and Cipro. Nature is metaphysically “good,” as God observes in the first chapter in the book of Genesis, but nature is morally neutral.

In response to nature, when bad things happen, people (often based on religious teachings in which they were raised) ask misleading questions. Where is God? How could God allow this to happen? Why doesn’t God intervene? These questions imply that the lamb, the one who suffers, deserves punishment. If I have a heart attack, if my child gets cancer, there must be a divine reason. This leaves people with guilt and anger. This encourages people’s masochism and God’s sadism.

To accept this reality is necessary but not sufficient. That is why I can not believe only in Elohim. That is why I have to balance the Elohim aspect of God with a complementary concept: Adonai.

Adonai is a response of human beings to nature. Adonai is the God of moral principle. What do you do in an imperfect world? Humans are blessed with capacities of freedom, intellect, and moral sensibilities. A person, by him or herself, will not find a cure for cancer, but one can do something in response to cancer. One can seek to ensure that research is done, that autopsies are permitted, that transplants are encouraged. Our response to the amoral aspect of nature, our attempt to make an imperfect world not perfect but a better more righteous place gives meaning to life. It is what it means to live in the image of God.

When Jews pray, they always use both names of the Divine, Adonai and Elohim. A fully mature religious person must acknowledge the world of facts, the world of reality, the world that is. That is why Elohim is used. At the same time, it is critical for a person to assert what ought to be, what is normative. That is why Adonai is used. The central affirmation of faith in Judaism is the “Shema.” This prayer includes both names for the divine. The line of this prayer ends with the Hebrew word echad. This word means one. Two complementary concepts, Elohim and Adonai, that are part of Divine oneness.

One can ask where was God in the earthquake? A much better question is where am I? What have I done, in response to an act of nature, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to support those who suffer? What am I doing to live a life in the image of Adonai?

EF: Where was God on Sept. 11?

HS: Terrorists are part of the amoral energy and freedom that is given to every human being. That energy and freedom, though, is also given to the defenders of justice and freedom, to people that try to prevent evil. Our response to people who perform evil is the same, in theory, as our response to a natural disaster…. I do not mean to oversimplify the situation, but if we are going to live in this world, it is our responsibility to somehow figure out ways of educating people who hate not to hate.

EF: How do you explain the events of Sept. 11 to children?

HS: I think children understand Sept. 11. Children are more mature and better able to handle an event like Sept. 11 than are parents who want to protect them. It was a big mistake when parents [after] Sept. 11 did not send their children to school. What helped children was being with other kids, being in their community. We had an assembly at our synagogue, we sang together, we prayed together. We had a question-and-answer session on what happened. We gave very direct simple but honest answers to their questions. We talked about people who hate. We talked about envy. We talked about how we need to protect ourselves living in the world. The discussion was not very different from what it would have been like with adults.

When a child loses a loved one, he or she expresses one concern. Who is going to care for me? Grandpa has just died. Are my mom and my dad going to die too? It is important for parents to acknowledge death as death. We do not need to talk about grandpa going on a long trip. This only causes anxiety in the child. We do not need to talk about grandpa going to sleep forever. This causes insomnia. We need to re-assure the child in an honest way that they are secure and will be taken care of. A parent needs to say that I am healthy, I am taking care of myself and I plan on being with you for a long, long time.

When parents ask me what do I say to my child, I always answer their question with a question. What do you yourself believe? It is difficult, if not impossible, to teach what one does not believe.

In the modern world, we have witnessed unprecedented levels of human evil. In addition to striving to live a life in the image of Adonai, how do you maintain a positive outlook on life?

There is a story in the Talmud. After the destruction of Temple in Jerusalem, there was a group of ascetics who said we are no longer going to drink wine because there was a wine libation in the sacrificial cult of the Temple. A rabbi responded to them. If that is the case, then you should not drink water because water was used in Temple ceremonies. You should not eat bread because bread was also used.

Not to mourn is impossible, but to mourn excessively is harmful. Therefore, there must be a sense of balance and proportion on how we mourn, on how we live our lives. I gain a balance and sense of proportion in what I believe and how I live my life from Judaism. I gain this balance and sense of proportion from having a religious outlook on life. Science is wonderful. Its benefits to our lives are tremendous. It answers many questions but I can’t live only in a world of science. Judaism balances my outlook on life. It helps me to maintain a positive outlook.

EF: The subject of evil was the theme topic at a recent weekend retreat for members of your synagogue. What questions did you raise in discussions at this retreat? What points did you emphasize in answering these questions?

HS: My talk on this weekend retreat was more of a confession than a lecture. I shared a problem that I am struggling with. An adolescent child in our congregation died in a car accident. The other driver was drunk. I tried to comfort the father. I put my arm on his shoulder. He knocked it off. He says “God is cruel and you as a rabbi just apologize for a cruel God.” His wife tells me to not take it personally but I do. More than psychology is needed. The father is calling out for a realistic and moral theology.

How do we as a congregation respond to this man? Part of the answer I know is being there for him and his family, making sure that people are at the funeral and visitors are at his home listening and doing what ever is necessary. Part of the answer is getting him in a communal environment where the joys of life are celebrated. But there is more to it. We explored in our discussion what else we, as synagogue, can do in a situation like this to help this man and strive to live in the image of Adonai.

EF: In fighting its war on terrorism, the United States is forming alliances with many countries that are not exactly friends with Israel. What are your concerns, as an American and as a Jew about our country’s foreign policy and about the present political predicament in which the United States finds itself today?

HS: One has to be alert. One also has to have empathy. The strategy right now makes sense. Politics is not logic. The world is not a clean place. Not every ally is going to be a democracy like Britain or Canada. There is definitely concern about our country forming alliances with corrupt and unstable governments but there is a Machiavelian strategy to what is happening.

Israel, in its own war on terrorism, has had to play this game. At one time, it was revealed that Israel actually backed Hezbollah against other Palestinians factions. I am confident that Israel will never be betrayed by the United States.