Tradition Today: A giant of Orthodoxy

American Orthodoxy has always contained a moderate branch, of which Rabbi Emanuel Rackman was the outstanding representative.

January 15, 2009 12:51
4 minute read.


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The recent passing of Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, of blessed memory, deprived the Jewish world of one of its outstanding leaders and left Orthodoxy the poorer by removing one of its most inspired and inspiring figures. Rackman represented Orthodoxy at its best, combining strict adherence to Jewish law with respect for modern learning, both religious and secular. He was known for his bold approach to solving problems of divorce within the framework of Jewish law in a way that would have alleviated the suffering of so many women. Unfortunately there were not enough other Orthodox rabbis who were willing to adopt his stance. He was also inclusive in his approach to Jewish unity and was not constantly seeking to stop cooperating with other groups within Judaism simply because he did not agree with their viewpoints. We can only wish that the Orthodox leadership here would imitate his ways. Although recently there has been a tendency toward extremism in the Orthodox world in general, American Orthodoxy has always contained a moderate branch, of which Rackman was the outstanding representative. Perhaps the reason for this is that in America there is no Chief Rabbinate, no one person or organization that can be said to represent all of Orthodoxy and therefore set a particular tone. It must be recognized, however, that Orthodoxy covers a wide variety of approaches to Judaism. My own movement, Masorti (Conservative), has often been criticized for being too flexible in its approaches and therefore inconsistent. But "Orthodoxy" is much more so. In the first place, there is general Orthodoxy, sometimes called modern Orthodoxy, and ultra-Orthodoxy - in Hebrew haredi. The differences between them are so great that it may not even be fair to lump them together. Indeed one of the tragedies of Jewish life here is the fact that the Chief Rabbinate has been taken over by those closer to the haredi world than to the modern Orthodox model. Can one even imagine a rabbi in the mold of Rackman as chief rabbi of Israel? The history of Orthodoxy is interesting. It is a relatively new phenomenon. The very word "Orthodoxy" was not used to designate a group within Judaism until the very end of the 18th century. It was then, in response to the challenge of Reform Judaism and the emancipation in general, that Orthodox Judaism as an organized group and a specific theology came into being. It sought to defend traditional Judaism against the onslaught of Reform and the assimilation that the breakdown of ghetto walls brought in its wake. To do so in its most extreme forms, it attempted to shield Jews from any possible influences of the modern world and modern thought, adopting as its slogan the words taken out of their original context by Rabbi Moses Sofer - Hadash asur min hatorah - "Anything new is forbidden by the Torah." On the other hand there were Orthodox leaders such as Samson Raphael Hirsch, who founded what has been called Neo-Orthodoxy, an attempt to allow Jews to live within the modern world, to study secular subjects and still retain the Jewish lifestyle according to Jewish law in all its aspects. Its slogan was Torah im derech eretz - which really meant Torah combined with modern secular living. Another reaction to extreme Orthodoxy was the founding by Zacharia Frankel of the Positive-Historical school, the forerunner of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement. Frankel contended that both the Orthodox and the Reform streams were wrong, the former because it rejected modern knowledge, scientific study of Judaism and was too strict and formalistic in its approach to Jewish law, ignoring its historical development. Reform, on the other hand, he felt, rejected too many of the fundamental beliefs of Judaism, including the binding nature of Jewish law, the importance of the Hebrew language and ritual and the ethnic and national aspects of Judaism. Frankel therefore sought a third way that would avoid the extremes of both, retaining loyalty to Jewish law but also adopting modern knowledge and the desired flexibility of Judaism to meet the challenges of the time. Without wishing to deny the differences between them, I believe that it would still be possible to say that both Neo-Orthodoxy and the Positive-Historical school were attempts, each in its own way, to preserve the past and the fundamentals of Judaism without isolating Judaism from the modern world. The Jewish world today - and this country in particular - desperately needs religious leaders who share Rackman's concerns and forthright approach. As he wrote, "I too insist that there is but one authentic Judaism, while other approaches are error, distortion, heresy or even pretense. Nevertheless, I admit that within the range of the authentic there is an enormous latitude in practice and interpretation. Judaism has never had a fixed philosophy, nor even one inflexible approach to law. There have always been, and will continue to be, many different modes of Jewish thought and conduct, and every generation does introduce a great measure of innovation. There is still no hierarchy of authority..." (One Man's Judaism). The writer is an author and lecturer who serves as the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement.

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