The rabbi of the 'golden mean'

Emanuel Rackman was one of the core group of visionaries who founded Bar-Ilan University.

bar ilan 88 (photo credit: )
bar ilan 88
(photo credit: )
With the passing of Rabbi Professor Menachem Emanuel Rackman, we have lost an exemplary scholar and an inspirational, broad-minded leader, one who, with feet planted firmly on the ground, nevertheless cast his glance far and wide. Over the course of his 98 years, he wove an intricate and glorious web of activity in the humanistic, intellectual and public spheres, all of it informed by an unshakable faith in the creator and in clear-eyed rationalism, Torah im derech eretz, love of the Jewish people and love of mankind. Rackman was born in Albany, New York in 1910, and studied at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) - the core component of what is now Yeshiva University - where he was ordained in 1934. He also earned advanced degrees in law and philosophy at Columbia University in New York, merging his three fields of expertise into one which epitomized his approach as rabbi, public figure, researcher and teacher. When the United States entered World War II, he volunteered to serve in the US Air Force, where he distinguished himself as a military chaplain and attained the rank of colonel. In 1946, once out of uniform, he was appointed rabbi of the Shaaray Tefila congregation in Queens, New York; he later went on to serve as rabbi of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan. Concurrently with his activity as a congregational rabbi, he taught political science at Yeshiva University and Jewish studies at the City University of New York, headed the Rabbinical Council of America and served on the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors. DURING THE 1950s Rackman was part of the core group of scholars and visionaries who founded Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan. He went on to play a major role in shaping the university's unique approach and image, and in raising funds on its behalf. In 1977 he enthusiastically embraced the challenge of becoming Bar-Ilan University's fourth president, guiding the institution through nine exhilarating years of growth and expansion. On leaving this post in 1986, he was appointed chancellor of the university; in 1999 he became chancellor emeritus. At Bar-Ilan University we were privileged to know him as the committed leader of all who entered the university's gates, and as a figure intimately involved in everything taking place on campus. His care and attention encompassed all aspects of life on campus - in his own words, "from the cleanliness of the facilities to the content of the doctoral theses." He ceaselessly underscored Bar-Ilan's Jewish character; during his tenure as president, all students were required not only to take certain core courses but to pass a proficiency test in Jewish studies. At the same time, Rackman was a forceful champion of the university's unique academic mission. "We do not pretend to be a yeshiva or a kollel," he wrote. "We are a university committed, first and foremost, to the ideal of Torah umadda [Torah and science], or Torah im derech eretz - or, more precisely, to all subjects worth studying, Jewish and non-Jewish. It goes without saying that the Torah is the pinnacle to which we aspire, but it is not our only aspiration... We are not ashamed to acknowledge the centrality of the Torah, and will never permit the Torah to be relegated to a lesser status here. But we are also a university." As in last week's Torah portion, Vayetzei, Rackman saw in Bar-Ilan University a "Jacob's ladder," with its upper portion reaching the sky (spirituality), and its lower portion resting on the ground (the material world). THIS VIEW of the university was consonant with his worldview as a whole. As a prominent disciple of Rabbi Joseph Ber Soleveitchik, he was a lifelong adherent to Maimonides' "golden mean" approach and insisted on the necessity of holding fast to the principles of faith and of Judaism without, however, cutting oneself off from the flow of life - stagnating. For this reason, he refrained from excessive pilpul or hairsplitting in his scholarly work, focusing, rather, on an understanding of the logical basis of a given halachic sugya. Accordingly, he felt that Judaism should be regarded as a "God-centered humanism." Thus, he was in disagreement with those Orthodox rabbis who rejected any form of cooperation with other streams of Judaism. In 1977 he wrote, "Rather than girding for the coming cultural war, we would be better off striving for the establishment of unity in Israel, to serve as a focal point for all who cherish hopes for the Jewish state and the Jewish people." One of the most fascinating and instructive manifestations of Rackman's enlightened approach was his intrepid activity on behalf of agunot and mesoravot get (women "chained" to marriages due to their husbands' refusal to grant them a bill of divorce). After studying the issue extensively, he founded, in 1996, a private religious court to invalidate marriages of this kind, based on the principle of kiddushei ta'ut or non-disclosure of a salient defect to the spouse prior to marriage. The controversy that erupted within various circles did not deter Rackman from his endeavor to alleviate the plight of the aguna through adherence to the spirit of Halacha and the mitzvot shebein adam lehavero (commandments regulating behavior between man and his fellow) - just as nothing deterred him from struggling on behalf of any other principle that he deemed worthy. His towering intellect did not distance him from "earthly" matters, and he personally touched the lives of many Jews. It was his custom on Fridays to make phone calls to the widowed and ailing and offer them words of encouragement. On the eve of Independence Day in 1988 Rackman was one of those chosen to light a torch on Mount Herzl. His real "torch" - his intellectual legacy and the memory of his unique personal qualities - will continue lighting the way for his many students and admirers. The writer is president of Bar-Ilan University.