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The New ‘Morethodox’ Rabbi

Asher Lopatin succeeds Avi Weiss at an influential seminary, offering a pluralistic version of Orthodoxy

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Rabbi Asher Lopatin, center, at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s Tenth Annual Tribute Dinner on March 10, 2013, at the Harmonie Club in New York City. (Three Star Photography)
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Avi Weiss has always been known as an unapologetic revolutionary. As a young Orthodox rabbi in the 1960s and ’70s, he was instrumental in helping build the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, a movement predicated on the idea that established Jewish institutions were doing too little to help their brethren behind the Iron Curtain. In 1985, he led a group of Jews in a guerrilla Shabbat service at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, a historic and intentionally symbolic episode organized in protest of President Reagan’s visit to a war cemetery at Bitburg, where members of the SS were buried, during a state visit to Germany. Four years later, months before the collapse of communism across Eastern Europe, Weiss and six others were physically attacked after they scaled the walls of a Carmelite convent that had been built at Auschwitz and conducted an impromptu Torah study session in objection to the Catholic presence at the site of so much Jewish death. Weiss’ arrest record is legendary and stretches from New York to Oslo, Norway, where he was detained in 1994 while demonstrating against Yasser Arafat’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1999, Weiss broke with Yeshiva University, his intellectual home and the headquarters of Modern Orthodoxy, to start his own rabbinic seminary in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, under the banner of what Weiss termed Open Orthodoxy: the view that stringent observance of Jewish religious law in the modern world should co-exist with ideological flexibility on a range of questions, particularly concerning the role of women and Jewish denominational pluralism. Four years ago, Weiss took his rebellion one step further and founded Yeshivat Maharat, a women’s seminary, headed by his protégé Sara Hurwitz, the first American Orthodox woman to be ordained.

In January 2010, Weiss caused the biggest uproar of his career by changing Hurwitz’s title from maharat—an acronym for the Hebrew phrase denoting a teacher of Jewish law and spirituality—to the far more straightforward rabba, the feminized version of rabbi. The move drew an immediate outcry, including a statement from the Agudath Israel, a leading central authority of American Ultra-Orthodoxy, declaring that Weiss could no longer be considered part of the Orthodox fold: “These developments represent a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition and the mesoras haTorah and must be condemned in the strongest terms.”

The episode, which Weiss now refers to as “the rabba incident,” exhausted him. Now, at 68, he is preparing for what might once have seemed like another radical move: handing over the reins of his school to Asher Lopatin, a man 20 years his junior, who is universally known not as an incendiary but as a relentless bridge-builder. He comes from Chicago, where he was best known as Rahm Emanuel’s rabbi, and holds dual ordination from Yeshiva University and from the Yeshivas Brisk, the Chicago-based seminary established by Aaron Soloveichik, the brother of Joseph Soloveitchik, Yeshiva University’s intellectual leader. He is also a Rhodes scholar who speaks Arabic, an experienced fundraiser, and a leading proponent of a pluralistic, egalitarian, Weissish view of Orthodoxy he refers to as “Morethodoxy.” “This transition is about two words,” Weiss told me when we met recently. “Institution building.”

***

Lopatin originally set out to be a diplomat. As an undergraduate at Boston University, he studied international relations and earned a Master’s degree in medieval Arabic thought at Oxford. “My father was always involved in shul, but he felt rabbis schnorr off the community, and he didn’t want me involved in that,” Lopatin told me. “I think he wanted me to go into Jewish communal life, professionally, but his big thing was that the State Department could influence things more, so when I went on the Rhodes I was studying to be an expert on the Middle East.” Lopatin started a Ph.D. but also devoted a significant percentage of his time at Oxford to the Jewish Society, of which he was president, and also taught bar mitzvah students on the side. Finally, a friend told him to follow his heart into the rabbinate. “My mother had just passed away, and I decided, I’m just going to be a rabbi,” Lopatin said. “I’m very interested in Islamic fundamentalism, but it wasn’t where my passion was.”

As a boy living in the Bay Area, where his father was a research chemist, Lopatin attended the Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, then led by Rabbi Saul Berman, a leading Modern Orthodox scholar who now teaches at Yeshiva University. When Lopatin was 8, his parents decided to make aliyah and moved the family to French Hill, in Jerusalem. “We weren’t even shomer shabbes until we went to Israel, but we were Orthodox,” Lopatin told me. “We were very modern, but we never went to the Conservative shul.” The Lopatins stayed through the Yom Kippur War—which Lopatin remembers as a thrilling event—but after four years decided to return to the United States, moving to Boston. Lopatin enrolled at the Maimonides School in Brookline, which he found to be overly rigid after his experience in Israel. He successfully protested school administrators’ decision to cut the brief kissing scene from The Diary of Anne Frank but gave up on plans to promote a student boycott while trying to put together a student council after he was threatened with expulsion. “I did nothing exciting at the end of the day,” he acknowledged, a little sheepishly.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin

Rabbi Lopatin speaks at the Yehsivat Chovevei Torah gala dinner. (Marisa Yammer)

At 48, Lopatin retains a youthful quality, which is enhanced by his affinity for gimmick ties, including ones emblazoned with Disney and Looney Tunes characters. He has a full head of dark hair and a ready smile and is relentlessly earnest and cheerful where Weiss, with his habit of wearing his shirts open at the collar and his shock of white hair, comes across as intense and leonine. “You’ll never speak to him and get the mean Asher, or the I-don’t-have-time-for-you Asher,” said Joshua Lookstein, a Yeshiva University classmate of Lopatin’s and the son of Haskel Lookstein, the rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and principal of the Ramaz School. “He has mastered something no one else has mastered, which is that he gives everyone the benefit of the doubt.” Which may be one reason why Lopatin was the nearly universal choice to succeed Weiss from the start. “We spoke to more than 30 people in the United States and Israel and England, people on the left, people on the right, people outside the Orthodox movement, and they all said Rabbi Lopatin should be our first choice,” Steven Lieberman, the chairman of Chovevei’s board, told me. (The board also includes Jonathan Zizmor, of the infamous New York City subway dermatology ads.) “It was very surprising.”

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Nice profile. Thank you.

DSarna says:

This was a terrific article. Fair, balanced, and well-written. The best of Table. Thank you.

cipher says:

“Maimonides always said that if somebody bends a
page all the way to the right then he’s got to bend it all the way to
the left to get it to go straight,” said Harry Maryles, who, like
Lopatin, was ordained by Aaron Soloveichik. “It’s the opposite direction
here, but the question is, what can he do to maintain the character of
YCT and bring them back in the fold? I don’t know if he’s going to be
able to do that and satisfy his lay leadership, but if anyone can, it’s
Asher.”

So typical of Harry Maryles to regard YCT as being outside of “the fold” in the first place.

Lisa Liel says:

It’s true, though. It’s funny that Harry takes guff from chareidim as well as from the Post Orthodox.

I am somewhat confused.

Is the expectation that Rabbi Lopatin will carry on the legacy of Rabbi Weiss or is the expectation he will bring YCT back into the mainstream of thoughtful Orthodoxy.

What with be his practical response to the “rabba” issue.

The article above seems ambigious that

Rabbi Lopatin is known to be very progressive, but deferential to the RCA, CRC (Chicago Rabbinic Council), and other mainstream/right orthodox institutions.

I imagine the hope is that while being consistent with the vision of YCT, he can gain legitimacy for it in mainstream orthodoxy.

He is also a very knowledgable and charismatic leader with wonderful experience.

reginald thomson says:

There is no doubt that they have gone out of their way to show that they are beyond the pale of mainstream orthodoxy.

CrossWinds says:

Yasser Arafat’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize was the pinnacle of the worlds hypocrisy………

…….1 John 5:19………

We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one.

cipher says:

“Mainstream Orthodoxy” is the product of half a century of Haredi influence and intimidation. YCT is much closer to what Modern Orthodoxy was fifty years ago.

Wow, his ideological soulmates are everyone from himself leftward. Anyone else is, of course, not “progressive” enough, the worst sin of the modern mind. I suppose YU should be proud to be off his list.

is it possible to dance at two weddings simultaneously?.
I wish him well.
Personally, I hope he will stir clear of any more “rabba” controversies, it pushed Rabbi Weiss over the orthodox cliff, mesorah has flexibility but it cannot be changed by one man, greater consensus is needed.
Further Rabbi Weiss is not a Rav Moshe Feinstein, a Rav Solovetchik or a Rav Schecther.
Women must be given their opportunity to educate the generations in Torah, we live in an exciting age, but we are not conservative or reform and also not conservadox;progressive is a great thing but the Halachic process always stands paramount.
My question is, is the YCT going to be seen as orthodox under Rabbi Lopatin’s stewardship

I remember MO of 35 years ago.
people eating fish in treif restaurants, deciding for themselves what is kosher etc
much lower standard of Torah learning
Tzniut very weak among women
Men with no Tzitit, or Kipa outside shul/home
Low mikveh usage
Today, BH there has been a revolution for the better.
I do agree however,that charedization has effect our camp, which is not a good thing.

avi ortho says:

“Low mikveh usage” How could you possibly know?
“deciding for themselves what is kosher etc” where does it say an observant Jew is not entitled to use his/her own brain?

As for Avi Shafran, can he make a statement that is not a smear? Lopatin is as frum as he is.

Rebecca Klempner says:

Frankly, the influence of chareidim is one of the reasons there has been a revolution in each of the categories you list.
Even for those of us who don’t identify as chareidi, we shouldn’t blast them unilaterally.

cipher says:

Today, BH there has been a revolution for the better.

That is a matter of opinion. I could not disagree more.

cipher says:

Their influence has been disastrous for Modern Orthodoxy. Their world, despite its irresponsibly growing numbers, is collapsing – and when they go, they’ll be taking the large part of Orthodoxy with them.

TomSolomon says:

Let’s see, Lopatin advocates for gender equality, gay “marriage” and religious pluralism. And what distinguishes him from the Conservative movement?

i knew people who looked at labels and decided for themselves if it was kosher,no reference to any lists etc.
I t has nothing to do with using ones own brain. etc

Mikvehs report the number of users etc, new mikvehs have been built on the basis of increase in usage over the last 3-4 decades.

all brances in the Torah world are more observant today.
There is fanaticism in each branch, examples,by the Chareidim and the settlers on the WB.

no sector is collapsing, that is a exaggeration, some are leaving from MO, Charedim, Chabad etc ,not the end of the world, that has happened throughout the generation.
The truth is more people are learning Torah than ever before.

all sector are growing, so is the extremes in each sector, that needs addressing

I am frum, but I see excesses in all sections, Satmar is right of Genghis Khan, the settlers have become xenophobic, a section in Chabad are messianic maniacs, the Aguda look over their shoulder to the Litvishe extremists and their “Gedolim”.
But we must said Torah learning is increasing and the observance of mitzvos is ever increasing

cipher says:

Like most frum people, you confuse quantity with quality.

YCT may be the “not YU” non-Charedi seminary, but calling it “influential” is stretching the term beyond recognition

I went to his synagogue often in Chicago. He’s a good man. Never saw Emanuel. Not even once

altershmalter says:

Wish that Rav Moshe were still with us…his measured analyses and practical interpretations of halacha were so ahead of their time…seems like we have regressed by trying to standardize, pigeon-hole and criticize instead of seeking common ground solutions.

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The New ‘Morethodox’ Rabbi

Asher Lopatin succeeds Avi Weiss at an influential seminary, offering a pluralistic version of Orthodoxy