The New ‘Morethodox’ Rabbi
Asher Lopatin succeeds Avi Weiss at an influential seminary, offering a pluralistic version of Orthodoxy
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.
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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