The New ‘Morethodox’ Rabbi
Asher Lopatin succeeds Avi Weiss at an influential seminary, offering a pluralistic version of Orthodoxy
At the same time, Lopatin is taking steps to make Chovevei into a hub for progressive Orthodox thought. The board has agreed to underwrite a new center for halakhah, which will organize and disseminate scholarship and opinions from Chovevei faculty on issues ranging from religious divorce, conversion, and organ donation to Weiss’ signature issues of denominational pluralism and women’s participation. “These are society-changing issues,” Lieberman, the chair of Chovevei’s board, told me. “Too often you see rabbis ruling on issues like whether you can cut a birthday cake with lettering on top on Shabbat. That’s not on the same level. So, the purpose is to allow YCT to address in a serious, scholarly fashion critically important issues to Orthodox Judaism and produce scholarly learning in a form rabbis around the world can use.”
The question, however, remains how much the rest of the Orthodox world—both its Modern and its less modern wings—wants to hear what Chovevei has to say. In 2010, Nathaniel Helfgot, the chair of the seminary’s departments of Bible and Jewish thought, produced a groundbreaking statement of principles on the issue of welcoming gay congregants into Orthodox congregations, which was subsequently adopted by others in the Modern Orthodox world. But the stated mission of Chovevei—to train “a new breed of leaders”—still chafes for many in the established Orthodox world, and the yeshiva’s commitment to egalitarianism and Jewish pluralism is a non-starter for most in the ultra-Orthodox haredi world. “With all good will toward every Jew, I think it’s unrealistic to imagine that two groups with such divergent sets of goals can work together,” said Avi Shafran, Agudath Israel’s spokesman. “Fundamental differences in religious philosophy, despite the word ‘Orthodox’ in YCT’s literature, can’t be papered over. It simply wouldn’t be honest.”
Nevertheless, Shafran acknowledged, he could imagine instances where Agudath constituents and Chovevei might join in ad hoc efforts that don’t touch on liturgical or deeper philosophical issues—evidence that Lopatin will arrive in Riverdale without the baggage Weiss has accumulated in a lifetime of picking fights, and with a wellspring of goodwill to draw on. “I think some people on the right were disappointed he chose the path of joining with an organization they see as problematic ideologically,” Dov Weiss told me. “People love Asher. So, people who have antagonism toward YCT don’t know what to do with it now that he’s there.” Norman Lamm, the head of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, declined to be interviewed about Lopatin but described his former student in a brief email as someone “whom I value and to whom I wish good luck.” Everyone I spoke with said it is probably for the best that Lopatin is not a maverick in the Weiss mold. “He will be in many respects a calming force,” said Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva who also sits on Chovevei’s board.
In many ways, Lopatin benefits from being a generation removed from the arguments that drove Weiss out of Washington Heights in the first place. “He comes to this job with much less scar tissue than Avi Weiss has developed over the years,” Gurock told me. “The more lines of communication that can be established with other Modern Orthodox institutions, especially Yeshiva, the better.” As it happens, New York real-estate geography might help that cause: In a quirk of fate, the house Lopatin will move into with his family is across the street from the home of Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University. “When I get to New York,” Lopatin told me, “I’m going to nudge everyone.”
Some hope that Lopatin will reverse some of Weiss’ more progressive moves, particularly where it comes to the question of training and ordaining women. “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.”
What Lopatin lacks in crusading fervor he makes up in ruthless optimism and unshakable confidence in what he’s doing. A few years ago, he spoke on a panel at a Chovevei conference. “Someone asked a question like, ‘What if a congregant comes and says, “I’m really inspired by the Conservative synagogue down the street,” ’ ” said Dov Linzer, the school’s dean. “He said, ‘OK, let them go. It means we’re doing something wrong and we have to improve our act.’ And it struck me. I thought, ‘Here’s a guy who isn’t afraid.’ ”
And Lopatin has his sights set on an even broader goal than mending fences with the rest of Orthodoxy, one that would be revolutionary in its own way: unifying all of mainstream, progressive Jewish life. “I’ll sit down with the Satmar,” he told me. “But my dream is to have Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hadar, and Chovevei on one campus, to move in together. We’d each daven in our own ways, but it could transform the Upper West Side.” He leaned forward in his chair and moved his hands through the air, cutting out an imaginary section of Manhattan with a developer’s flair. “I’m not talking about closing down campuses, because I want more Torah, not less,” he went on. “I want to hear different opinions. Disagreement is OK—I don’t care if we come to a consensus, but put it all out there and continue the conversation.”
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