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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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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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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

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