Rahm Emanuel's Judaism Through His Rabbi's Eyes

Rabbi Asher Lopatin talks with Beliefnet about the religious observance of the White House chief of staff.

BY: Alana B. Elias Kornfeld


New White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel isn’t only known for playing hardball (he’s been called a “profane, hyperactive attack dog”). The former Chicago politician and chairman of the House Democratic caucus, is also known for something far more enlightened: his religious commitment to Judaism.

Beliefnet recently spoke with Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Chicago's Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel Congregation--a modern Orthodox synagogue where Emanuel and his family are members. Lopatin, who famously gave Emanuel permission to take a conference call on Rosh Hashanah (something prohibited by the laws of the holiday), offered insight into the “model congregant” and how his faith influences his public work. 

Would you explain the difference between modern Orthodoxy and ultra-Orthodoxy for our readers?

Modern Orthodoxy believes that there are a lot of benefits to engaging the contemporary world outside of Judaism. It encourages engagement--and even struggling--with the parts of the outside world that seem strange. Whereas, I think I should say that more traditional, or maybe ultra-Orthodoxy, really has a negative attitude towards the outside world and basically feels that the more you can isolate yourself from the outside world, the better.

How would Emanuel classify himself in terms of his religious affiliation?

I think you’d have to ask him. Even though Rahm and his family are members of our modern Orthodox synagogue, that doesn’t mean necessarily that they would classify themselves as modern Orthodox. I do know that he and the family are close to a Conservative rabbi in the D.C. area, Rabbi Jack Moline. And I think they were involved with Rabbi Moline’s synagogue. I know that the Emanuel children go to a community Jewish day school, the Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School, which doesn’t classify itself with any movement.

There’s been a lot of talk about Orthodox ascendancy in politics, mostly as a politically and religiously right-wing endeavor. But now we have Rahm Emanuel, a very significant counterbalancing individual entering into a very important role in American politics. How do you see this changing the status quo?

Well, I’m not sure I agree with all the assumptions in the question. I believe that, within the Orthodox world, there is a sense that modern Orthodoxy’s on the defensive and the decline and ultra-Orthodoxy’s on the offensive and the ascendancy.

And I think that just the fact that Rahm Emanuel and his family are members of a modern Orthodox synagogue has to help modern Orthodoxy and give it a higher profile. I think we see that that a modern Orthodox synagogue can foster people that really can make a difference in this world.

But I think in some ways it shows the broader Jewish world and the non-Jewish world that Orthodoxy itself is not about hiding from the world, but it’s about really engaging the world and being a good citizen of the world. 

Continued on page 2: Emanuel's Influence on Jews »

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