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


Continued from page 1

Do you think Emanuel will influence the non-observant to have a different view of observance? Most people, let alone most Jews, don’t think Orthodox Jews are supposed to be able to be this deep into the modern and secular world.

I think it will have a real impact. I know I have congregants that have had to go to court to win custody battles, because they’ve been accused, as Orthodox Jews, of being sort of these crazy lunatics. And I think when you do see these figures, however observant they are and however they would classify themselves, as members of an Orthodox synagogue, it’s got to have an impression on Jews everywhere. And I guess it does have to show that there’s a certain amount of normalcy to Orthodoxy. And maybe worldliness—a great deal of worldliness to Orthodoxy.

You’ve also been at the forefront of a very big fight along with Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabbi Marc Angel to gain control of modern Orthodoxy from the right wing. And so it stands to reason that your congregants, Emanuel included, would hold the same views.

I do try to speak out as much as possible on issues that I believe passionately about. One of them is the whole problem of the community not responding to people who would like to convert and who are sincere in their conversions. As well as issues of children who should be converted and accepted into the Orthodox halakhic community through conversion. I do find members of my synagogue—and Rahm and Amy are, again, loyal members of our synagogue—to be very supportive about my speaking out about these issues.

There’s been a long-standing criticism of the modern Orthodox as trying to have a foot in both worlds, and it seems Emanuel does have a foot in both worlds. And unlike the claim of its being an epic struggle, he seems to be living with it and doing just fine.

I think that in the end of the day, it is so important to be part of the world around us. Judaism and the world around us are not always in conflict--they do go together well, and they complement each other. I think that slowly the realization of that reality or appreciation of that reality will, for ultra-Orthodox Jews, make the position of trying to avoid the world around us as a religious viewpoint even more untenable.

Emanuel’s new post will require him to work seven days a week. What advice will you be giving him on how to grapple with the fact the Sabbath falls in there and prohibits certain kinds of work?

In some of the most demanding positions, we’ve found that you can keep the Sabbath. And again, there might be certainly circumstances where he’s called away. I know Joseph Lieberman faced these issues when he was running for vice president. But, I think that even the chief of staff, and even the president, need to preserve their own lives, and the idea of Sabbath for Jews is that you have to preserve a little bit of control over your life, and a little bit of space that doesn’t allow the outside world to crush you.

He’s always going to have to be accessible, just like doctors frankly are, and they wear their pagers. And as far as when he’ll have to violate the Sabbath for life-or-death issues, I think that is similar to doctors and other professions where they really have to be in close contact with a rabbi in order to get the law just right. And I wouldn’t assume that every Sabbath will be those kind of issues.

Do you think Emanuel’s Israeli roots and religious practice will reassure Jews who are skeptical of Barack Obama’s commitment to Israel?

I think they will, and I think that even more significant is his work in the Clinton administration and his reputation as someone who wants to promote successful policies, policies that have broad-based support. I think it'll assure people that the Obama administration, if anything, will have very pleasant surprises and no real nasty surprises.

The Gallup polling of Jews in 2008, which was the first-ever study that had enough Jews and data points to be very meaningful, showed that younger Jews are more likely to identify as politically conservative. Do you see Emanuel reversing the shift toward conservative beliefs among the younger generation?

Yeah, I'm surprised at that poll, because we have a very young synagogue. I think that young people want to see something that makes sense. And if Rahm Emanuel, as an advocate for the Obama administration, can sort of show that their policies are making sense and are working and are meeting people's needs, I think they'll win over the younger generation.

Continued on page 3: Jewish Hatred of Obama? »

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