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.
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.
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.