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
I'm in a modern Orthodox synagogue, so I haven't seen firsthand some of the hatred that I'm reading about. But I find it very troubling. It seems to me that the ultra-Orthodox world was able to make their peace very well with Hillary Clinton, and for some reason there's something about Obama that is deeply disturbing to them. And that's very disturbing because, policy-wise, I think Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are very similar.
Do you think that it's racism?
It's such a heinous accusation that I would never want to accuse anyone, in particular someone religious, of that. But what I would say is that our Torah and our tradition tells us to stay far away from things that are bad, the things that look bad and that look immoral. We're supposed to behave in a way that is really impeccable, so people won't even accuse of acting immorally. And so, I think when it comes to the issue of racism, I think Jews, and in particular Orthodox Jews, have to make every effort to show that we're not stooping to that terrible level.
Again, I don't want to accuse anyone of that, but, I think that there's a lot of work that has to be done, and is starting to be done, in rebuilding African-American-Jewish relations. Let's look at this as an opportunity for really moving forward with cementing, once again, African-Americans and Jews as minorities that really need to look out for each other, and both have very similar calling.
Now we have a faithful Jew at the president's right hand, and one who likely hasn't made the same alliances with Christian Zionists that more right-wing Jews have, like Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and the whole neoconservative establishment in power for the past eight years, how do you see this shift affecting the connection between religion and politics in America, and also perhaps the relationship between Jews’ and evangelical Christians' support of Israel?
Politically conservative Jews and Orthodox Jews definitely have begun to have those connections so, I think those are here to stay. And I think AIPAC is going full steam ahead with working with Christian evangelicals in support of Israel. I think maybe the challenge is how are liberal Jews that are pro-Israel going to become more comfortable working with Christian fundamentalists and Christian evangelicals?
Maybe because more liberal-leaning politicians and people like Rahm Emanuel are now in a position of power, they'll be less fearful of reaching out to the evangelical Christian community.
Joseph Lieberman, another observant Jewish politician, and Emanuel have very different public images. How you see Emanuel rewriting the public image of an observant Jew?
I think that perhaps Rahm Emanuel shows that you could be a religiously committed Jew and still have a style that doesn't feel like a rabbi. I like the idea of people seeing that religious people come in all shapes and sizes. I think people for too long have had an image of an Orthodox Jew as sequestered and out of tune with the world. Being Orthodox or affiliated with an Orthodox synagogue does not sap your individuality, you know? Hopefully it helps you take yourself as an individual to do good things for the world. It doesn't sort of create robots, and I think that's great. So, if you look at Joe Lieberman and Rahm Emanuel and they're both members of Orthodox synagogues, you can definitely see they're very different people, and we're not brainwashing people here.
Do you think that rabbis in the Orthodox world are calling Emanuel a traitor to Orthodoxy in Judaism?
No, not at all. I think they're giddy. Everyone's giddy. Certainly Orthodox Rabbis are very happy and very proud of him, you know? There’s some disagreement over policy and all that, but I would say we're very excited to have someone who's a member of a modern Orthodox synagogue right there in the White House helping to shape the future administration and their actions.
What else have you observed about Emanuel that you'd like to share?
His image in the synagogue is one of someone who's serious about praying. He's chosen to be a member of our synagogue, which is not the largest synagogue and not the most well-known. He and his family have chosen to belong to a smaller synagogue where they could have a lower profile, and I think it speaks volumes to his humility.
It’s funny, because I think what you read in the press is maybe a little bit different. But certainly, he and the family, are very committed to certain things, and they're very committed to changing America and impacting the world, and that's what makes him such a passionate political figure. But, they're also committed to religion as a spiritual, protected space, and so we're just honored to have them in the synagogue and have them as very active participants.