2016-06-03
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. 

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.

How do you explain the hatred of Obama from some parts of the Jewish community? What can fight it?


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.