The New ‘Morethodox’ Rabbi
Asher Lopatin succeeds Avi Weiss at an influential seminary, offering a pluralistic version of Orthodoxy
Avi Weiss has always been known as an unapologetic revolutionary. As a young Orthodox rabbi in the 1960s and ’70s, he was instrumental in helping build the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, a movement predicated on the idea that established Jewish institutions were doing too little to help their brethren behind the Iron Curtain. In 1985, he led a group of Jews in a guerrilla Shabbat service at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, a historic and intentionally symbolic episode organized in protest of President Reagan’s visit to a war cemetery at Bitburg, where members of the SS were buried, during a state visit to Germany. Four years later, months before the collapse of communism across Eastern Europe, Weiss and six others were physically attacked after they scaled the walls of a Carmelite convent that had been built at Auschwitz and conducted an impromptu Torah study session in objection to the Catholic presence at the site of so much Jewish death. Weiss’ arrest record is legendary and stretches from New York to Oslo, Norway, where he was detained in 1994 while demonstrating against Yasser Arafat’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1999, Weiss broke with Yeshiva University, his intellectual home and the headquarters of Modern Orthodoxy, to start his own rabbinic seminary in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, under the banner of what Weiss termed Open Orthodoxy: the view that stringent observance of Jewish religious law in the modern world should co-exist with ideological flexibility on a range of questions, particularly concerning the role of women and Jewish denominational pluralism. Four years ago, Weiss took his rebellion one step further and founded Yeshivat Maharat, a women’s seminary, headed by his protégé Sara Hurwitz, the first American Orthodox woman to be ordained.
In January 2010, Weiss caused the biggest uproar of his career by changing Hurwitz’s title from maharat—an acronym for the Hebrew phrase denoting a teacher of Jewish law and spirituality—to the far more straightforward rabba, the feminized version of rabbi. The move drew an immediate outcry, including a statement from the Agudath Israel, a leading central authority of American Ultra-Orthodoxy, declaring that Weiss could no longer be considered part of the Orthodox fold: “These developments represent a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition and the mesoras haTorah and must be condemned in the strongest terms.”
The episode, which Weiss now refers to as “the rabba incident,” exhausted him. Now, at 68, he is preparing for what might once have seemed like another radical move: handing over the reins of his school to Asher Lopatin, a man 20 years his junior, who is universally known not as an incendiary but as a relentless bridge-builder. He comes from Chicago, where he was best known as Rahm Emanuel’s rabbi, and holds dual ordination from Yeshiva University and from the Yeshivas Brisk, the Chicago-based seminary established by Aaron Soloveichik, the brother of Joseph Soloveitchik, Yeshiva University’s intellectual leader. He is also a Rhodes scholar who speaks Arabic, an experienced fundraiser, and a leading proponent of a pluralistic, egalitarian, Weissish view of Orthodoxy he refers to as “Morethodoxy.” “This transition is about two words,” Weiss told me when we met recently. “Institution building.”
Lopatin originally set out to be a diplomat. As an undergraduate at Boston University, he studied international relations and earned a Master’s degree in medieval Arabic thought at Oxford. “My father was always involved in shul, but he felt rabbis schnorr off the community, and he didn’t want me involved in that,” Lopatin told me. “I think he wanted me to go into Jewish communal life, professionally, but his big thing was that the State Department could influence things more, so when I went on the Rhodes I was studying to be an expert on the Middle East.” Lopatin started a Ph.D. but also devoted a significant percentage of his time at Oxford to the Jewish Society, of which he was president, and also taught bar mitzvah students on the side. Finally, a friend told him to follow his heart into the rabbinate. “My mother had just passed away, and I decided, I’m just going to be a rabbi,” Lopatin said. “I’m very interested in Islamic fundamentalism, but it wasn’t where my passion was.”
As a boy living in the Bay Area, where his father was a research chemist, Lopatin attended the Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, then led by Rabbi Saul Berman, a leading Modern Orthodox scholar who now teaches at Yeshiva University. When Lopatin was 8, his parents decided to make aliyah and moved the family to French Hill, in Jerusalem. “We weren’t even shomer shabbes until we went to Israel, but we were Orthodox,” Lopatin told me. “We were very modern, but we never went to the Conservative shul.” The Lopatins stayed through the Yom Kippur War—which Lopatin remembers as a thrilling event—but after four years decided to return to the United States, moving to Boston. Lopatin enrolled at the Maimonides School in Brookline, which he found to be overly rigid after his experience in Israel. He successfully protested school administrators’ decision to cut the brief kissing scene from The Diary of Anne Frank but gave up on plans to promote a student boycott while trying to put together a student council after he was threatened with expulsion. “I did nothing exciting at the end of the day,” he acknowledged, a little sheepishly.
At 48, Lopatin retains a youthful quality, which is enhanced by his affinity for gimmick ties, including ones emblazoned with Disney and Looney Tunes characters. He has a full head of dark hair and a ready smile and is relentlessly earnest and cheerful where Weiss, with his habit of wearing his shirts open at the collar and his shock of white hair, comes across as intense and leonine. “You’ll never speak to him and get the mean Asher, or the I-don’t-have-time-for-you Asher,” said Joshua Lookstein, a Yeshiva University classmate of Lopatin’s and the son of Haskel Lookstein, the rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and principal of the Ramaz School. “He has mastered something no one else has mastered, which is that he gives everyone the benefit of the doubt.” Which may be one reason why Lopatin was the nearly universal choice to succeed Weiss from the start. “We spoke to more than 30 people in the United States and Israel and England, people on the left, people on the right, people outside the Orthodox movement, and they all said Rabbi Lopatin should be our first choice,” Steven Lieberman, the chairman of Chovevei’s board, told me. (The board also includes Jonathan Zizmor, of the infamous New York City subway dermatology ads.) “It was very surprising.”
In Chicago, Lopatin is credited with reviving the Orthodox community in Lakeview. “He knew he’d need an eruv and a mikveh and a school, and he built those things,” said Robert Matanky, a lawyer who helped Lopatin secure an eruv in the 1990s, shortly after Lopatin was named rabbi at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel. Lopatin and his wife, Rachel Tessler, were instrumental in founding the Chicago Jewish Day School, a community school that opened in 2003, and they have been aggressive about expanding kosher options in their area, from arranging a Shabbat ice-cream exchange with a local sweet shop to helping open a nonprofit kosher barbecue restaurant in Lakeview.
He has also been aggressive about reaching across denominational lines. On a sabbatical, Lopatin conducted what he described as a “Great Shuls” tour that included stops at B’nai Jeshurun, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and at the Conservative Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, where David Wolpe is rabbi. In Chicago, Lopatin routinely participated in round tables with haredi rabbis, and he founded the day school in cooperation with Reform and Conservative congregations. Last winter, he signed on to a letter for the Illinois branch of the American Civil Liberties Union alongside Shoshanah Conover, a Reform rabbi, and Michael Siegel, a Conservative rabbi—both of whom sit on the rabbinic advisory committee of the day school—supporting same-sex marriage legislation. “Asher called me from Israel to help me with the language so he could sign it,” Conover told me. “It was incredibly brave. He believes in the issues, and he’s willing to walk the walk.”
When Weiss started considering a succession plan, four years ago, Lopatin was one of the first people he considered. He knew Lopatin through a rabbis’ discussion group that had preceded the founding of the yeshiva and had traveled with Lopatin to Turkey, where he admired the younger man’s fluency with a world that had nothing to do with the rabbinate. But it was his son, Dov, a member of Lopatin’s synagogue in Chicago, who convinced him that Lopatin was the right person to carry on his legacy. “Asher is Dov’s rabbi, and it’s not simple to be Dov’s rabbi,” Weiss told me. Dov Weiss and Lopatin overlapped for a year at Yeshiva University and were also both Wexner fellows, but their friendship blossomed after the younger Weiss moved to Chicago to pursue an academic career outside the rabbinate. “I really advocated for him,” Dov Weiss told me. “He reminds me of my dad in so many ways—the way his home is always open, the human dimension, the way he can inspire people. Whenever you speak to either of them you feel like you’re the only person in the world who exists, that they’ll do anything for you.”
Initially, Lopatin wasn’t interested in the job. He was planning to move to Israel, where he had ambitions to help start a new community in the Negev, called Carmit, with 200 other American Jewish families. “We really wanted to make aliyah to Israel,” Lopatin told me. “It was very precious.” But after his younger daughter Cara was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, the plan was shelved so that they could focus on her medical care. By then, having already prepared his synagogue board for his departure, the idea of joining Weiss’ community in Riverdale seemed like a good substitute for the adventure in the Negev. “As far as changing the course of Orthodoxy and Judaism in America,” Lopatin told me, “you’ve got to be in New York.”
Yeshivat Chovevei Torah occupies the upper floors of a sand-colored building along the Henry Hudson Parkway, just across the Spuyten Duyvil Creek from Manhattan’s northernmost reaches. The ground floor of the building belongs to the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, known as the Bayit, which Weiss founded in 1971. Its 850 members include Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and his wife, Ruth Schwartz. Every Saturday, they come to pray in a soaring space with a blue ceiling and an ark shaped like a Torah scroll. The bimah juts into the center of the space, in the classical style, putting Weiss, Hurwitz, and other clergy in the middle of the congregation. The chairs surrounding the bimah aren’t fixed, and sometimes, Weiss told me, he makes his male and female congregants switch sides of the mechitza, just for the sake of it. The proximity of the school and the shul is intentional: Weiss told me he thinks of Chovevei as an educational institution along the lines of a teaching hospital, rather than a clinical research institution.
In June, Weiss will move his office downstairs, ceding the upstairs space to Lopatin. “We began as a reaction,” Weiss told me when I visited in March. “Unfortunately there’s been a move in Orthodoxy to the centralization of rabbinic power, and that’s dangerous. It’s dangerous in Israel in the chief rabbinate, it’s come here in America to the Modern Orthodox world, and the vision of Chovevei is to move away from that centralization.” The 800-pound gorilla he was referring to was Yeshiva University, a few stops south on the 1 train in Washington Heights, but it encompassed the authorities of the Rabbinical Council of America, the central union of American Orthodox rabbis, which does not accept the graduates of Chovevei for membership. Weiss, sitting in his shul, grew reflective. “Were I not a political activist who chose to operate outside of the establishment, I don’t think Chovevei would have been created,” he told me. “You begin from the outside. Judaism started from the outside—Abraham was a lonely figure.” He paused. “You begin from the outside, because that’s the way things start,” he went on. “But if you remain on the fringe then you won’t make it.”
Chovevei is now finishing its 13th year—its bar mitzvah year. It has graduated 86 rabbis, the vast majority of whom work as rabbis in a constellation of institutions: synagogues, Hillels, schools. Many wind up in places where they are the only Orthodox person in town: The rabbi of the only Orthodox synagogue in Alabama, in Birmingham, is a graduate; so is the chief rabbi of Finland. “Most of my congregants aren’t observant, but they’re fifth generation members of the shul,” Uri Topolsky, the rabbi of Beth Israel in Metairie, outside New Orleans, told me. Part of Lopatin’s appeal as the head of a seminary that is, at least in the Orthodox world, uniquely focused on pastoral training is that he has already succeeded at the job he is preparing his students to do: being a solo act and successfully selling Orthodoxy to people who aren’t totally sure they want all parts of it. “The first time we actually met was at a Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance conference, and I asked him something like, ‘What do you need to be a good rabbi?’ ” Hurwitz told me. “And he said, ‘You have to be able to give good drash, to inspire people on a Saturday morning.’ ” But it’s also about building a community that feels fresh and welcoming, which Lopatin has managed to do in Chicago. “I just don’t know if there’s going to be room for banal rabbis,” he told me, sitting in an empty office in Chovevei’s administrative suite. “Rabbis, to be successful, need to be scrappy, out of the box thinkers,” he went on. “They’re not just tending communities, they’re taking Torah values and putting them into practice, laying the foundation for a more inclusive Judaism that is going to touch people.”
At the same time, Lopatin is taking steps to make Chovevei into a hub for progressive Orthodox thought. The board has agreed to underwrite a new center for halakhah, which will organize and disseminate scholarship and opinions from Chovevei faculty on issues ranging from religious divorce, conversion, and organ donation to Weiss’ signature issues of denominational pluralism and women’s participation. “These are society-changing issues,” Lieberman, the chair of Chovevei’s board, told me. “Too often you see rabbis ruling on issues like whether you can cut a birthday cake with lettering on top on Shabbat. That’s not on the same level. So, the purpose is to allow YCT to address in a serious, scholarly fashion critically important issues to Orthodox Judaism and produce scholarly learning in a form rabbis around the world can use.”
The question, however, remains how much the rest of the Orthodox world—both its Modern and its less modern wings—wants to hear what Chovevei has to say. In 2010, Nathaniel Helfgot, the chair of the seminary’s departments of Bible and Jewish thought, produced a groundbreaking statement of principles on the issue of welcoming gay congregants into Orthodox congregations, which was subsequently adopted by others in the Modern Orthodox world. But the stated mission of Chovevei—to train “a new breed of leaders”—still chafes for many in the established Orthodox world, and the yeshiva’s commitment to egalitarianism and Jewish pluralism is a non-starter for most in the ultra-Orthodox haredi world. “With all good will toward every Jew, I think it’s unrealistic to imagine that two groups with such divergent sets of goals can work together,” said Avi Shafran, Agudath Israel’s spokesman. “Fundamental differences in religious philosophy, despite the word ‘Orthodox’ in YCT’s literature, can’t be papered over. It simply wouldn’t be honest.”
Nevertheless, Shafran acknowledged, he could imagine instances where Agudath constituents and Chovevei might join in ad hoc efforts that don’t touch on liturgical or deeper philosophical issues—evidence that Lopatin will arrive in Riverdale without the baggage Weiss has accumulated in a lifetime of picking fights, and with a wellspring of goodwill to draw on. “I think some people on the right were disappointed he chose the path of joining with an organization they see as problematic ideologically,” Dov Weiss told me. “People love Asher. So, people who have antagonism toward YCT don’t know what to do with it now that he’s there.” Norman Lamm, the head of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, declined to be interviewed about Lopatin but described his former student in a brief email as someone “whom I value and to whom I wish good luck.” Everyone I spoke with said it is probably for the best that Lopatin is not a maverick in the Weiss mold. “He will be in many respects a calming force,” said Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva who also sits on Chovevei’s board.
In many ways, Lopatin benefits from being a generation removed from the arguments that drove Weiss out of Washington Heights in the first place. “He comes to this job with much less scar tissue than Avi Weiss has developed over the years,” Gurock told me. “The more lines of communication that can be established with other Modern Orthodox institutions, especially Yeshiva, the better.” As it happens, New York real-estate geography might help that cause: In a quirk of fate, the house Lopatin will move into with his family is across the street from the home of Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University. “When I get to New York,” Lopatin told me, “I’m going to nudge everyone.”
Some hope that Lopatin will reverse some of Weiss’ more progressive moves, particularly where it comes to the question of training and ordaining women. “Maimonides always said that if somebody bends a page all the way to the right then he’s got to bend it all the way to the left to get it to go straight,” said Harry Maryles, who, like Lopatin, was ordained by Aaron Soloveichik. “It’s the opposite direction here, but the question is, what can he do to maintain the character of YCT and bring them back in the fold? I don’t know if he’s going to be able to do that and satisfy his lay leadership, but if anyone can, it’s Asher.”
What Lopatin lacks in crusading fervor he makes up in ruthless optimism and unshakable confidence in what he’s doing. A few years ago, he spoke on a panel at a Chovevei conference. “Someone asked a question like, ‘What if a congregant comes and says, “I’m really inspired by the Conservative synagogue down the street,” ’ ” said Dov Linzer, the school’s dean. “He said, ‘OK, let them go. It means we’re doing something wrong and we have to improve our act.’ And it struck me. I thought, ‘Here’s a guy who isn’t afraid.’ ”
And Lopatin has his sights set on an even broader goal than mending fences with the rest of Orthodoxy, one that would be revolutionary in its own way: unifying all of mainstream, progressive Jewish life. “I’ll sit down with the Satmar,” he told me. “But my dream is to have Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hadar, and Chovevei on one campus, to move in together. We’d each daven in our own ways, but it could transform the Upper West Side.” He leaned forward in his chair and moved his hands through the air, cutting out an imaginary section of Manhattan with a developer’s flair. “I’m not talking about closing down campuses, because I want more Torah, not less,” he went on. “I want to hear different opinions. Disagreement is OK—I don’t care if we come to a consensus, but put it all out there and continue the conversation.”
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