Interviews Print
Coping with Modernity: An interview with Rabbi Emanuel Rackman
Coping with Modernity: An interview with Rabbi Emanuel Rackman

Volume 4 , Issue 1

Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, is among the most well-known rabbis in the Orthodox world. A great example of his own belief in Torah U' Madda, the synthesis of Torah Judaism with secular culture, Rabbi Rackman has both a law degree and a Ph.D. in addition to having obtained ordination from Yeshiva University. Former President of the Rabbinical Council of America, Rabbi Rackman is currently the Chancellor of Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

In this interview with The Jewish Review, Rabbi Rackman discusses the obligation of Orthodoxy to deal with the difficulties of contemporary society.

Jewish Review: Rabbi Rackman, over the years you have been regarded by many as a spokesperson for what has been called ?modern Orthodoxy,? and indeed you have utilized this term yourself, albeit with a small ?m.?? Could you tell us what it is that differentiates the ?modern Orthodox? from other Orthodox groups?

Rabbi Rackman: The principal difference, I imagine, is that we, the modern Orthodox, are prepared to cope with every new situation that confronts the Jewish people in any age; to cope with the problems that arise from the fact that we are living freely in the contemporary world and no longer confined to a ghetto.? The challenges of the contemporary world can take many forms; they may be economic, philosophical or theological challenges.? Some challenges may involve the mores or moral standards of a particular time and place.? Whatever the problem is we're ready to cope with it.

Let me give you one, perhaps extreme, illustration which comes from such a seemingly remote area as ?dress.?? We believe that it may indeed be possible to be an Orthodox Jew and not insist that our married women go about with covered heads. We have not yet so ruled, but we do know, for example, that the wife of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik did not go about with a covered head.? Therefore, we have reason to believe that he must have had good reasons which enabled him to interpret the halakhic tradition in a manner which permitted this practice.? Whether or not we accept this halakhically it is a challenge based on the mores of the contemporary world, and one which, while we have not as yet ruled upon it, should be investigated.? To take another more pressing example: we are challenged by the problem of patrilineal descent, a challenge which comes from inside the Jewish community itself, owing to the fact that a large segment of the Jewish population wishes to change the definition of ?who is a Jew??? The problem is this: are we simply going to isolate ourselves from those Jews who accept patrilineal descent or might there not be a way for us as Orthodox Jews to minimize the damage that will result from their doctrine.? For example, I made the suggestion several years ago (and I now understand that there are some halakhists who are working on it) that we should revive something that was very well accepted in the Talmud, that a father can come to a Rabbinic court and say, ?this is my son and I want to convert him,? and the Beit Din can convert him via circumcision and mikvah.? Now, even though the child is not old enough to say, ?I accept the yoke of the law,? he is converted, and has until age 13 to either accept what his father did or reject it.? That's in the Talmud, it's unequivocal, and? perhaps it is something we can resort to and make available to those fathers who accept their child's Jewishness on the basis of patrilineal descent.? In such a situation Jewish grandparents might have the leverage to convince the father that since he has already promised a Reform rabbi to raise the child as a Jew, he ought to do something to make good on that promise and bring the child through a formal conversion.

Now I have no illusions:? this is something that is going to be resisted by the ultra‑Orthodox and charedi communities, for there is certainly an awareness among them that such a thing is possible and they don't want it, perhaps out of a concern for ?lowering standards? of Jewish law and observance.? But, although we too are concerned with halakhic standards, what differentiates us, the modern Orthodox, is that we want to cope with the challenges of the contemporary world.? This is precisely what Samson Raphael Hirsch did and precisely what Rabbi Kook did in connection with the advent of secular Zionism.

A third example of facing the problems of modern times involves coping with the theological challenges of the Holocaust.? Now, I myself do not feel that the Holocaust should have affected our theology, because in response to this awesome tragedy I still prefer to say, ?We don't know.?? I simply retain my faith in response to it.? However, there are some in what I call the modern Orthodox camp who have attempted to meet this challenge with such concepts as Hester Panim, G‑d hiding his face, (an idea first proposed with respect to the Holocaust by Martin Buber and subsequently modified by others such as Rabbi Norman Lamm), and there are others such as Irving Greenberg who call for what he calls the renewal of a breached covenant.? The modern Orthodox are, within halakhic and certain theological parameters, willing to cope with any problem that arises.? We are not ostriches who simply hide our face in the sand.? But this point of view has always been prominent in Jewish history.? The Rambam had it in his day, as did the Ramban? In every era, the challenge of ?culture? comes in a different form.? The challenges faced by Jews living in an Islamic culture were different than those faced by those living in a Christian culture but these challenges were always considered and met, and Judaism was strengthened thereby.? This is why I feel that modern Orthodoxy is not a new philosophy: it is Judaism pure and simple.

Jewish Review: Apart from coping with the contemporary situation, I think it is fair to say that on your view it is a positive act for Jews to participate in the cultural, literary and artistic life of the community within which they live?

Rabbi Rackman Definitely, but not necessarily accepting at all.? We are critical of existing mores.? For example, we are happy neither with the materialistic values nor with the permissiveness which we see in modern society.? One of my former students, Lawrence Kaplan, who is now a Professor at McGill University, stated this best: Coping with modernity doesn't mean accepting modernity at face value.? We want to have the tradition pick the best that is available in the modern world, and to participate in those aspects of contemporary culture which support rather than negate traditional Judaism.

Jewish Review: Do we have an obligation to participate in secular culture in order to understand it?

Rabbi Rackman: The obligation of man, according to basic Jewish theology, is to conquer the earth, and this means both mastering it and understanding it.? This means the earth, and all of the inhabitants of the earth, and all of the ideas thought by these inhabitants.? That is the obligation in Genesis.? So, for example, when Sputnik first erupted on the scene Abraham Joshua Heschel was unhappy, saying, ?`The Heavens belong to G‑d and the earth was given unto man.'? Therefore mankind should not explore outer space.?? Dr. Soloveitchik object immediately, saying he couldn't understand why Heschel would say a thing like that, because ?conquering? does not, on his view, mean just conquering one planet, it means the entire universe.? Now? in order to do that we have to know science, and not only science but the nature of the human mind, the role and limitations of reason, etc.? I think one of the criticisms of modern Orthodoxy which has been articulated by Rabbi Jeffrey Wolf is that we have, through our concept of Torah Umadda, bifurcated Torah and science; but Torah includes madda, it includes science by its very nature, because in order to lead the good life, in order to fulfill the values which Torah would have us live by means that we must, as far as is possible, study and know everything.? Judges of the Sanhedrin at one time were not permitted to use interpreters; they wouldn't allow the words of a witness to be translated because the man who does the translation might alter a meaning or nuance and would not be able to impart the voice of the witness.? Therefore, Judges, in order to sit on the Jewish court, had to know 70 languages.? Judges also had to be familiar with such things as magic and witchcraft even though these are prohibited by the Torah, because they might have to judge a case involving them.

Jewish Review: You have written that at a certain point you were under pressure from certain quarters to make the modern Orthodox a separate movement.? Could you tell us a little of the history of this and why it is that you resisted it over the years?

Rabbi Rackman Some of my colleagues at Yeshiva University had foreseen long before I did, the development of a polarization within Orthodoxy; and they felt that Tradition, the Journal of the Rabbinical Council of America was itself moving to the right; articles by those who were somewhat ?left? of center were not being accepted, and so they felt that there ought to be a separate publication, and that there ought to be a separate group to back that publication, albeit within the framework of the Rabbinical Council.? I felt that if we were to do that we would end up delegitimizing ourselves.? I believe that we are at least as ?Orthodox? as those to the right; in fact we think we're more Orthodox, because we believe that the perfect faith of the Torah can cope with any challenge, intellectual or otherwise.? The other's are afraid: they believe that G‑d's Torah somehow needs to be defended and protected.? In addition, I was concerned that by starting a separate journal we would end up creating a split in the RCA, just as a split has since occurred in the Conservative movement; and we have indeed seen that there is a now a movement within the Rabbinical Council for some members to form a separate group because the right‑wing is pushing too hard.? I believed then, and I believe now, that this kind of divisiveness is not healthy for the Jewish people.

Jewish Review: There is a group, I believe it's called the Union of Traditional Orthodox congregations, that is organized around the lines you are speaking of.

Rabbi Rackman: Yes, such a group exists and I've tried my best to dissuade them from becoming a separate organization with separate conventions.? Thus far it is a fellowship, no more than that, and they are attempting to prevent the Rabbinical Council from going too far to the right.? Amongst the men who are leading it are some of the most respectable and responsible men in the rabbinate, for example, Rabbi Ehrenkrantz of Stanford, Connecticut, and Rabbi Stanley Wagner of Beit Midrash HaGadol in Denver, Colorado.? They had a meeting at the end of last August where I was asked to be the keynote speaker.? I couldn't attend but I sent them a message, again pleading with them not to become a separate organization.? Still, I could see how the group would want to take it upon itself, for example, to do the halakhic research on certain contemporary problems.? I feel, for example, as I have already intimated in raising the issue of women covering their heads, that with regard to the laws of dress or attire, the halakha simply mandates modest attire, and by this is meant attire that is not seductive, that would not arouse men either in the synagogue or out of it, and that it is not the precise form of that attire with which the halakha is concerned. It's not whether the limbs are covered, etc.? A sheath which covers the woman's body from the neck to the ankles can be as seductive as attire which ?reveals? much more, and perhaps this group or others might take it upon themselves to do the required research to clarify the halakha in this area.? Another area I have spoken of is that of the conversion of children born to (non‑Jewish mothers) and Jewish fathers.? I believe they should engage in research on this and other contemporary issues in order to maintain and strengthen their legitimacy within the halakhic tradition.

Jewish Review: There are those who regard your openness to secular thought and your call for halakhic sensitivity to contemporary life as evidence that you are closer to a Conservative approach to Judaism than you are to Orthodoxy.? What would you say differentiates your views from those, for example, who form the so‑called traditional, right‑wing at the Jewish Theological Seminary?

Rabbi Rackman: That's a double‑barreled question.? Openness to secular culture is by no means a ?Conservative? doctrine.? Such openness is found not only in the Rambam but in the Tannaim and the Amoraim: all those who participated in the compilation of Talmud were open to the culture about them, and that is precisely why the Babylonian Talmud differs from the Jerusalem Talmud.? Each Talmud reflects the respective environment in which it was created, down to the differences in methods of agriculture found in Jerusalem and Babylon.? There is even a source to say that the condition of the sidewalks in both countries is reflected in the two Talmuds.? On the contemporary scene you need look no further than Rabbi Soloveitchik himself who went to the University of Berlin to see a prime example of the integration of secular thought and traditional, Orthodox Judaism.? Now the main difference between myself and the right‑wing conservative is not in behavior.? I think the right‑wing conservative men are very careful, even meticulous in their observance of Jewish law.? They are trying to bring back Jewish observance in their congregations, many of them have even established separate seating.? They are certainly very meticulous in kashruth.? However if you look at the Conservative halakha, even as it is stated by the now late Rabbi Isaac Klein, there is a tendency for them to make changes that are not acceptable to Klal Yisrael.? Driving on the Sabbath is one example, which was permitted by the Conservative movement.? There is simply, from any Orthodox rabbi's point of view, no basis in the halakha for this.? Maybe the day will come when there will be battery driven cars that someone will find a heter for:? But we as modern Orthodox rabbis do feel bound, we do feel that there are certain ?poles? which restrict us in our attempts to find solutions to contemporary problems.? On halakhic issues Orthodox rabbis will, and I can't use a better word, ?sweat out,? any kind of a variation or deviation: it's done with pain.? The Conservative movement as a whole is sometimes a little blind in their application of halakha to new situations.? There is sometimes a lack of fear and trembling, awe and trepidation, in their decisions.

Now I myself have occasionally done things which others have found unduly lenient.? For example, at one point I stuck my neck out in an effort to help Jews in New York who were afraid of being mugged and wanted to carry some money on Shabbat.? Manhattan had an eruv and I thought there was some halakhic basis for people to carry money on the inside of their hat so that they would not experience the wrath of would‑be muggers who found them without any money at all.? Other rabbis frowned upon it.? But I felt there was an urgent need.? There was a young man who had been mugged and beaten up bodily near New York Medical College because he had had no money on him.? I was very concerned that many Jews felt fearful of going to shul without money on Shabbat.? Other rabbis said ?Let them not go to shul,? which to me was an unrealistic solution.? So I stuck my neck out.? Some agreed with me, some disagreed.? The point is that the modern Orthodox do search for ways in which halakha can be applied to the problems of the present day world but we do so with a sense of great limitations and trepidation.? My views on the ?poles? in halakha are based in part on the dialectic philosophy of Rabbi Joseph P. Soloveitchik.? Rabbi Soloveitchik says that unlike Hegel who held that a synthesis is derived both logically and historically from the opposition of thesis and antithesis, Judaism sees opposition as remaining opposition without resulting in a synthesis.? There are ?poles? in the halakha, these poles are opposites or antinomies, and in halakhic discourse we move between them, sometimes going closer to one pole and sometimes moving closer to its opposite.? This applies equally to Jewish theology in which there are also tremendous antinomies.? For example, God is both immanent and transcendent:? you couldn't have two things more logically contradictory than immanence and transcendence, yet we accept both: both are found in the kedusha itself as Rabbi Soloveitchik points out.? Kadosh kodosh hashem tzvaot, mi lo kal h'aretz kivodo, the whole world is filled with His Glory:? that is immanence, whereas Baruch kavod hashem mimkomo‑ ?Blessed is the Lord from His place? is transcendence.? They are contradictory, yet we accept both notions.? Another example is our belief that a judge must be merciful but at the same time strictly just.? As Jews we are very jealous of our freedom but at the same time we are most committed to law.? Now, as I have said, these same antinomies exist in the halakha as well.? For example, as I pointed out in a paper I published in Tradition many years ago, The Dialectic of The Halakha, in the case of mamzeruth (illegitimate children) we have on the one hand a strict ruling forbidding illicit sexual acts out of fear that these would be a mamzer as a result, but on the other hand the rabbis were extremely reluctant to declare anyone a mamzer and held that there was no obligation whatsoever for any one to inquire into a child's background with respect to this issue.? Using that example and others, I tried to show that there is a dialectic in halakha where sometimes you have a severe principle or rule which is very rigid but you compensate for it with a parallel leniency.? This applies, by the way, to the issue of homosexuality: there isn't any thing at all in the Talmud which even hints at an acceptance of homosexuality but, on the other hand, practically speaking you can never punish anybody for it.? The same applies to abortion as well.? We morally frown upon abortion but by the same token there is no punishment; there is absolutely no way that anyone could be punished for aborting a child: all you can say is that the doctor committed a khet, a sin.

Jewish Review: You're saying that the halakha itself recognizes that there are certain antinomies in moral life to begin with?

Rabbi Rackman And, I might add, that in a way the halakha leaves us with a choice.? It respects the fact that certain things are, in a sense, more moral than they are halakhic.? In other words, it may be halakhically wrong to do a certain thing but the halakha will still not punish you for it.? Judaism wants to give people the opportunity to develop morally on an individual level.? Why, we might ask, is there, for example, a death penalty for violating Shabbat but none for a violation of Yom Kippur?? We might speculatively answer that the community is not affected by an individual who doesn't want to receive forgiveness and thereby violates Yom Kippur, but that a violation of Shabbat has such an impact on the entire community.? The halakha here, it seems to me, developed in a way which enabled the individual to exercise a certain freedom: it is the individual's choice whether he wishes to violate Yom Kippur and thereby forfeit his own soul.

Jewish Review: In the case of mamzerus it seems that there are indeed two important values that cannot be reconciled with one another.? On the one hand we don't want to countenance illicit sexual relations while on the other hand, we don't want to punish the child for the sins of the parent.? Both are legitimate values, and we can certainly have sympathy for this whole line of thought.? But in the case that you have cited, that of homosexuality, it is perhaps harder for some to see that there is a similar dichotomy.? Are you saying that we frown on homosexual relations but that some other value is served by not exacting punishment?

Rabbi Rackman: In that case we don't have punishment because you need, according to the halakha, two witnesses to the act who had forewarned the accused of the illegality of the homosexual relations.? That made punishment unrealistic.? What I would say is that the act is not moral and we didn't want it to become an acceptable mode of behavior for males, because a homosexual man is not fulfilling his function in society to help procreate.? (Incidentally you know that lesbianism doesn't come into that category.? There is no punishment, even theoretically, for women being lesbians because it is regarded as simply prezutza, immorality plain and simple.)? While there is a punishment for homosexuality theoretically it is never applied in practice.? Indeed we don't punish a gay person today.? We give him an aliyah when he comes to shul even though he is known for being a homosexual.? But this does not mean that we would want to abolish any laws or change any statutes forbidding homosexual activity, because that would give the impression that it is an equally acceptable form of sexual behavior.

Jewish Review: We've received letters at the Jewish Review from individuals who are deeply troubled by this issue: who want to come closer to Judaism yet who fear so the rejection and judgment that they would face as Orthodox Jews who are gay?

Rabbi Rackman A grandson of ours was at a yeshivah in Israel and there was a young man who was a brilliant student of Talmud and ultimately committed suicide because of this conflict.? It was a terrible tragic thing.? He committed suicide.? He was discovered and he just couldn't live the one way and while most would have probably abandoned the tradition, he was so immersed in Judaism that he saw no way out.

Jewish Review: What kind of counselling could have been given to him?

Rabbi Rackman: I don't know.? I understand that Rabbi Scharfman at the Young Israel of Flatbush (one Rabbi) dealt with the problem and was very sympathetic and very understanding and helped the person to adjust in the synagogue, not to talk about his sexual life, but not to leave the synagogue either.

Jewish Review: Now, a person who was a known rasha, an evil person, say a felon, we couldn't give an aliyah to?

Rabbi Rackman We shouldn't.

Jewish Review: But in the case of the homosexual we don't have such a stricture?

Rabbi Rackman: We don't, because in the case of a homosexual the person acts in private, and to declare someone a rasha the person has to commit their sins in the presence of at least 2 witnesses and in some cases in the presence of a minyan, and the witnesses themselves must be pure, guiltless of any crime.

Jewish Review: One of the arguments against the ?modern Orthodox? or ?Torah im derekh eretz? point of view is that it seems to inevitably produce individuals who are less committed to halakha and who are less involved in Jewish learning.? Could you comment on this charge?

Rabbi Rackman: It is true, and there is no doubt that the rabbis of the Talmud recognized this too.? They spoke of four men who went into an orchard (the orchard, presumably, is Greek philosophy); one of them looked and went berserk, another one looked and converted to another faith, and one looked and died.? Only one of the four, Rabbi Akiva, entered in peace and came out in peace.? This indicates that we have always been aware of the danger, and that, therefore, not everybody should feel that all secular learning should be approached through an open door.? This is why many Orthodox parents who send their children to universities encourage them to study accounting, to become businessmen, chemists even, but not to engage in the study of philosophy and psychology.? The threats and challenges to Judaism come from the humanities and the social sciences, not so much from the natural sciences.? Natural science, we know, has no pretense to absolute truth; at best it gives you a good guess, a relative truth, and thus most observant Jews can safely enter its realm.? By the same token it is very important for some people to study the humanities, philosophy and social sciences, because, first, we know that the majority of Jews are going to be exposed to modern culture, and hence our permitting the dual exposure to Torah and philosophy, for example, helps to allow those who want to remain loyal Jews to do so without undue conflict.? In addition, we ultimately discover, for example, that the writings of the Rambam and his successors (including those who frowned upon him and prohibited his works) showed an influence of ?secular? ideas.? There were some ideas which emerged from the encounter of torah and secular thought which are of everlasting religious value.? For example, the writings of Samson Rafael Hirsch are so influenced by Immanuel Kant that we cannot fully appreciate Hirsch without an understanding of Kant, and there are indeed some insights of Hirsch, albeit stemming from a Kantian or Hegelian influence, which are valid despite these influences and have and will outlive (what might be perceived to be) the failure of Kant or Hegel.

Jewish Review: You have even gone so far as to say that the ways of the so‑called ultra‑Orthodox may be unauthentic.? How is this so?

Rabbi Rackman: I say that because Jews did not, in the past, choose to live in a ghetto and they did not live in isolation except during periods when they were forced to do so.? Now it is true that the Torah is concerned, and this is expressed in may passages in Deuteronomy, that when we met with other peoples we should not be corrupted by them and the Torah does prohibit us from adopting certain of their ways and mores, but by the same token we find that the rabbis of the middle ages had contact with Christians and, especially, Moslems and there was fraternization amongst the intellectuals of each of these faiths.? Most of the translations of the classic Greek works were originally translated into Arabic and then, by Jews, into Latin for the benefit of the Christian world.? It is true that there is a danger in such fraternization but the answer is not, nor has it ever been, to completely isolate ourselves, for to do so is to admit that the Torah can't cope with the challenges of other cultures and ideas.

Jewish Review: Let me ask you about the so‑called ?higher biblical criticism.?? You have written that any Orthodox Jew who goes to college will probably be exposed to such thought but that very few will actually face and solve this challenge with any measure of real intellectual honesty.?? How is biblical criticism handled at Bar Ilan University and what in your view would be an intellectually honest resolution to this challenge?

Rabbi Rackman: This is a very good question and I wish I could answer it with the same ease that I have answered some of your others.? I have not done too much in the way of Biblical studies but this problem does bother me greatly because as much as I try to encourage some of our able students at Bar Ilan to become specialists in Bible and to cope with this problem I find that even at Bar Ilan a student who wants to study in our elitist group the Machon Gemorrah Torah (where students spend half their time studying in the typical yeshivah manner and the other half in the University) he will find that the teachers in this institute for higher Talmudic studies won't permit him to major in Bible, because they're so afraid of the damage that might be done by exposure to it. You must realize that at Bar Ilan we have both a department of Bible and a department of Talmud where they are studied with a scholarly, scientific approach, and then we have our Machon Gemorrah Torah, a yeshivah which has a much larger number of students than those other two departments combined.

Jewish Review: These scientific departments of Bible and Talmud distinguish Bar Ilan from Yeshiva University?

Rabbi Rackman: That's right, and at Bar Ilan the ?higher criticism? is taught.? Once a student has been accepted into the graduate department of Bible we allow the student to pursue these areas.? As the head of Bar Ilan I was very much interested in having the University make a contribution in this area.? It is one of the areas, however, where I did not accomplish as much as I wanted to, because of the resistance of the traditional teachers of Talmud who were afraid.? I myself believe that a great scholar by the name of Professor Kutscher was able to demonstrate that Isaiah was written by one man.? Now in spite of this I should say that we don't have as one of our 13 articles of faith that we must believe that all of Isaiah was written by one prophet.? The Talmud recognized that not all of the Psalms were written by King David, in spite of the tradition we have to that effect.? Some of the Psalms may have been written by people other than David and you are not heterodox if you believe this.? Again the Talmud says that Shlomo, King Solomon, wrote Song of Songs and Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, but I don't think that a man is unOrthodox if he feels that parts, in any way, may contain emendations and additions.? With regard to the Torah itself, there you have a hard and fast dogma that it is all God‑given.? But the Talmud does not try to specify at all what is meant by ?God‑given.?? One? text will say that G‑d never came down to give anything; Rambam held that the Book of D'varim (Deuteronomy) was written by Moshe and was included in the Torah because G‑d accepted it but that the authorship is Moses.? Rambam says that the curses in Bechosai are fewer than those in Ki Sovo, because Moshe wrote the latter and a human being is more vindictive than G‑d.? The point I am making is that there are traditional Jewish sources which indicate that even for our Chochamim the Biblical texts have the Kedusha of the divine but the form of revelation is not fixed or specified.? I once wrote that a firm doctrine of our faith is that G‑d created the world but that does not mean that we know anything about the ?how? of creation.? Our faith is not going to dictate whether it was the evolutionary cosmological process which was held by scientists until recently, or the ?Big Bang? theory which seems to justify a more literal approach to the Biblical account.? With regard to the Torah it is possible to think along the same lines as Franz Rosenzweig who held that the redactor, being Moshe, took into the Torah many parts that were written by man, and the Midrash itself even says that Jacob's prophecy was written down at the time he said it.? How did the Jews remember when they were slaves in Egypt that they were indeed a people.? The Midrash says that they had megillot, scrolls with which they entertained themselves from Friday night to Friday night.? This suggests that a part of the Torah was written earlier and parts written later.? Certainly the language of certain parts of the Torah came from Abraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov.? Now there came a point where the Torah became whole and was given an imprimatur which is divine, and just as I don't know how the world was created but I believe that it was created, so I accept the authenticity of our texts as binding and one.? The Torah is divine but the exact path it took to its final form remains, at least for me, unknown.

Jewish Review: So is it fair to say then that you feel that the teaching of scientific biblical criticism is no more or less threatening to Torah principles than the teaching of scientific biology and evolution?

Rabbi Rackman: No, it is more dangerous, because the scientist is not trying to communicate anything to you which he regards as binding upon you.? He has only hypotheses.? For a scientist everything is only relatively true and he'll change the hypotheses when the laboratory indicates that the hypothesis warrants change.? When I'm talking to a man about faith I'm not talking about a hypothesis: this is something upon which I am staking his life.? I stake my life on the belief that the Torah is life.? I stake my life on the belief that the Torah is divine. This issue is much more serious and, therefore, much more dangerous.

Jewish Review:? But you nevertheless do not want to put your head in the sand with it either?

Rabbi Rackman Certainly not, and I'd like to get the people at Bar Ilan to pursue biblical criticism from a Jewish perspective.? Remember that so much of the ?higher criticism? came from anti‑semites who wanted to prove that the Hebraic civilization was not ours and that we took it from the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians and Hammurabi.? So the conception of biblical criticism was b'tuvah, an ?impurity,? possibly stemming from anti‑semitism.? So I felt, as the head of Bar Ilan University, that it was my responsibility to try and create a cadre of Jewishly committed biblical scholars.? I do not feel that I have, with a very few exceptions, succeeded.? There are some young scholars such as Shalom Carmy who are wrestling with these issues and I can only encourage them.

Jewish Review:? You have said with regard to the Jewish women's movement that the prospect for changes which many hope to achieve in halakha for the improvement of the status of women are being hurt by the iconoclasm of Orthodoxy's critics.? What changes would you like to see in the status of women and how might those concerned within the Orthodox movement go about achieving them?

Rabbi Rackman: I am an extremist when it comes to this issue and I would like to see the reestablishment of the annulment of marriages.? It would solve many problems, including that of the agunah but also the problem which Rabbi Soloveitchik felt couldn't be solved, the marriage of a kohen to a divorcee.? If marriages could be annulled it would eliminate so many of the problems of mamzerut.? Jewish thought does provide for the annulment of marriages.? We had this in the past and we are also doing it today.? There are many a Bet Din that will annul a marriage, quietly, secretly, without giving it any publicity.? We're afraid to do it wholesale, and I could understand this as stemming from the fact that we don't want to disturb the sanctity of marriage but when you hear the cry of the agunah, the woman who cannot obtain or whose husband will not provide, a get, you have to balance that against the sanctity issue.? We spoke earlier about balancing values in halakha and this is one area where such a balance has yet to be achieved.? Rabbi Jakobovitz in England is so disturbed by my views and the views of? Judge Menachem Elon of the Israeli supreme court (who has also called for the reestablishment of the annulment of marriages) that he pleads that hard cases make bad laws and some people have to suffer."? He says that some agunot will have to be content to console themselves that because of their hardship we are able to preserve the sanctity of the Jewish home.? I am much more responsive to the agunah's cry than I am to Rabbi Jakobovitz's argument.? The fact that these women are crying itself undermines the sanctity of the Jewish home.? People will say, if that is the kind of law you've got which creates such misery, I'd rather not be involved in Judaism at all.? We must realize that members of the agunah's family also suffer as a result of this problem and many of them also say ?who wants to be part of a religion that has such a law.?

Jewish Review: Some however would respond that there are many Jewish laws which when applied across the board cause some individuals to suffer.? Should we attempt to alter the halakha to accommodate each of them?

Rabbi Rackman: First there must, of course be a halakhic way.? Let me put it to you this way.? Blu Greenberg has written to the effect that if there was a rabbinic will on the agunah issue then there would be a halakhic way.? Rabbi Jonathan Sachs of England replies that there actually is no rabbinic will to do this.? He accepts the fact that there is a halakhic way but says there is no rabbinic will.? How does he know this?? I think that most rabbis who have dealt with congregants do want to see this problem resolved.

Jewish Review: And if there is a halakhic way why shouldn't that be used regardless if whether there is a majority rabbinic will?

Rabbi Rackman: Because, while I would be ready to do it, to create such a Beth Din I would be afraid that only 100 other rabbis would go along:? too large a group of other Orthodox Jews would not accept it, and as such it would mean that our solution wouldn't help.? This is simply one aspect of Jewish family law that makes all of us feel that we can't go off and as we say ?make Shabbos for ourselves,? make a change on our own without regard for its acceptance by others.? This is because if we do our own thing we simply bring about divisiveness and create separate communities that won't intermarry with one another.? By the same token it's important to say that there was a case very recently that was written up in the most right‑wing halakhic publication in America; where a man who had syphilis defrauded his wife about this and the marriage was annulled.? The woman married somebody else and a Bet Din in South America didn't want to recognize her second marriage because she had not obtained a get.? The case was brought before this right‑wing group which was asked whether or not the annulment of the first marriage (which was annulled by a centrist Orthodox rabbi) should be recognized.? And here even the charedi, the extreme ultra‑right said that in that particular case it was proper to annul the marriage because the man had practiced? fraud.? This case shows that the annulment of marriages is part of the halakha.? While in the past it was done very haltingly it has today become a must.? Men leave Israel, come to the United States, often leaving wives and children behind and there is absolutely no way of getting them to produce a get.? Sometimes they even come and serve as rabbis in this country, and there is no way we can do anything about them.

Jewish Review: What about the other issues that women are concerned about, such as women's learning, women serving as rabbis?

Rabbi Rackman: We've already achieved many changes.? Let's not underestimate our success in this area. ?The education of women has been a major breakthrough.? We have, in many respects, equal education for women.? That means that Rabbi Soloveitchik has taught his daughters Talmud even as he has taught his son.? Women are studying Torah sheb'al peh.? Yeshiva University established the first higher institute for women's learning.? Women rabbis?? There have been women rabbis in the past and I think the Orthodox are making a big mistake in drawing such a line around this issue.? It's one thing to talk about women as rabbinic teachers and another to talk about them as pulpit rabbis, or to talk about a woman as an Ayd, a legal Jewish witness.? This is because there may be certain disabilities that women will suffer by making them rabbis in this sense because we still believe the ideal that the responsibility for communal affairs should reside with the men and domestic responsibility with the women.? That doesn't mean that there can't be a change of roles except that we would preserve in the halakha a certain feminine role or image.? It has been said in Israel by Rabbi Meir Bar Ilan, for whom Bar Ilan University is named, that women will serve as judges and that even in a halakhic state, that they will be witnesses.? We could eliminate just a few areas, such as cases of capital punishment, where they would not be able to so serve.? The halakha mandates the democratic ideal that a vote of the people can establish the competency of women to be witnesses and judges.? Torah would still retain certain limitations which preserve the ideal that women should still feel that their major function in life is to raise families (and hence to judge a capital case in which a person is put to death contradicts such a role).? This is an argument that the feminists won't want to buy but it is nonetheless projected by the Torah as an ideal.

Jewish Review:? So you would endorse the view, as expressed by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, that there are halakhic decision‑making functions that women can perform?

Rabbi Rackman: Definitely.? I eat in my home because my wife makes halakhic decisions every time she gives me a meal.? And,? more seriously, I might add that in the past rabbis have accepted women's testimony; for example, they presumed a man to be dead on the testimony of women, when they had no other witness.

Jewish Review: I think this interview shows that you've not a victim of the censorship in Orthodox circles which you spoke about several years ago.? At that time you spoke of a ?McCarthyism? in Orthodox Jewish life which has silenced many people who might have been of similar persuasion as yourself.? How did such censorship operate and is it as much a factor today as it was five or ten years ago?

Rabbi Rackman: It's more of a factor today.? First of all, perhaps I should speak autobiographically.? I myself was a victim of the age of McCarthy in 1951.? I was regarded as a bad security risk by the United States government.? I was then a Major in the United States Air Force Reserve, and I did some things which the rightists in America disapproved of.? I tried to get the judge in the Rosenberg case not to impose the death sentence after their conviction on treason.? I published an article (a chapter in my dissertation on the Israeli constitution which had nothing to do with human rights) in the National Lawyer's Guild Review, and the National Lawyer's Guild was on the attorney general's list of ?subversive? organizations.? So they had a list of complaints against me.? I was tried.? I was my own lawyer and I was cleared, but for three years I lived with the fear that I would receive a dishonorable discharge from the Air Force.? It was a very painful, suspenseful three years.? In all fairness to the government I was given the option of resigning my commission with honor, or facing trial, which meant that I might lose my commission dishonorably.? I stood trial.? It was very suspenseful.? I was then the rabbi of a very good congregation in Far Rockaway and my being branded then as a communist would have been professionally the end.? My colleagues hesitated to come and testify.? Only one had the courage to speak out.? Many said to me ?What do you need it for?? You have everything you want now.? Why don't you resign?? You need this commission like a hole in the head.?? But if you saw the picture with Gary Cooper, High Noon, I wasn't ready to quit under fire.? I went to Washington and I was cleared and promoted right away from Major to Lieutenant Colonel.? I stuck with it, and I know what it was to suffer in an age of McCarthyism.

In the Jewish world there developed the situation that people began to be afraid to speak out for fear of sanctions from the right.? And the man who used the term ?McCarthyism in Jewish life? was Dr. Joseph P. Soloveitchik himself, and that was one of the reasons he was afraid to come out and support participation of? Orthodox rabbis on the New York Board of Rabbis and the Synagogue Council of America.? He never specifically come out in favor of it.? Dr. Belkin did and Dr. Belkin wouldn't have done so had Soloveitchik opposed such participation.? Privately he told us of his support but Soloveitchik never had the courage to come out with his support publicly.? But not only he.? I'll mention another name, a very great man, Rabbi Eliezer Silver, who when the issur was issued against the New York Board of Rabbis, he said to me privately ?Folgshi nicht,? ?Don't listen to them.?? I was President of the New York Board of Rabbis at the time.? And this is what I mean by McCarthyism in Jewish life and this is one thing I hope your periodical will help to correct.

Let me tell you something about being machmir (observant) on halakha.? On the issue of Tay Sacks disease two of the Torah giants in Israel ruled that an abortion can be conducted even after six months.? Now Rabbi (J. David) Bleich came along and said that these poskim were relying on a text which was faulty and he may have been right.? Nonetheless Joseph P. Soloveitchik says the rabbis in Israel were right.? His answer was a delightful one:? those who were machmir had never seen a Tay Sachs baby [and consequently couldn't understand the distress this could bring to a mother].




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