(Pictured) Rabbi Asher Lopatin (Orthodox) with Rabbi Michael Siegel (Conservative) and Rabbi Richard Jacobs (Reform) at Milt’s BBQ for the Perplexed, a local kosher restaurant in Chicago.
As an avowed pluralistic Orthodox Jew, I have long appreciated the different movements in Judaism who have contributed so much to the Judaism we observe and celebrate today. Recently, non-denominational Judaism has begun to come into its own, with creative services on Friday night and Shabbat and institutions of higher Jewish learning. As my wife and I were involved in founding a multi-denominational day school, the Chicago Jewish Day School, and then sending our four children to that school, I have seen that sharing wisdom from the breadth of the Jewish community works and makes for a stronger Jewish experience. At the same time, I have always seen my home in the Orthodox community, and I have always been loyal to classic Orthodox beliefs and an Orthodox way of life. As a rabbi of a growing Orthodox synagogue in Chicago, I have been able to maintain both: openness and a home within Orthodoxy.
Now that I am beginning my tenure as the president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a Modern and Open Orthodox Rabbinical school, I face the challenge of trying to keep the Rabbinical school as an integral part of the Orthodox community – something some in the Orthodox community would question – while at the same time making sure we are open and pluralistic and eager to challenge the status quo within Orthodoxy. In some ways, these are contradictory goals: If we want to be respected by the largest swath of the Orthodox world, we need to hunker down to traditional Jewish learning and make sure we are not sending our students down any controversial routes. We would need to focus on wrapping ourselves in the protective garb of the Orthodox community, shunning contacts with the rest of the Jewish world. On the other hand, to be open and pluralistic means looking outward – “leaving the protective cloud” as the Midrash puts it – and examining and challenging existing Orthodox practice to make sure it is consistent with the Jewish values we have discovered through external influences. We have to embrace the other – rabbinical students in seminaries of other movements, rabbis and teachers from across the Jewish spectrum, and Jews who may have many un-Orthodox ideas and practices – all of which can inspire our students.
Deep inside of me, I feel that even though these goals are perhaps contradictory in the conventional wisdom of our times, I cannot give up either one. I look forward to rethinking the vision of the Orthodox world and the dynamics of a committed Jewish life. There needs to be a place solidly within the Orthodox world for those who combine a commitment to Orthodoxy with a desire to look outside and connect outside of the Orthodox world.
After the great flood, God tells Noah: “Leave the Ark” – literally, “Go out of the box”. I hope that Yeshivat Chovevei Torah can lead the way in learning new paradigms that enable us to cherish what we have and believe in, while “leaving the Ark” and discovering everything the world outside has to teach us. I pray that this paradigm for Orthodoxy gains acceptance within and without the Orthodox world.
Rabbi Asher Lopatin – Class V – is the president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, the leading modern and open Orthodox rabbinical school in America, with nearly 100 alumni and 40 current students in a full-time, four-year course of study. For the past 18 years he served as the spiritual leader of Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Chicago. He received his ordination from Rav Ahron Soloveichik and Yeshivas Brisk in Chicago, and from Yeshiva University in New York. Rabbi Lopatin holds an M.Phil. in Medieval Arabic Thought and has done doctoral work at Oxford University, on Islamic Fundamentalist attitudes toward Jews, while on a Rhodes Scholarship. He is the author of numerous scholarly and popular articles in several books and journals and has been the co-chair of the Muslim-Jewish Community Building Initiative of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. He is married to Wexner Fellow Rachel Tessler Lopatin (Class 3) and, together with God, they have four children. Asher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.