The column | Pushing the Orthodox envelope

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It must be a pretty good feeling to be the honored guest at your boyhood shul — even more so when the rabbi of that shul is a graduate of the rabbinical seminary you now head.

So Rabbi Asher Lopatin, the newly installed president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, had every reason to smile when I caught up with him last Friday at Café Trieste in Berkeley — he was spending Shabbat a few blocks away as scholar-in-residence at Congregation Beth Israel, invited there by YCT graduate Rabbi Yonatan Cohen.

“It’s my hometown shul; this is coming back to my roots,” Lopatin said of CBI. He lived in Orinda until he was 8. He and his parents would drive to Berkeley for services, parking a few blocks away — typical Modern Orthodox behavior in the 1960s.

Lopatin’s genial manner and ready grin belies the, uh, garbage he’s had to put up with since he took over from Rabbi Avi Weiss last October as head of YCT, the liberal Orthodox rabbinical school in the Bronx that Weiss founded in 1999.

Weiss is always making news, whether as an early activist in the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry or — more often today — as the rabbi who pushes the boundaries of halachah, creating a seminary and rabbinical association as alternates to those of the Orthodox Union and daring to ordain a woman as part of his vision of “Open Orthodoxy.”

By stepping into Weiss’ shoes, Lopatin has inherited his tsuris. Lopatin marked his October installation by taking part in a roundtable together with liberal Jewish leaders, and was savaged for it by the ultra-Orthodox. And according to the Forward, few of his colleagues from Yeshiva University — the mainstream Modern Orthodox school — attended the installation ceremony. Even some friends suddenly had other plans.

Since then, Lopatin been trying to reach out to as many individuals and institutions as he can, particularly those on his religious right. He urges his students to do the same, in the name of klal Yisrael. The Orthodox Union will work with YCT rabbis, as will Young Israel, but the RCA — the OU’s rabbinical association — will not admit them.

It’s a tough road for such a nice guy.

Speaking of which, for the previous 18 years Lopatin had a prestigious pulpit job in Chicago. Why give it up, for such aggravation?

“I felt it was important to work with the future of Orthodoxy,” he told me. “As meaningful as it was to be the rabbi of a community, to be a voice in helping to shape the future you have to be involved in a national way.”

Asher Lopatin is ready to take Orthodoxy by the horns. Empowering women? Absolutely. Social justice? No reason why not. Lopatin’s “rebbe,” Rabbi Aharon Soloveichik, spoke out  forcefully on social justice issues from Vietnam to Biafra. “He felt these were halachic issues,” Lopatin says. “How you want to deal with poverty is political, but being concerned with poverty is Torah.”

Lopatin believes it’s time for the Orthodox movement  to get over its fear — fear of change, fear of being considered too lax. That’s why it’s not out front on social issues as it should be. “It’s about being afraid of the ‘slippery slope,’ ” he says. “Let’s be confident about Torah and the blessed traditions we have, and not be afraid it’s going to be defiled” by too much involvement with the secular world.

Lopatin believes YCT can play an important role in that change; the school already has 85 graduates working in a wide range of rabbinic functions. Three are in the Bay Area: Cohen at CBI; Rabbi Ari Leubitz, head of Oakland Hebrew Day School; and Rabbi David Kasher, director of Jewish education at Kevah in Berkeley. A fourth, Rabbi Gabe Greenberg, is senior Jewish educator at U.C. Berkeley Hillel until June, when he takes up a pulpit in New Orleans.

Locally as elsewhere, these rabbis and the communities they lead are pushing the boundaries of halachah, whether permitting women to pray with tefillin, or experimenting with egalitarian worship while still maintaining a separation between the sexes.

There’s nothing boring about living an observant life, not in Asher Lopatin’s world.

“We’re seeing an openness for people to be passionate about their Judaism,” he said. “These things are happening. Rather than being afraid of change, let’s celebrate.”

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at [email protected].


Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].