Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, a towering figure in the Modern Orthodox community who long before it was fashionable fought for women unable to get Jewish divorces and who was instrumental in founding The Jewish Week, died here Monday. He was 98 and died of natural causes.
A progressive Orthodox spokesman and a voice for religious tolerance and inclusiveness in a community moving to the right religiously, Rabbi Rackman took stands that ultimately left him marginalized by many rabbis, including former students, most notably when he formed a bet din to help free agunot, women unable to receive a religious divorce from recalcitrant husbands.
But he did not waver in his belief that morality compelled rabbis to try to correct what he felt was a halachic flaw.
At an overflow service at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue on Tuesday, Rabbi Rackman was eulogized by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun as “a modern-day patriarch” and a “rabbi’s rabbi.”
He came to embody the Modern Orthodox concept of Torah U’Maddah, Torah in the world, and he became a role model for a generation of Modern Orthodox rabbis who sought to balance the demands of Jewish tradition with those of the modern world.
Each of the seven speakers at the funeral service — burial was in Bet Shemesh in Israel — noted the rabbi’s sense of justice, compassion, wisdom, dignity and insistence on doing what he felt was right.
Blu Greenberg, a founding Orthodox feminist who grew up with Rabbi Rackman as her rabbi in Far Rockaway, Queens — he and her father studied Torah together daily for 32 years — described him as “a lone champion of causes close to the heart of women, and the more I knew him, the more I understood his greatness.” She said the harsh treatment of agunot “turned a gentle loving man into a fierce warrior.”
Deborah Lipstadt, the author and Emory University professor who also grew up in Rabbi Rackman’s community, said she learned from him that “on certain matters there is no room for compromise.”
Jewish Week Editor and Publisher Gary Rosenblatt told of how Rabbi Rackman was instrumental in rescuing The Jewish Week-American Examiner newspaper when it was in financial trouble three decades ago, helping to form a group of businessmen and philanthropists whose investments led to the formation of The Jewish Week as it exists today.
It was Rabbi Rackman, he said, who announced that he was investing the first $25,000, and the others followed.
The new ownership group of the paper broadened its news coverage, modernized its appearance and established a closer relationship at the time with the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, the forerunner to UJA-Federation of New York.
“We felt the need for a paper that was not only Jewish in its orientation, but one that expressed the critical importance of Jewish survival,” Rabbi Rackman later explained.
Rabbi Rackman, who served as president of Bar-Ilan University in Israel for a decade before being named Chancellor for Life, was remembered as an eclectic leader of the Jewish community, an Orthodox rabbi who advocated several progressive causes later adopted by mainstream Jewry, a gadfly who held leadership positions in many Jewish organizations, an early voice on behalf of Jewish feminist issues, a self-described moderate who took positions that critics tended to view as extreme and a prolific writer who used a column in this newspaper to advance the issues he cared about for more than two decades.
“I am allergic to extremism and extremists,” Rabbi Rackman wrote here in 1984. “In so many areas, we find the middle of the road abandoned. One should avoid extremes. Too much of anything is usually harmful.”
“He was a real humanitarian. He had tremendous energies. He had a tremendous ability to relate to people,” said Richard Hirsch, former president of The Jewish Week board of directors and a founder of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue, where Rabbi Rackman served as spiritual leader.
“He served his country” during World War II. “He served his community. He served his synagogue,” Hirsch said.
Rabbi Rackman “was a person who could see all sides of situations,” said Arnow, who became chairman of The Jewish Week. “He left his mark on the American Jewish community — he was at the center of so many things.”
A native of Albany, Rabbi Rackman was introduced to the life of a rabbi by his father, Rabbi David Rackman, a Talmud teacher at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (now the rabbinical school of Yeshiva University) on the Lower East Side a century ago. The elder Rabbi Rackman, a reluctant public speaker, often delegated his Shabbat sermon duties to his young son.
“I suppose I became an orator under pressure from him,” Rabbi Rackman said.
He was gifted as a speaker, and congregants marveled at his thoughtful, inspiring sermons, delivered without notes.
Rabbi Rackman, who earned a law degree from Columbia University and rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University, served as spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarey Tefila in Far Rockaway, Queens, before taking the pulpit of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.
During World War II, Rabbi Rackman was a colonel in the Air Force Reserve and served as a chaplain in the displaced persons camps of Europe.
He taught at Yeshiva University, the New York Law School and the City University of New York and served as provost of Yeshiva University before being appointed president of Bar-Ilan University, an institution under Orthodox auspices and now the largest university in Israel.
During his presidency, the school’s enrollment tripled, Bar-Ilan spokesmen said. The university’s Law Center now bears his name, and its Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women is named for him and his wife, Ruth, who died in 1997.
Rabbi Rackman took stands, sometimes at odds with other voices in the Orthodox community, including such issues as the acceptance of converts to Judaism, and the acceptance of children born to Jewish women in intermarriages.
“A concerted effort ought to be made to retrieve these children,” he wrote in The Jewish Week in 1984. “We may be peeved with their mothers for marrying non-Jews, but that is no excuse for our exclusion of their offspring.”
Rabbi Rackman began speaking out in the 1950s on issues affecting Jewish women, especially the plight of agunot, said Greenberg. “He had great compassion for agunot. He was way ahead of the curve. He was ahead of the curve on so many issues.”
Rabbi Rackman “was the first in a leadership role in the Orthodox community to speak out” on the topic, Greenberg said. “Nobody was talking about it. He was there before the Jewish women’s movement was.”
Some of his fondest admirers in the rabbinate felt that he had crossed the line of halacha, or Jewish law, in finding ways to free agunot by reasoning that had they known their husbands’ negative characteristics prior to the marriage, they would not have married them. But even his sharpest critics believed he acted out of moral conviction.
“Colleagues often ask why I spend so much time and expose myself to so much frustration to improve the lot of the Jewish woman who cannot marry because of the illness or intransigence of her husband,” Rabbi Rackman wrote in his Jewish Week column in 1994. “The question pains me. I would have expected at least rabbis to try to imitate God and respond to the cry of distress of even one woman as He did in the city of Sodom, as told in the book of Genesis. I wish that more of my colleagues would join me in being repentant and revive all the measures once used to save women from agony, loneliness, and celibacy.
“So I fight and take the abuse,” he wrote.
The rabbi, who encouraged couples to sign prenuptial agreements that would determine the division of assets in case of divorce, drew heavy criticism for his role in creating a bet din, or rabbinical court, that granted to women divorces that many other Orthodox rabbis did not recognize as valid.
“He put himself out on a limb in so many ways. He got a huge amount of criticism,” Greenberg said. “He really didn’t care what kind of opprobrium it would bring down on his head. He was driven by his great heart. His overwhelming sense of justice and compassion … directed him.”
“Often I must speak up [on controversial issues] because tradition itself deserves a better image than it is being given and, even more important, because those adversely affected by some of the prevailing attitudes and rulings require an advocate for their cause,” Rabbi Rackman wrote in 1985. “I know how zealously many of my colleagues, especially the younger ones, want to safeguard tradition from erosion. I respect their zeal and commitment. But I would like them to ask themselves more often whether their stance is truly God’s will or one that has become enmeshed with their own egos. I am pleading for God to be brought back to all the debates.”
“My family and I have suffered much verbal abuse from intolerant Orthodox Jews for many years, and my resentment may have come through in my writings,” he wrote in 1986. “For this I am truly sorry. Perhaps I was unequal to the sage Hillel, who permitted no abuse to provoke him.”
“I can’t think of separating ourselves into Orthodox, Conservative and Reform,” the rabbi said in an interview. “We are one people. History has demonstrated that we all have the same fate.”
Rabbi Rackman served as president of the Rabbinic Council of America, the New York Board of Rabbis, the Association of Jewish Chaplains of the Armed Forces and as a member of the executive of the Jewish Agency.
He was the author of several books, including “One Man’s Judaism: Renewing the Old and Sanctifying the New,” and “Jewish Values for Modern Man.”
A collection of his sermons and columns, “A Modern Orthodox Life,” was compiled by his family and recently published by KTAV.
Rabbi Rackman’s family was descended from Rashi, the pre-eminent 11th-century scholar.
“How come you never mentioned that?” Joseph Rackman, the rabbi’s son once asked his father.
“Look at what we’ve become,” Rabbi Rackman answered, dismissing a sense of genealogical privilege.
In addition to Joseph, Rabbi Rackman is survived by two other sons, Michael and Bennett; eight grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
Rabbi Rackman, who was active with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in the 1970s, “was the shadchan” who encouraged his philanthropist friends to buy The Jewish Week, said Philip Ritzenberg, the paper’s former editor and publisher. “He saw his role as that of a facilitator who made it possible for it to happen.”
“He was a role model for us,” noted Rosenblatt, “in that he maintained his dignity while speaking out strongly for what he believed in, based on his love of all Jews.”
A more contemporary newspaper with a wider appeal “was a concept that seemed not to need any explanation,” said Eugene Grant, a member of the initial investors group and later president of The Jewish Week board. “His enthusiasm was contagious. It didn’t take much to crank us up.”
“No one will deny that only the committed are to be credited with the survival of our people,” Rabbi Rackman wrote in 1986. “I respect commitment.”
The words of earlier Jewish leaders “prompts me to be critical of coreligionists who, in their zeal, are trying to hammer the last nails in the coffin of Jewish unity,” he wrote. “Am I doing it to excess? Perhaps. I know that I walk a tightrope. It is so easy to take a misstep.