Thirty five years ago, the presidency of Yeshiva University almost went to intellectual Emmanuel Rackman. In a few years, it will likely go to administrator Steven Weil.
Rabbi Rackman is still ahead of the times, and unfortunately, more ahead of it all the time. Who would have believed that, so many years after he wrote, there are still yeshiva students who question whether a secular education is permitted and necessary? Who would have believed that, so many years after he wrote, that there are still zealots who believe that what should be done with the West Bank is a matter for halachah to decide and not a matter for statecraft to determine? Who would have believed that, so many years after he wrote, that there are scholars who are content to lock themselves up within the four cubits of the Law and feel no need to articulate what the Torah has to say about the moral issues that face the world in our time? If the time ever comes when the right wing is more open, the writing of Rabbi Emanuel Rackman will become a valuable resource and guide. Rabbi Rackman leaves behind some unfinished battles. His efforts to help agunot– women who are unable to obtain a Jewish divorce because of the greed or cruelty of their husbands—have so far been rejected by most of the halachic authorities within Orthodoxy. Indeed, they maligned him for trying to redress an embarrassing situation.
I am willing to bet that eventually the demands of justice will prevail, and, when they do, Rabbi Rackman’s efforts will be remembered with gratitude.
This is a book non Orthodox Jews should study carefully-for they can learn from it how to argue one’s case respectfully and thoughtfully, without maligning one’s opponent. Liberal Jews sometimes speak of Orthodoxy with as much distortion and as much disrespect as they accuse Orthodox Jews of speaking of them, and therefore, this is a valuable book for all Jews.
It is too bad that such an erudite and courageous teacher had to be a lonely voice within Orthodoxy in his last years. One can only hope that this collection of his writings will bring him more students who will understand that Torah and secular knowledge, observance and ethics, wisdom and compassion should never be either-ors, but should always be combined in one integrated, sane and sacred Jewish way of life.
Rabbi Jack Riemer is a frequent reviewer and co-editor of So That Your Values Live ON: A Treasury of Jewish Ethical wills, and is the editor of The World of the High Holy Days.