In the twenty-first century, the notion of Jewish exclusivity is dead. Our people want to think, to explore, and to grapple with the broader ideas of the world. Our people want to tear down artificial boundaries that keep others out, to remove the fetid culture of shame and intimidation. In our time, Judaism relegated only to the sanctuaries is dead. It is a time to bring Jewish values to work, into the home, to Capitol Hill, to our financial investments, to the grocery stores, and to the playing fields.
But who leads the way in such an endeavor? If you asked me who could follow my own spiritual mentor Rabbi Avi Weiss as the President of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT), I would tell you it is an impossible task. But one man rose as the clear option. And what a wonderful selection it was. Rabbi Asher Lopatin is the leader we need, guiding us in our complex time.
With a rare balance of Torah (Rabbi Lopatin was a close student of the highly esteemed Rav Aharon Soloveichik) and secular scholarship (at Boston University followed by a stint as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford), Rav Asher is an erudite thinker and thoughtfully deep Talmudic expositor. Due to this pedigree of educational excellence, Rav Asher did not arrive at YCT merely to be hidden away in the academy and the beit midrash. Rather, he has spent the last two decades building other communities including Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel in Chicago, an exemplar of the finest Modern Orthodox synagogues in America.
But not only is he a scholar, Rav Asher is a person of action, always on the road at conferences and gatherings to spread ideas and encourage sincere dialogue. He stands up for his values: he joins calls for justice, has joined a ban on foie gras and displayed leadership with the Tav HaYosher to support ethical kashrut practices, even when it could have been an inconvenient thing to do. He joins solidarity missions to Israel and recently joined an interfaith Middle East peace tour in Indonesia.
In this way, Rav Asher embodies an ethos that states unequivocally that inclusivity is not a charade. On the deepest level, Rabbi Lopatin is committed to the broader spirit of Torah: pluralism, feminism, social justice, Zionism, and the modern and post-modern manifestations of the Torah’s ideals. There is a lot of vision and passion, but also a deep humility for this man who empathizes sincerely with others and seeks dialogue and consensus in his leadership.
Others have wanted to destroy YCT since it emerged as the leading Modern Orthodox academy that trains the next generation of leaders to challenge the complacent status quo. Nonetheless, Rav Asher is a values-driven leader. While he listens and warmly embraces critiques, he doesn’t flinch from fear. He continues to preach that “we’re open to right and left!” He encourages his students to be bold and authentic while being humble and God fearing. He doesn’t seek to control but to inspire.
He truly values engagement with non-Orthodox leadership. “I’m very pluralistic,” he has said, “in the sense that I want the Torah message and the Jewish message to get out beyond the walls of the Orthodox synagogue and beyond those who call themselves Orthodox.” But he goes further: “I am a pluralist: We need to learn from all Jews, and connect and relate to all Jews.” He joins rabbis from other streams of Judaism not to persuade them but to be in solidarity with them.
Rabbi Lopatin is my rabbi. He has the epistemic humility to see that there are many approaches to truth but also the backbone to fight for the Torah’s highest ideals: that we cleave to God, enable halakhah to thrive to its potential, enhance our Torah learning, fight for the vulnerable and excluded, and build bridges for peace and understanding. As Open Orthodoxy continues to grow and thrive, he will be the model for countless people yearning for tangible, sensible leadership.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of seven books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”