Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Rabbi Asher Lopatin

R' Asher Lopatin - seen here with R' Y. H. Eichenstein from his days in Chicago
If anyone wants to know how to be a Mentch, one need not look further than Rabbi Asher Lopatin. For those that are ‘yiddishly’ challenged, the word Mentch in this context has no English equivalent. The technical English translation of Mentch -  is man. But as it is more commonly used it means much more than that. It describes a man of refined character, a high sense of ethics, compassion for his fellow man, and great humility.  A man that will treat everyone with respect regardless of their background or personal circumstances.  A man whose good character defines him more than his appearance or material success. I’m not even sure that covers it. But being a Mentch certainly describes R’ Asher. In spades.

Rabbi Lopatin has just announced that this will be his last year as President of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT). In doing so he took pride in the accomplishments under his leadership. Many of which I have had profound disagreement with. I have even expressed my disappointment with what ended up being a hard turn to the left, when I had expected him to put the brakes on that when he took the helm.  

In taking that approach he has gone way beyond what is acceptable to mainstream Orthodoxy. And thereby has done damage to his own cause which is to open up the tent of Orthodoxy to more Jews. But he truly believes in what he is doing in taking controversial  steps in that it prevents Jews that might otherwise gravitate to heterodoxy and instead stay within the Orthodox tent. Reaching out to those Jews is something we should all support. But it is the lengths to which he has gone that are problematic. Which has generated widespread disapproval of this version of Judaism by all of the mainstream Orthodox rabbinic leadership. In some cases considering it outside the pale of Orthodoxy!

Even though he has the best of intentions and holds that every step he took was L’Shem Shomayim, intentions cannot and do not define the parameters of what’s acceptable in Orthodoxy. As I’ve said many times- the founders of the Conservative movement has similar motives. They wanted to conserve Judaism as a response to Reform. But the way they did it put them on a slippery slope to where they are now – a movement that pays little attention to the observance of their members. Which has resulted in the beginning of their end. More of their members than ever are opting out of Judaism altogether. At breakneck speed, it seems!

So, yes I have had my differences with him and have strongly criticized some of his innovations and public comments. But that does not take away from his pure unadulterated sincerity and Mentchlichkeit. (Yiddish for  the state of being a Mentch).

I first heard about R’ Asher when Yeshivas Brisk honored  him at one of their banquets. He was a Rhodes Scholar who had ‘fallen in love’ with my Rebbe, Rav Ahron Soloveichik - and wanted to study under him at his Yeshiva. R’ Asher went on to get Semicha from Rav Ahron and Yeshiva University (YU) as well.

I became an admirer of R’ Asher when he was a Rabbi at a Modern Orthodox (MO) Shul in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago.  That is a neighborhood very similar to New York’s upper West Side where a lot of MO singles live. He built a Mikva in the neighborhood, put up an Eruv... and through his personal charisma he quickly built up that Shul from a very small membership to one that was overflowing. 

He treated every single member like they were the most important person in the world. He made sure that every member of his Shul had a place to eat a Shabbos meal. Every single week. Never was anyone left out.

As one can imagine, every rabbi has his challenges.  Serious questions in Halacha come up all the time that require greater expertise than a typical pulpit rabbi might have. Rabbi Lopatin was no exception. As a man of both great integrity and humility, he knew his limitations. He therefore consulted his Rebbe, Rav Ahron Soloveichik whenever he had that kind of question.

I don’t know who he turned to after Rav Ahron’s death. But I don’t think he has been the same ever since.  This is pure speculation on my part - but it seems like his empathy for others is his Achilles heel. Causing him to make decisions that Rav Ahron would not have approved of. He just does not know how to say no.

As noted, R’ Asher is also a man of great humility.  Self-aggrandizement was not in his vocabulary. No matter how harsh my criticisms of his decisions were, he understood where I was coming from – even while disagreeing with it. He did not hold it against me - knowing where I was coming from and why I said what I said. How many people can do that?

I don’t know what’s next for Rabbi Lopatin. He has so much to offer Klal Yisroel. Perhaps outside the bounds of a Yeshiva whose parameters he felt necessary to uphold and expand, he can find a more mainstream niche – a way to apply his ethics and humility to the benefit of all of Klal Yisroel. But whatever his choice for the future is, I wish him well.