Rarely are the lost worlds of 19th century German Orthodoxy and Polish Hasidism brought together in one moment and in one space. This past Sunday, that rare event took place.
I had the privilege of attending the installation of the new president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the rabbinical school founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss that espouses Open Orthodoxy. Rabbi Asher Lopatin, the new president of YCT, a Rhodes Scholar and a Wexner Fellow who grew up in Newton and graduated from Boston University, formerly served for 18 years as a Modern Orthodox pulpit rabbi at Chicago’s Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation.
The installation program was remarkable for the diverse communities it brought together. The luncheon before the ceremony was hosted by Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a prominent Conservative rabbi and a dear friend of Rabbi Lopatin, at his home in Manhattan. A few blocks south, the installation ceremony was held at the Orthodox Park East Synagogue. A roundtable discussion on the future of the rabbinate, moderated by Rabbi Lopatin, included our own Rabbi Art Green, as well as Rabbi David Ellenson of Hebrew Union College, Dr. Arnie Eisen of Jewish Theological Seminary and Rabbi Elka Abrahamson of the Wexner Foundation. To invite such a distinguished group of non-Orthodox leaders to participate was quite bold, and the absence of a haredi Orthodox presence was understandable but a bit sad.
Many of the moving speeches made reference to the Sefat Emet of the Gerer Rebbe or the great Berlin Seminary founded by Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer and led in its final chapter by Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg. Several who spoke from the bima emphasized that YCT is a spiritual heir to the Berlin seminary in its intellectual openness and its concern for the wider Jewish community. The deep, internal spirituality of the Gerer Rebbe, whose Torah interpretations in the Sefat Emet were quoted multiple times by different speakers, was also a theme that ran through the proceedings. Indeed, Rabbi Lopatin was given a copy of Rabbi Weinberg’s response and the Torah commentary of the Sefat Emet as gifts to mark the occasion. Though these two great figures are not often experienced together, it was thrilling to have their spiritual legacies brought to life in that poignant time and place.
The intentional weaving together of these different spiritual worlds, those of contemporary North American Jewry and those of 19th century European Orthodoxy, was fascinating and compelling. As a rabbi who studied at Yeshiva University in the 1980s, I found it refreshing to witness such uninhibited “ahavat yisrael,” love of the entire Jewish people. Acknowledging such different perspectives with a recognition of their power and dignity was truly a pluralistic moment I will remember for many years to come.