Wednesday, December 10, 2008

On The Death of a Giant

On The Death of a Giant: Thoughts on the Passing of Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, zecher tzaddik levracha

by Rabbi Michael J. Broyde

A slightly expanded article that was already published by the Jewish Press.

Rabbi Rackman’s vigorous work and dedication to very many projects, even when well into his nineties, gave me reason to hope that his contributions would never cease. I had known of Rabbi Rackman’s ill health for months and still the news of his passing came as a surprise. With Rabbi Rackman’s death, one could say that an era has ended.

Click here to read moreAs a law student at NYU in the mid-eighties, I had the privilege to work for Rabbi Rackman who, at the time, was the Gruss Professor of Talmudic Civil Law. We worked together, published a book review together, and ultimately kept in close touch for more than twenty years. Though it may come as a surprise to many, there have been numerous different occasions where I have identified myself as a student of Rabbi Rackman’s despite our differing opinions regarding an important matter in Jewish family law.


Rabbi Emanuel Rackman’s incredible moral courage and virtue shined brightly in a time and place when Jews ‘ought not make waves’ and, more often than not, our battles were judged not worth fighting. He broke through these barriers with his vision of moral courage and natural leadership. I will share with you one particularly apt anecdote as he once relayed it to me. In 1951 Rabbi Rackman, a veteran of World War II, was recalled as a chaplain in the Korean War. Shortly thereafter, he discovered that his security clearance had been revoked because he opposed the death penalty for the Rosenbergs’ and supported Paul Robeson’s right to free speech. Because of this offense, the Air Force offered him the choice of being honorably discharged wherein he would return home to his family but concede that his security clearance was rightfully revoked; or pursue a military trial in an effort to clear his name. After much consideration, Rabbi Rackman decided to go to trial. Having graduated from Columbia Law School he chose to act as his own lawyer and not only successfully cleared himself of all charges, but earned his promotion to colonel! When I asked why he fought so hard, why he willingly undertook the tremendous burden of a military trial, he looked at me matter-of-factly and spoke these words to which this day I still hold myself accountable, “a person can be right or wrong on many decisions that they make in their life, and we all make mistakes, but when it comes to one’s integrity, never let anyone impugn your integrity. Really, all a Rabbi has is his reputation and honor.” Rabbi Rackman never once veered from this conviction - his life was his reputation and his honor. Rabbi Rackman is a role model for honor and integrity.

I met up with Rabbi Rackman in Jerusalem once in the late eighties. At the time, we were writing a book review together,[1] (entitled “The Unfounded Fears of General Harkabi: Religion and the State of Israel,” Midstream Magazine 37:10–18 (1990)) but we spent that day walking and talking tirelessly throughout the city. He was about seventy-five but it made no difference, he still had the same vitality and vigor he’d always had and he surely walked me into the ground as the day wore on. At the day’s end, we found ourselves standing by the King David hotel. Here Rabbi Rackman shared with me his unrelenting awe in the return of the Jew’s sovereign rule over the holy land of Israel. And that he hoped that halacha was prepared for the challenges that living in the very world we had created would surely present. Then, in a moment I can recall so vividly that the words ring verbatim in my mind, he turned to me directly and said: “Jewish law must live in the present and not in the past.” These few words I found deeply moving and instantly I knew the depth of their truth and the gravity of their implications. I carry these words with me always and they represent the very foundation of the mission many have dedicated their lives to pursuing.

I will ask you to indulge me as I tell one last story. After Rabbi Lamm (yebadel lechaim aruchim) announced his impending retirement as the President of Yeshiva, and Yeshiva University’s search for a new President was in full swing, Rabbi Rackman turned ninety-two, and I phoned him to wish him well. We joked about his age and about his retirement. In jest, Rabbi Rackman proposed he throw his hat into the ring for the Presidency of YU – again! After all, Rabbi Rackman reasoned that since Rabbi Lamm had served as president for 26 years, then he could serve for 27 years and still only be 119 upon retirement! I laughed and he laughed. But I suspect the remark was made only partially in jest and that he would have dutifully accepted had the position been offered to him.

Rabbi Rackman had no such idea of ‘too old’ because he understood the purpose of life; to do good things. Every morning that God willed that he wake, that is what he did – good things. Though most of us await a time when we can retire, rest and enjoy the fruits of our labor, Rabbi Rackman never ceased being God’s Servant. And as a good servant, he always sought out God’s work to be done and never did he tire. May we all be so blessed as to learn Rabbi Rackman’s lesson: “We are put on this world to do good and not to do well.”


A true genius and a scholar, Rabbi Rackman was valedictorian of his MTA class in 1927, a graduate of Columbia College, Columbia Law School and a holder of a PhD from Columbia. He was a musmach of RIETS and it is clear from many contemporary accounts that he was one of the leading students at YU in the 1930s. He ran to Torah and Torah study in an era where many people ran away from serious learning. His book on Israel’s constitution written in 1950 correctly predicted that Israel would never be able to have a written constitution, despite that its declaration of independence mandates one be written, as the religious conflicts would prevent such a document from being ratified. . There were virtually no job in American Orthodoxy that Rabbi Rackman did not hold: He was president of the RCA, Provost of YU, Chairman of the Commission on Jewish chaplaincy in the United States Armed Forces during World War II and Rabbi of two major Orthodox synagogues and all of this was before he moved to Israel to be President of Bar Ilan University. When the journal Tradition first started – which I think marked the beginnings of the intellectual revivial of Orthodoxy in America – the writer of the first article in that journal is non other than Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, reflecting his place as the intellectual leader of the community.

He was a master of the English language; gifted in both his speech and his writing. His talent radiated in an era when much of Orthodoxy was illiterate in the vernacular It was a pleasure and a privilege to watch him write and to listen to him speak. The total and complete command of the English language made him, undoubtedly, the most polished orator of his time. A generation of rabbis watched and learned the extent of what can be accomplished by a brilliant rabbi with first-rate language and communication skills. As one of my teachers remarked to me “the Artscroll revolution—with its wonderful English and beautiful design and layout—is a veiled tribute to Rabbi Rackman’s vision that English, too, could be a utensil for holiness if only it was wielded by those who held a full command of both Torah and English.” We have become that generation, and he was one of its trailblazers.

Rabbi Rackman was not only an accomplished genius, but a mentsch and an honorable person who only behaved – even as others around him did not – with class and elegance. He was not ever afraid of telling the truth as he saw it, but he always did so with politeness and dignity that Torah scholars ought to travel with. The stories of his kindness and charity to others as a rabbi in Far Rockaway are still recounted to this day. So too, the obvious love he felt for his wife of 66 years, Ruth (whose passing a decade ago he terribly mourned) has always been a model to me of proper conduct. A few years after Mrs. Rackman had left this world, I was having breakfast with Rabbi Rackman in his apartment in New York City, and he was standing in the kitchen speaking to himself. I was, apparently, unusually silent so Rabbi Rackman said to me “Are you worried that I am going senile because I am speaking to myself” and I said nothing. He then said to me “No matter how busy I was, for more than 65 years I tried my hardest to have breakfast every morning with Ruth and that is when we would speak about our lives. She is gone now, and I miss her, so I still speak to her every morning over breakfast. I know she is listening.” I think I started to cry when Rabbi Rackman said that.


In all candor, my relationship with Rabbi Rackman was not without issue for the last decade or so. I disagreed with his approach to an important issue in Jewish family law, he and I both felt the need to take pen in hand to explain our views.[2] With the benefit of hindsight, I see myself at most as a dwarf, albeit on the shoulders of giants, and he was a giant, perhaps merely lacking enough dwarfs on his shoulders to help scout out the proper path. This and other positions of his, including ones that were criticized by another teacher of mine whom I revere Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l, did not prevent me from finding inspiration in Rabbi Rackman’s example. Actually, in spite of our recognized disagreement (and this itself is a lesson of Torah, which is just because one has a disagreement about the halacha, does not make the other person bad or worthy of condemnation), there was never a time when I did not view myself as a student of Rabbi Rackman’s approach to life and it is important to understand why.

The students of great people fall into two categories: One group of students defends and explains the works of their teacher, never acknowledging that their teacher could have erred nor consider that different times may require a different response. The other group of students adopts the teacher’s methodology and faithfully applies it, sometimes agreeing with the results reached by their teacher and other times respectfully not. I am in the latter group of Rabbi Rackman’s students, and I apply the methodologies that I learned as best I can.

Rabbi Rackman taught me four core values (which surely have been echoed by others from which I have learned). He embodied these values and they emanate from his memory and serve as a model for how I hope to live mine.

(1) Jewish law is a truth seeking venture which must live by the currency of logic and analysis, always living in the present and being driven by the data, both Talmudic and scientific.
(2) Ethical people live lives of compassion with the understanding that life is more complex in fact than in theory and are ready to recognize that sometimes people are frailand in need of help. Ethical people are measured by how they show compassion to the weak.
(3) Hard work is extremely important. Torah comes to those who work hard to acquire it, and virtually no one is a natural master of Torah. Regular and intense learning is imperative in being a torah scholar.

(4) Never be too sure of yourself and listen closely to the voices of the wise people around you. Rabbi Rackman once remarked to me that “everyone really needs a mentor, since a mentor serves the purpose of checking that one is not egregiously in error.[3]


Nearly fifty years ago, Rabbi Emanuel Rackman wrote one of the best abstract descriptions of how halacha addresses complex matters, and I have shared it with many people at many times. He wrote:

Judaism’s antinomies are important for an understanding not only of its theology and ethics, but also its Halakhah. Indeed, the data of Jewish theology and ethics are usually derived from the Law which fixes the essential character of all of Judaism. Unfortunately, however, many who are presently called upon to resolve questions of Jewish law are often oblivious to the antinomies which are implicit in their subject. Altogether too frequently they seize upon one or another of two or more possible antithetical values or interests between which the Halakhah veers, and they assume there must be an exclusive commitment to that single norm. The dialectic of the Talmud, however, reveals quite the contrary. Implicit in almost every discussion is a balancing of the conflicting values and interests which the Law seeks to advance. And if the Halakhah is to be viable and at the same time conserve its method and its spirit, we must reckon with the opposing values where such antinomies exist. An equilibrium among them must be achieved by us as objective halakhic experts rather than as extremists propounding only one of the antithetic values.[4]
Rabbi Rackman’s observation here is central and important. Jewish law is not some simplistic legal system where all the classical text point in one direction on all matters, and the proper outcome to matters of halacha is obvious to anyone who would just study honestly. Frequently, halachic sources have more than one value that is the obviously correct, and these values are sometimes even in tension. In cases where halacha is in dialectic tension, solutions are found grounded in compromise among the sources and not the supremacy of one view over all others. This is a central observation about Jewish law, and particularly important when dealing with complex matters.

Rabbi Emanuel Rackman gave more than 80 years of his life to the service of the Jewish community in America and in Israel, many of them in years when Orthodoxy was small, embattled and alone. May his memory be a blessing for us all.

[1] See “The Unfounded Fears of General Harkabi: Religion and the State of Israel,” Midstream Magazine 37:10–18 (1990) which is a defense of Orthodox involvement in Israel politics from one of its critics.
[2] For a sense of my view, see here (PDF) and for a reply by a member of Rabbi Rackman’s bet din, see here (PDF).
[3] If I had to explain psychologically Rabbi Rackman’s views with regard to Jewish family law that I did not agree with, I would observe that when Rabbi Rackman was younger he also was inclined to the solution he actually acted on later in life, but the voices of his teachers counseled him not to act halacha lema’ase. As he grew older, fewer people were around to provide him with the wise council that we all need.
[4] “The Dialectic of the Halakhah,” Tradition 3:2 (1961), pp. 131-32.

Michael J. Broyde is a Law Professor at Emory University, Founding Rabbi of the Young Israel in Atlanta, and a member (chaver) of the Beth Din of America. An erlier version of the article without the footnotes and a small amount of text was published by the Jewish Press.

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