NEW YORK — Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, a leading Orthodox thinker and an early champion of women’s rights, died Dec. 1 in New York. He was 98.
Tributes poured in from around the world last week, many of them praising Rabbi Rackman for being an Orthodox pioneer in trying to ease the plight of agunot – women whose husbands denied them a religious bill of divorce.
“One did not have to agree with everything he said or believed or proposed, but one had to admit that he was a remarkable human being and a remarkable Jew,” said Rabbi Norman Lamm, the former president and now chancellor of Yeshiva University.
“He made invaluable contributions to the Jewish community at large, to Israel, and especially to the modern Orthodox community in America. He taught the rest of us to have guts. I sometimes thought he relished opposition: it sharpened his own perceptions. Besides he enjoyed a clean argument ‘for the sake of Heaven.’”
Rabbi Howard Joseph, spiritual leader of Montreal’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue and a former congregant and student of Rabbi Rackman’s, recalls him as “the quintessential, paradigmatic modern Orthodox rabbi.
“He inspired us to think that we should try to solve problems, try to help people, implement the goals of justice and not get stuck in some of the details.”
Orthodoxy’s general shift rightward in recent years “put [Rabbi Rackman] distinctly on the left” regarding religious issues, Rabbi Joseph said, adding that he felt Rabbi Rackman’s approach was “balanced [and] central.”
Rabbi Rackman was also an early supporter of interdenominational dialogue. He was among the first rabbis to travel to the Soviet Union after the fall of Stalin and, upon his return, he drew attention to the plight of Jewish Refuseniks, Jews in the former Soviet Union who were not permitted to emigrate.
Born in 1910, Rabbi Rackman earned a law degree and a doctorate in political science at Columbia University while studying for the rabbinate at Yeshiva University. He served as a military chaplain in the U.S. Air Force Reserve in World War II, retiring with the rank of colonel.
Rabbi Rackman was also a president of both the New York Board of Rabbis and the Rabbinical Council of America.
In 1970, he became provost of Yeshiva University, and in 1977, was named the president of Bar-Ilan University in Israel. Rabbi Rackman served as chancellor there until his death.
One of Rabbi Rackman’s most controversial achievements – and, some say, his greatest – was in the realm of Jewish law, where he was among the earliest rabbis to demonstrate sensitivity to the plight of agunot, or so-called “chained women.” In the 1990s, he helped establish Beit Din L’Ba’ayot Agunot, the Court for the Problems of Chained Women, which annulled hundreds of marriages using innovative talmudic reasoning.
The court was widely condemned in the Orthodox world, and many rabbis refused to officiate at marriages of women whose original nuptials were annulled by Rabbi Rackman. The haredi Agudath Israel of America accused Rabbi Rackman of “arrogance” and the use of “spurious” legal reasoning, while the comparatively more liberal British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, charged Rabbi Rackman with contributing to the very problem he was trying to solve.
Rabbi Rackman maintained that his activities were within the realm of Jewish law and drew on recognized halachic precedents. And even Rabbi Lamm, who approved of Rabbi Rackman’s objectives if not his tactics on the agunah question, nevertheless credits the late rabbi with drawing attention to an issue many would have preferred to sweep under the rug.
After a funeral service in New York, Rabbi Rackman was buried in Israel. He is survived by three sons, Michael, Joseph and Bennett.
— With files from Frances Kraft