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Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, leading Orthodox thinker, dies at 98

by Ben Harris

December 11, 2008 | 12:51 am

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 Rackman for being an Orthodox pioneer in trying to ease the plight of agunot -- women whose recalcitrant 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, 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," Lamm continued. "I sometimes thought he relished opposition: It sharpened his own perceptions. Besides, he enjoyed a clean argument 'for the sake of Heaven.'"

Rackman also was 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.

"They were, he taught us, our responsibility," said historian Deborah Lipstadt in her eulogy, recalling the sermon Rackman delivered upon his return. " When I took my first trip to the Soviet Union in 1972 in order to meet with refuseniks, I remembered his words."

Rackman's list of achievements is prodigious. Born in 1910, he 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. Army Air Corps Reserve in World War II, retiring with the rank of colonel.

Rackman went on to the leadership of New York's Fifth Avenue Synagogue and Congregation Shaarey Tefila in Queens. He 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 president of Bar-Ilan University in Israel. Rackman served as chancellor there until his death.

"The university and the Jewish world have lost a giant of a man whose greatness was derived not only by his intellect, but his passion and sense of social justice," said Moshe Kaveh, Bar-Ilan president.

One of 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 Rackman. The fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America accused Rackman of "arrogance" and the use of "spurious" legal reasoning, while comparatively more liberal British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks charged Rackman with contributing to the very problem he was trying to solve.

Rackman maintained that his activities were within the realm of Jewish law and drew on recognized halachic precedents. Even Lamm, who approved of 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.

"He put this agonizing problem on the map with great personal power and persuasiveness," Lamm said. "History will certainly give him credit for that. Even those who disagreed with his Bet Din for Agunot will honor his memory for his courage and good will."

After a funeral service in New York on Dec. 1, Rackman was buried Dec. 3 in Israel.

He is survived by three sons, Michael, Joseph and Bennett.

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