Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Rabbi Emanuel Rackman: The Death of a Great Man and a Great Leader

Rabbi Emanuel Rackman passed away yesterday. I was privileged to deliver one of the eulogies at his funeral in New York. It follows below.

Tribute to Rabbi Emanuel Rackman Z”L

When I set out to write History on Trial, my book on my trial in London where I was sued for libel by the world’s leading Holocaust denier, my editor said to me: “Deborah begin by telling your readers who you are. Let them know how you came to be the kind of person who would stand and fight the way you did.”

And so I sat down and wrote about how my parents had instilled in me a deep sense of right and wrong. Then I added the following:

When I was in first grade my parents decided to move from Manhattan to the suburbs. They chose Far Rockaway, a beach-side community in Queens, because they admired the local rabbi, Emanuel Rackman, and decided that this was the man they wanted as a spiritual leader and a role model for their children. A graduate of Columbia Law School, a man with a Ph.D., a learned rabbi, a lover of Torah// he combined knowledge of Judaism with the contemporary world. His meticulously prepared and well-crafted muscular sermons, delivered without notes, covered a wide range of topics -- everything from the weekly Torah portion, which he adored, to Arnold Toynbee, whom he abhorred.

Shortly after the fall of Stalin, during a period of Khrushchev-style perestroika, he traveled with a group of American rabbis to the Soviet Union. On the Shabbat of his return my father suggested that I stay in services during the sermon -- a time that we children generally ran all over the expansive lawn in front of Sharrey Tefila. “It will be memorable,” he assured me. Though I was not quite sure what memorable meant, I knew the trip had been something important. I did not grasp all that Rabbi Rackman said in that sermon, but I understood that he had made contact with a group of Jews who were not free to live as we did and we could not forget them. They were, he taught us, our responsibility. When I took my first trip to the Soviet Union in 1972 in order to meet with refuseniks, I remembered his words.

He was a stickler for doing things right. He insisted on decorum at services. He laughed so when I told him that as a child I thought decorum was a Hebrew word because the only place I heard it was in shul from him. Daledyudkoofvavreshmem.

A believer in intra- and inter-religious dialogue, long before it was in vogue, Rabbi Rackman reached out to people both within the Jewish community and outside of it. Right-wing religious Jews attacked and denigrated him for his attempts to demonstrate how one could -- and should -- draw upon the best in both traditional Judaism and the secular world. From the other end of the religious spectrum some would question his unwavering commitment to Halacha. How, they wondered, could such an enlightened man be so wedded to such an ancient tradition. He ignored his attackers and went on living a life that exemplified Torah u’Madah.

I remember how my father would seethe at these attacks and stress how important it was that Rabbi Rackman’s ideas not to be silenced. He believed in taking a stand and in speaking out when he saw injustice.

Long before I knew precisely what a role model was, I knew that I wanted to be just like him.*

What I did not know then and what I only learned last night from a colleague when I told him of Rabbi Rackman’s passing, was that in 1951 when Rabbi Rackman was recalled as a chaplain due to the Korean War, 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. The Air Force offered him the choice of an honorable discharge (not a dishonorable one). Had he accepted it, he would have been able to go home to his family but he would have to accept that his security clearance was rightfully revoked. Alternatively he could seek a military trial. After much thought, Rabbi Rackman took the military trial. He acted as his own lawyer, and was cleared of all charges and promoted to Colonel.

Why did he fight so hard? Because he believed that while "a person can be right or wrong on many decisions that they make, when it comes to one’s integrity, one must stand strong and never let anyone impugn it. Ultimately,” he said, “all a Rabbi has is his reputation and honor."

Rabbi Rackman was not afraid of controversy. He believed that Halachah had to live in the present and not the past. He knew that Halachah was fully up to the task. He sometimes wondered if its adherents and those who interpreted it were as well. He was willing to go out on limb and stand virtually alone when he felt that Halacha was not being allowed to rise to the challenges it faced. Such was the case when he tried to find a solution for long suffering agunot. What a terrible moment it was when he was so viciously attacked for his efforts. Would that his critics would have put as much energy into resolving the problem as they did in attacking him.

Rambam in Hilchot Talmud Torah perek hey [5] teaches about the great kavode we owe a Rav Muvhak, the teacher from whom you have learned the essence of Torah, the teacher who has shaped you. I may not have learned the majority of the things I know from Rabbi Rackman. But he gave me the rosh pinah, the cornerstone or foundation upon which I built so much of the rest of my life.

He taught me and so many others – by example as much as by words – that while one cannot fight every fight, there are certain fights from which one cannot turn away. He taught me and so many others – by example as much as by words – that sometimes, in order to live in this world, one must find ways to work together with those around you, even if you do not fully agree with them. But on certain matters he knew and was not afraid to say: here there is no room for compromise. 'ad kan, v'tu lav.

He was my Rav Muvhak.

He could be the scholar. He could be the lawyer. He could be the teacher of Torah. But he could also be a listening, caring, personally involved model of a pastor. There were a number of crucial moments in my life, particularly in my teenage and college years, when I turned to him with personal problems. He listened and he cared.

A great man walked on this earth and so many of us sitting in this room -- together with hundreds of others who were privileged to have his life intersect with theirs -- are more than just better for having had him in our lives. We are who we are, in great measure, because of him.

I have had many blessings in my life but none greater than when my father and mother chose Rabbi Emanuel Rackman as our family’s rabbi. The rest is history.

May his memory be for a blessing. Yehi zikhro barukh.

* Adapted from Deborah Lipstadt, History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, New York, Echo Press, 2006

My thanks to Rabbis Michael Broyde, Michael Berger, David Ellenson, and David Blumenthal for their suggestions and coments.


Unknown said...

Debbie, thanks so much for that beautiful memorial to Rabbi Rackman. You bring back memories of the days when I sat in front of you and your father and Helene in Sha'arei Tefilah listening to his spellbinding sermons. Even though I ended up as an apikoires, after giving him the chance to save me for the faith, I never lost my respect and affection for Rabbi Rackman. As you may not know, he also helped me get out of bad trouble in Israel a few years later, in 1959. Ask David Blumenthal about it, to whom my best regards, after this mere half-century.

With fond greetings,
Gary (Schwartz)

Alan said...


Thanks for posting this. Rabbi Rackman is my great uncle. My grandmother, Bess Falkow, is his sister and the last surviving sibling. I printed this and read it to her this afternoon. It was extremely meaningful to her as she sits shiva here in Arizona. It provoked memories long forgotten for her- again, thank you.

Unknown said...


This was a beautiful tribute to one of our generations real gdoylim.
Although I only met Rabbi Rickman, casually, at a Wiesenthal Dinner in NY a number of years ago, I wanted to mention that Rabbi Rickman was responsible for Bar Ilans creation of a Yiddish chair Together with Rena Costa, Harold Platt and other traditional Yiddishists, he recognized the importance of Yiddish and Yiddish culture in the panorama of Jewish education.
As the Artistic Director of The National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene-, now the only Yiddish theater in the country- my father , the late Joseph Mlotek, told me about being in the former Soviet Union, quite possibly with Rabbi Rackman, and how when he brought out the Yiddish song books that he and mother had published- mobs of people swarmed to connect with a Yiddish word.

I wanted to pay tribute to him and to let his family know that we appreciated his work on behalf of Yiddish and Yiddish culture- and that our work , now, where new audiences are coming to see our shows, now with English and Russian supertitles, is a trbute to a great man who understood the value of this language and culture for todays and future generations.

Koved zayn ondenk

Zalmen Mlotek
Artistic Director
The National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Unknown said...

Rabbi Rackman was a very special and great man and your tribute to him captures the essence of much of what he was. Courageous. Outspoken in the best sense of the word. The Jewish world and the world in general has lost one of its giants of this time and he will be sorely missed by many, many people.

Thank you for what you wrote.
Prof. Judy Baumel-Schwartz

Deborah Lipstadt said...

The Rackman family compiling comments and eulogies about their grandfather for the next generation. If you post anything here it will be passed on to them.

Jay A. Friedman said...

Debra – Estelle and I left Far Rockaway and Shaarei Tefila more than 44 years ago when we came on Aliyah and settled in Bat Yam and later in Ra’anana where we have been living for the past 38 years.

We followed Rabbi Rackman’s teachings and messages over these years but we never were in close contact with him and Ruth. We were building our careers and later our families and our communities. Moreover, to us Rabbi Rackman belonged to the previous generation; our parents and your parents (How we remember your gracious father and mother). .. Rabbi & Mrs David Rackman, the Bernsteins and the Horowitzes and so many others in that beautiful family we called Shaarei Tfila.

And so, we were not witnesses to all the things Rabbi Rackman did. We heard about his activities, we knew how much he and Honey had done to try to ease the plight of agunot.

To us, Rabbi Rackman will always be our Rabbi. He will always be our teacher. He always had time for each one of us. He was our madrich at Friday night meetings of Mizrachi Hatzair. He was our professor at Yeshiva University. He was our advisor. He encouraged us. He praised us. He chastised us.

I don’t have to close my eyes in order to imagine Shaarei Tfila. Actually, I don’t have to imagine it at all. I see it every time I say the name. The beautiful carpet. The bima. The voice of Chazzan Davis. The formality of Ptichat Aron HaKodesh. The line to say Shabbat Shalom.

The kedusha that was a part of the entire service. The feeling that the formality of our prayer reflected the formality of the Cohanim in the Beit Hamikdash.

And of course, the sermons. The uplifting. The intellect. The challenge. The directive that we have to do better. We have to act better. We have to be better.

Thank you, Debra. (I remember the young redheaded girl who was a friend of my sister.) And, as Rabbi Rackman used to write at the end of a letter – just before his signature.

“Love from House to House.”

Jay A Friedman

Deborah Lipstadt said...

Jay Friedman: Jackie's brother?

caroline said...

This is beautiful. An amazing tribute to a true gadol. You really are so privileged to have had him in your life.

Jay A. Friedman said...

I couldn't remember whether you were Jackie's friend or Pitzie's friend.

It's the age that causes loss of memory.

Remember, I was already seventeen when we came to Far Rockaway and you and Jackie were so much younger.

Deborah Lipstadt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

The passing of a true Gadol Hador and Tzadik. My parents (Dorothy Zwiebel and David Zenilman) grew up in Shaaray Tefiloh, and were married by Rabbi Rackman z"l in 1954. We moved from Far Rockaway in 1960, (when I was 4), but I still remember the Shabbat service, the bima, the receiving line and Purim with the red and green light. My father always spoke about Rabbi Rackman's brilliance, his devotion to righteousness, and especially how he was ostracized by the McCarthyites and stood up to them. Rabbi Rackman was a proponent of progressive Ivrit b'ivrit progressive modern orthodox education (sadly now an oxymoron), and one of the most progressive schools of the time Hillel (now HAFTR and now gender segregated, and now not ivrit b ivrit)was housed in Shaarei Tefiloh until 1963. Rabbi Rackman's leadership over the past decades in dealing with agunot showed great conviction and leadership, and his resilience to the haredi hate was no surprise to anyone who knew what happened in the military in the 1950s. The orthodox community has largely become conservative in thought and conformist, and paralyzed by "What the community would think" and adherence to a petrified Halacha. Rackman was a shining light to those who wanted to do the RIGHT thing, whos believed in a dynamic Judaism guided by Torah and tradition.

Anonymous said...

I just read your beautiful blog on R Rackman, also my Rav Muvhak. I was glad that a few years ago I was able to directly express to him what significance he played in shaping my life.
I am pretty sure that your father used to write down all the sermons after Shabbat. Did they survive?
I was very close to R. Rackman during my critical teen years and also inspired by his devoted Friday evening Mizrachi Hatzair meetings.
One Summer he 'hired' me as his driver so that he could attend to business while going places. However, I don't think he got much done since we were usually talking about something.
Later on he asked me to read early versions of some of his articles and comment.
Like Jay, I remember the grand dignity and Kedusha of Shaarey and have always tried ot recreate it in my role as rabbi.
Those were great years. I agree. Many of us and our parents knew that we were in the presence of greatness.
May his memory always be a blessing.
Howard S. Joseph

Unknown said...

I loved Rabbi Rackman as I did my parents. He was my teacher of Political Science at Y.U. He stimulated me to think independently and creatively. It was because of him that I obtained Smicha; for, he was the one who demonstrated in his life that one could live in two worlds, the world of Jewish life and secular learning. He encouraged me to pursue my doctorate in Clinical Psych; and, showed confidence in my ability to help people important to him. He was a person of brilliance, love and maturity. He officiated at the marriage of my wife Joyce and me. He and Ruth encouraged us in every thing we did. He was such a great Jew, if being a Jew meant being a beautiful human soul. I loved him so very much for his wisdom, his caring, his integrity and his courage. Our love goes out to his family.

Sam and Joyce Glaser

Simcha Zamir said...

Deborah -
Rabbi Rackman z"l was many things to many people, but to me he was a man who took the time on may occcasions to sit and talk with a troubled eleven year old. Rabbi Rackman is responsible, in no small measure for the person I am today.

Rabbi Simcha Zamir (Stefan Weinstein)

By the way, I still remeber those special raisans your mother would order from California.

Joseph said...

Gary sent me a copy of your eulogy (which I missed because they had no outside speaker for the kohanim to listen to the hespedim.) Even as a former White Shul member (:-)) I found it very moving.

I found out about R. Rackman's courage during the McCarthy era when he was appointed President of Bar Ilan. The Times had an article about his appointment and mentioned the McCarthy incident. I sent him a note congratulating him on his appointment and wrote in it that while I wasn't surprised at the courage he demonstrated, I was surprised that I never heard about it since I had spent a couple of hundred Friday nights and Shabbat afternoons in Mizrachi Hatzair with him discussing important issues including matters of ethics and the importance of standing up for ones principles and surely it would have been appropriate for him to tell us about his own experience during one of those discussions. And then I realized another great thing about R. Rackman. All the time he spent with us at Mizrachi Hatzair -- thousands of valuable hours taken away from his family and from his studies -- was never about him. It was ALWAYS about us. I can't think of another rabbi like that. All of us growing up in Far Rockaway during those very special 50s and early 60s, Shaarey and White Shul members alike, were truly privileged.

Warmest regards,