A Modern Orthodox maverick, Rabbi Asher Lopatin faces Orthodox disdain — and support.
Detroit’s Modern Orthodox community is about to welcome a controversial but beloved rabbi into its fold.
Rabbi Asher Lopatin has made a name for himself as a maverick, a spiritual leader who is unafraid to stake unpopular halachic (legal) positions on women’s roles in the synagogue, gay marriage, conversion and other hot-button topics that have put him in the crosshairs of the Orthodox rabbinate.
His imminent arrival has stirred disquiet among many local Orthodox rabbis, who have made no secret of their disdain for his halachic interpretations.
Lopatin, 53, has been hired to lead a new Modern Orthodox congregation, Kehillat Etz Chayim, started by a group of families in Huntington Woods. His first Shabbat service will be on Friday, Aug. 10. The group will hold Friday night services at a private home in Huntington Woods and Shabbat morning services in the small chapel at Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park.
Lopatin is passionate about making connections between Jews at his Shabbat table and beyond. Along with serving on the pulpit, he plans to start the Detroit Center for Civil Discourse, a not-for-profit program that will train college-level Fellows to work hand-in-hand with people unlike themselves on civic projects and to promote respectful debate.
Howard Lupovitch, Ph.D., director of the Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies and associate professor of history at Wayne State University, is helping Lopatin to establish the program and says he’s optimistic the university will welcome another place to encourage peaceful dialogue. WSU also has the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies and the Center for Citizenship Studies. Lopatin said he is working to secure local financial support for the effort.
“I think this move to Detroit will, God willing, be able to meet both passions — the intense desire to be involved in the Jewish community and to take on broader issues we care about in America and the world.”
— Rabbi Asher Lopatin
“I love change and growth; I love to be part of a transformation of a city,” Lopatin said. “For me, the fact that there’s a large Arab and Muslim and Chaldean population is so exciting. I’m also interested in race in America — how we move forward; how those populations can work together.”
He says he hopes the program will spread to universities in the area.
Lopatin was born in the San Francisco Bay Area. At 8, his family moved to Israel, living on a kibbutz for four years before moving back and settling in Newton, Mass. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Boston University and a master’s degree in medieval Arab thought as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, where he also began work on his doctorate in international relations.
Lopatin returned to the U.S. to attend Yeshiva University’s rabbinical program, where he received ordination. He then entered Yeshivas Brisk in Chicago, studying with the esteemed late Talmudic scholar Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik, whose late older brother, Rabbi Joseph Solveichik, is considered a giant in the world of Modern Orthodox thought.
For 18 years, Lopatin served as rabbi of Anshe Shalom B’nai Israel, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Chicago that he won’t take credit for reviving. Lopatin says he got there at the right time, when young, observant families began moving back to the Lakeview neighborhood in northern Chicago. Former Obama chief of staff and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been seen davening there on Yom Kippur.
For the past five years, Lopatin has led Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT), a liberal Orthodox rabbinical seminary founded by another maverick, Rabbi Avi Weiss, in Riverdale, Bronx, N.Y. Weiss coined the term “Open Orthodoxy,” earning Lopatin the unenviable job of convincing skeptics that YCT is Modern Orthodox, a movement defined as Torah-centered, halachic and engaged in ideas in the world of science and the humanities. (See What is Orthodox Judaism?)
“Open Orthodoxy is a new way of thinking,” Lopatin said in a 2017 interview with Orthodox Conundrum, a broadcast about being Orthodox in America. “It’s not a break from the tradition. I’m all for new understandings of our tradition, of what the Torah is telling us, but I’m against thinking it’s a change from what the Torah has told us. Open Orthodoxy implies it’s a break from the past, but what we’re learning here at YCT is the tradition … We’re reading it in a more creative way. It’s part of the mesorah (textual Torah commentary).”
The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the association of Modern Orthodox rabbis that is affiliated with the Orthodox Union, does not accept graduates of YCT as members.
Coming To Detroit
Lopatin declined to discuss why he left YCT as its director. He says he decided to take the job in Detroit for a few reasons: It’s an opportunity for his wife, Rachel, a Hillel Day School alumna, to be closer to her father, Dr. Warren Tessler (she was raised in West Bloomfield), and he is excited about being in a city in the midst of a rebirth. Their four children will attend Farber Hebrew Day School in Southfield.
He hadn’t thought about returning to the pulpit, but the Etz Chayim families convinced him to lead the new Modern Orthodox congregation. Young Israel of Oak Park, Young Israel of Southfield and Or Chadash in Oak Park are the other Modern Orthodox congregations in Detroit. Their rabbis declined to comment for this story.
But Elliot Shevin, president of Or Chadash, a more progressive Orthodox congregation, says he welcomes Lopatin.
“Or Chadash represents a particular approach to Judaism, which I think Rabbi Lopatin shares: observant but inquiring,” he says.
Two local Orthodox rabbis who asked that their names not be used say they do not feel threatened by Lopatin’s more liberal views.
“I think it’s wonderful to have more rabbis coming to town; more Torah learning, more mitzvahs,” one says.
If Lopatin “recognizes the authority of the leadership that is here now, he will fit in. If he sows dissension, he will not fit. If his followers see him as a ticket to become slack in their commitment to Judaism and Torah, that is bad. If he brings people closer to God and meaningful observance, that will be good. This goes for any new rabbi who comes into town. He is no different,” says the other rabbi.
The announcement that Lopatin accepted a new position in Detroit has been met with equal parts excitement and vilification. Detroit’s “black hat” Orthodox community (so-called for the black hats worn by men) has held at least one forum to decry his positions — it equated “Open Orthodoxy” to “neo-Conservatism” — and his arrival has sparked a spate of vitriolic (and mostly anonymous) letters to the editor at the Jewish News, one of them calling for him to resign from the Orthodox rabbinate. Other critics have come forward publicly, most to question his Orthodox bona fides.
Rabbi Simcha Klein of Ahavas Olam Weingarden Torah Center in Southfield wrote in an email for this story that “Asher Lopatin’s positions are not those of an Orthodox rabbi and he is misleading the public.”
There was “strong interest” among the local Orthodox rabbinate to release a “united public statement” rejecting Lopatin’s positions as not being Orthodox, Klein wrote. Ultimately, they dismissed the idea to avoid “unwanted controversy and public strife.”
“More importantly, many of the rabbis felt that since some of Asher Lopatin’s positions are so beyond the pale of Orthodoxy, and this matter has already been vetted and settled on a national level, he does not even warrant a public reaction from the local organized Orthodox rabbinate,” Klein wrote.
Rabbi Elimelech Silberberg of the Sara and Morris Tugman Bais Chabad Torah Center of West Bloomfield said his concern is that Lopatin “will generate much murkiness in the Jewish community with regard to the Orthodox Jewish positions in many areas of life.”
In the Orthodox world, which has drifted rightward both religiously and politically for the past two decades, Lopatin is seen as an outsider, even a dangerous one. Along with Weiss, who started Yeshivat Maharat in New York to train and ordain women to become Orthodox clergy, he embraces a more inclusive view of Jewish law.
Lopatin and other rabbis looking for a more inclusive rabbinic association when it seemed clear the RCA would not accept YCT members in their ranks joined the International Rabbinical Fellowship, which accepts women clergy.
While Lopatin declined to discuss the positions that have come under fire, in the Jewish Standard (Teaneck, N.J.) in July 2015, he has said he supports the ordination of women, calling it “true to our Modern Orthodox values, our menschlichkeit (compassion or consideration of others.)”
If women are “inspired by putting on tefillin … they can put on tefillin,” he said in a 2017 interview. “With women’s issues, we get so worked up, like it’s going to be the end of the male-dominated world.” Lopatin considers himself a feminist.
His position on gay marriage, though, is what raises the ire of Orthodox rabbis both locally and nationally. He said in an interview last year with Scott Kahn of Orthodox Conundrum that Torah forbids sexual relations among members of the same gender. But it is unclear what Torah says about same-sex unions.
“The Torah told us not to marry gentiles. The Torah knows how to say don’t marry somebody, but it doesn’t say that about same-sex partners,” Lopatin said in the interview with Kahn. “Twenty-first-century morality says, ‘Wait a second, why do you assume Torah is against people of the same gender getting married?’ The Torah doesn’t say it clearly.”
That does not sit well with most Orthodox rabbis.
“The understanding of our sages and teachers for these 3,400 years is that from the Torah verses that deal with homosexuality we derive that such a marriage is prohibited. After all, marriage is not meant to be platonic, and a platonic relationship does not need marriage to sanctify it. One who comes up with a Torah interpretation that flatly rejects our mesorah is very far from Orthodox indeed,” says Silberberg, a member of the presidium of the Council of Orthodox Rabbis of Greater Metro Detroit, known as the Vaad HaRabonim. That body decides matters of religious law and provides supervision over kosher food establishments.
Love For All
Lopatin does not like striking back at his critics — and as head of YCT, he became accustomed to them.
“I love all Jews. My critics, my supporters are all people I love. Judaism thrives on arguments; Talmud thrives on arguments. I’ve found that when people get to know me they understand me much better,” he said for this story.
Lopatin’s reach will likely not be felt, at least initially, outside the Orthodox community in Detroit, which compromises about 11 percent of Metro Detroit’s Jewish population, estimated to be 67,000, according to the 2010 update to the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit’s 2005 Population Study. The Modern Orthodox community, concentrated in Southfield and Oak Park, is smaller, but it has spread out; many Shabbat-observant families have put down roots in Huntington Woods.
A FAQ issued by Kehillat Etz Chayim on its Facebook pages in May says the congregation will use the Artscroll Chumash (Five Books of Moses) and the Koren siddur (prayer book), both widely used Orthodox texts.
The nature of the mechitzah, a physicial barrier that separates men and women in the synagogue, has yet to be determined.
Etz Chayim officers declined to comment for this story. Founding families include Nancy Kleinfeldt, Rebecca and Gil Feldman, Sheryl and Seth Korelitz, Rachel and Josh Opperer, Ora and Michael Singer, and Julie and Eugene Sherizen, all of Huntington Woods.
Lopatin and his family have found a home in Huntington Woods and are in the process of closing.
He says he is eager to be here. He wants to make Halachah meaningful in people’s lives and to use Torah values to change the way people of different colors and creeds engage with each other.
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“I’m interested in broader questions of race in America, Israelis and Palestinians, issues of gentrification and affordable housing, social justice issues,” Lopatin says. “I think this move to Detroit will, God willing, be able to meet both passions — the intense desire to be involved in the Jewish community and to take on broader issues we care about in America and the world.”