Sunday, December 07, 2008


Rabbi Emanuel Rackman Before the Law

The parable begins, "Before the law stands a door-keeper. A man arrives and asks to be admitted . . ." It is a well known story of Kafka's that ends badly because the man from the country (the am haaretz) has more faith in the authority of the door-keeper than he has in himself.

These reflections were prompted by the obituary of Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, who died this week in Manhattan at 98 years of age. Reading his obituary I was convinced that Rabbi Rackman could stand up to any gatekeeper. He earned a law degree from Columbia University in 1933, ordination as a rabbi in 1934, and a doctorate in public law in 1952. Moreover, he served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II, where he encountered the Holocaust firsthand in his role as military aide to the European Theater commander's special adviser on Jewish affairs.

For my purposes, the story gets even more interesting when he was recalled to active duty in 1951 but discovered that the "doorkeeper" (in the form of the U.S. government) had stripped him of his security clearance because of his public opposition to the sentences of death in the Rosenberg case and his public support of Paul Robeson. Rabbi Rackman was no am haaretz. He waited on no gatekeeper: Given the choice of an honorable discharge or a military trial, he insisted on a trial and won his acquittal and a promotion. This man knew which gate was meant for him and he walked directly through it.

This morning I studied Zohar (as I often do on Sunday mornings) with two rabbis and another am haaretz (though one more knowledgeable than myself), and the question came up about whether today's orthodox Judaism is rigid or elastic compared to what it had been at the dawn of rabbinic Judaism. I wish I had had Rabbi Rackman's obituary to reference during that study session this morning, especially this quote: “A Jew dare not live with absolute certainty not only because certainty is the hallmark of the fanatic and Judaism abhors fanaticism, but also because doubt is good for the human soul, its humility, and consequently its greater potential ultimately to discover its Creator.”