Since his death at age 98 a few weeks ago, I’ve been meaning to write a bit about Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, a giant of Modern Orthodoxy and the Jewish people.
I never met Rabbi Rackman, and the obituaries and tributes that have been written since his passing make me wonder how I could have missed such an opportunity. Like all great men, he was both profoundly influential and also someone who often found himself alone, fighting the good fight.
His uniqueness and integrity is what comes out most in remembrances of him, and I highly recommend Rabbi Michael Broyde’s piece in the Jewish Press as well as Professor Deborah Lipstadt’s eulogy, which she delivered at Rabbi Rackman’s funeral.
They both mention one story as paradigmatic:
What I did not know then and what I only learned last night from a colleague when I told him of Rabbi Rackmanâ€™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1951 when Rabbi Rackman was recalled as a chaplain due to the Korean War, he discovered that his security clearance had been revoked because he opposed the death penalty for the Rosenbergs and supported Paul Robeson’s right to free speech.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 oneâ€™s integrity, one must stand strong and never let anyone impugn it. Ultimately,â€? he said, â€œall a Rabbi has is his reputation and honor.”