Rackman was born in Albany, New York on June 24, 1910. He graduated from the Talmudical Academy in 1927, as its valedictorian. Rackman asked for a one-year deferral from Columbia University, and spent the entire year working towards semicha at Yeshiva University (YU), where he was in the shiur of Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik. The following year he started splitting his time, spending half of each day at Columbia and the other half at YU. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University in 1931 and was awarded a Bachelor of Laws degree in 1933; He was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy from Columbia in 1953. During that time, he also studied for and received his semicha from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University, which was awarded in 1934, signed by Rabbis Samuel Belkin and Moshe Soloveichik.
Rackman practiced law for 9 years before his religious service in the military. During that period, he would serve for occasional weekends as a Rabbi at communities in Glen Cove and Lynbrook, New York. Rackman entered service during World War II in the United States Army Air Forces in 1943 as a chaplain. He served as a military aide to the European Theater of Operations special adviser on Jewish affairs, where his experiences with survivors of the Holocaust influenced his decision to pursue the rabbinate.
Rackman was the eighth in as many generations to earn rabbinic ordination, but the first to earn a living as a Rabbi. He said that “it was my father’s hope that I would continue the family tradition, insofar as I could be both learned in the Jewish tradition while making a living in another way”.
In the 1950s, the United States Air Force Reserve denied Rabbi Rackman’s security clearance, citing him as a “bad risk”. In a 1977 profile in The New York Times, Rabbi Rackman cited his opposition to the death penalty for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and his support for Paul Robeson as factors behind the decision. Offered the opportunity to resign or face a military tribunal, the Rabbi chose a court martial, where he was acquitted and was shortly thereafter promoted from major to lieutenant colonel.
Rackman served as Rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Tefila, then in Far Rockaway, Queens, which granted him a lifetime contract in 1952. In 1967, after 20 years at Shaarey Tefilla, he accepted a position as Rabbi of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan to succeed Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, who had been elected to serve as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. He was elected by his peers as president of the New York Board of Rabbis in 1955. He also served as president of the Rabbinical Council of America.
After a trip to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in 1956 as part of a group from the Rabbinical Council of America, Rackman was part of a group of New York-area Rabbis who reported that their experience “leads us to the melancholy conclusion that Judaism in Russia is seriously threatened with extinction”, despite improvements in the preceding years for Soviet Jewry. The group noted that the conditions for Jews in Poland were far better, with a government that was actively friendly with the Jewish community there.
In 1970, he was named as provost of Yeshiva University. He was named the president of Bar-Ilan University in 1977, and served as the school’s chancellor until his death. Perhaps his greatest achievement was increasing the enrollment at Bar-Ilan eight fold.
Rackman worked to address the situation of agunot through the establishment in the early 1990s of the Beit Din L’Ba’ayot Agunot (Court for the Problems of Chained Women), which annulled the marriages of hundreds of women, freeing them to remarry. The court, and its methodology, was widely criticized by other Orthodox rabbis, many of whom would refuse to officiate at the marriage ceremonies of women whose prior marriage had been ended by this form of annulment. Criticism came from across the Orthodox spectrum, with the Haredi Agudath Israel of America calling the court’s halachic basis “spurious” and British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks claiming that Rabbi Rackman’s solution exacerbated the problem it was trying to solve.
Rabbi Rackman married the former Ruth Fischman in 1930. He died at age 98 on December 1, 2008.