In Israel and overseas, liberal and so-called Open Orthodox leaders are enraged at the Israeli rabbinate’s intimation that it may expel Shlomo Riskin from his post as chief rabbi of Efrat in the West Bank. The furor began after the Chief Rabbinical Council summoned Rabbi Riskin to a June 29 hearing to discuss whether he will be reappointed to his position as rov of the town he helped found in 1983.
A rabbinate spokesman tried to calm the troubled waters by explaining that all rabbonim turning 75 are required to submit a written request for reappointment and appear before a hearing. But Riskin and his cohorts say that the invitation is a prelude to giving him notice that he’s been retired. An unspecified person at the council meeting claimed that at least one council member, Rav Avraham Yosef, son of Rav Ovadiah Yosef, said that Rabbi Riskin should be asked to explain why he is fit for the post and questioned about his attitude regarding conversion and other halachic issues.
The rabbinate has plenty of reason to oust him. Riskin disagrees vehemently with the rabbinate’s strict approach to conversion and heartily supports the government’s recent proposed bill to allow local rabbis to conduct their own conversions. Indeed, he has conducted many conversions himself.
In general, Riskin’s liberal halachic attitudes conflict with the chief rabbinate, which leans strongly towards the chareidi way of p’sak. He has much in common with the Open Orthodoxy movement of the U.S., whose goal is to stretch halachic parameters in Neo-Conservative fashion.
Rabbi Riskin approves the ordination of women and allows them to participate in public prayer, advocates the use of prenuptials and other halachic leniencies to deal with recalcitrant husbands, supports the legalization of civil marriage in Israel, and favors dialogue with Christian groups.
Open Orthodoxy Lambasts the Rabbinate
Rabbis Avi Weiss and Shmuel Herzfeld, leaders of Open Orthodoxy, denounced the rabbinate’s intimation that it might fire Rabbi Riskin. “Insulting Shlomo Riskin insults Israelis — and American Jews,” they warned. “We read with great concern the decision of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to summon Rabbi Shlomo Riskin to their offices to discuss whether his conversion policy will prevent his reappointment to serve as a chief rabbi of Efrat,” Rabbis Weiss and Herzfeld wrote in the Forward. “This is an absolute outrage and reflects an extreme level of disrespect on many levels.
“First, it is an act of disrespect to Rabbi Riskin himself. Rabbi Riskin is the founding chief rabbi of Efrat and he has served as the rabbi of the city for over thirty years. He has literally dedicated his life to Efrat and he is owed our respect, not degradation… Second, it is an act of great disrespect to the residents of Efrat… Every community is entitled to choose a rabbi that best reflects the spiritual needs of their community…
“We strongly support the city council of Efrat, which has already declared: ‘The Council calls on the Chief Rabbinical Council to respect the will of the residents of Efrat, and to extend the appointment of Rabbi Riskin for as long a period as possible.’ Third, this is an act of extreme disrespect to the American Jewish community. We view Rabbi Riskin as the Dean of Modern Orthodoxy and as our role model. Rabbi Riskin is a beloved figure amongst many American Jews. He has strong roots in this country and we often turn to him with halakhic questions. He leads us with courage and wisdom.
“For the Chief Rabbi’s office to act in this manner signals to us that the rabbis whom we love and admire are considered in their eyes as non-rabbis,” they concluded. “This disenfranchisement of entire communities is a horrible and scary precedent and we fear an indication of future developments in the land of Israel. We call upon the Chief Rabbi’s office to withdraw from its highly offensive demands.”
Weiss and Herzfeld launched an online petition in Riskin’s support.
The Rabbinical Council of America’s executive vice president, Rabbi Mark Dratch, protested the rabbinate’s move in milder terms.
“While the RCA does not agree with every action of the Chief Rabbinate, we support the Chief Rabbinate as the official religious body of Israel,” he emailed JTA. “We are certain that, together with Rabbi Riskin, they will find a way to support his continued work as Chief Rabbi of Efrat.”
Israel’s Liberals Open Fire
In Israel, the Tzohar Movement, whose goals are similar to those of Open Orthodoxy, condemned the rabbinate’s decision.
“The attempt to remove Rav Riskin from his post as rabbi of Efrat is a red flag of revenge against his opinions and halachic rulings,” Tzohar announced. “Rav Riskin, who leads his community in Efrat with love and dedication and is accepted by the vast majority of the residents, is an emblem and example of spiritual leadership. Instead of publicly praising him, rabbinate figures choose to prematurely terminate his incumbency due to political considerations and apparently in an attempt to appoint cronies.”
Tzohar founder and leader Rabbi David Stav, who came dangerously close to being voted to the position of Israeli Ashkenazi chief rabbi last year, reportedly urged American Jews to boycott the chief rabbis if Riskin is ousted, and said that his Tzohar organization will cease cooperating with the rabbinate if this comes about.
“I ask myself a lot, why do I still support this institution?” he said. “I still want to do everything for this institution to improve and succeed, but not at any price.”
Other liberal organizations in Israel picked up the cry. Rabbi Seth Farber of the Ittim organization, which helps people navigate the religious authorities’ bureaucracy in Israel, said that the rabbinate’s behavior was “inappropriate and does not serve the interests of the people of Efrat, the rabbinate, or the Jewish people. It makes a mockery of the religious authority and appears to be a case of political jockeying rather than a substantive issue.”
Reform and Conservative Jews, as well as liberal politicians, also leapt into the fray.
Reform rabbi attorney Uri Regev, head of the Chiddush organization for religious freedom and equality, echoed Stav’s sentiment that it might be time to cut the rabbinate adrift.
“The question whether to lengthen Riskin’s incumbency is important,” he said, “but far more important is the question of whether to cease the service of the chief rabbinate. The Riskin episode is another proof that the chief rabbinate is the greatest enemy of Judaism and is making Judaism hateful to the public at large. The rabbinate must leave the world, and the sooner, the better. The State of Israel does not need to employ rabbis at all, extremists or moderates. Each community must choose its rabbis and finance them.
“The time has come for Religious-Zionist rabbis to understand and accept that the chief rabbinate has been taken over by chareidi extremists and is ruled by them with a high hand,” Regev added. “It is conquered territory and the chareidim have no intent to give it up. The time has come for the rabbis of Tzohar to acknowledge religious freedom for all, for as they are learning again and again on their own flesh, so long as there is no religious freedom for all, their religious freedom is also in danger.”
Like Riskin, the Tzohar and Ittim organizations are enthusiastic supporters of the government bill passed last November but not yet cemented into law that would empower municipal rabbonim to conduct their own conversions. Their attitude directly opposes that of the chief rabbis, who announced, as did many rabbonim overseas, that they would never acknowledge the conversions of a system that makes conversion standards subject to the whims of every local rov.
Religious Zionist and secular politicians also expressed their sympathy for Riskin’s plight.
“I will not tolerate an attempt to close people’s mouths and fire a public servant of Israel because of his opinions and with false excuses regarding age,” declared Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett.
Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman said, “We need to send a strong message that the attempt to stifle and harass rabbis, like Riskin, who wish to disseminate Torah beyond the yeshiva walls will not be tolerated. Judaism compels and requires it. This must be our red line.”
Modern Orthodox MK Aliza Lavie of Yesh Atid, too, praised Rabbi Riskin as someone who is “more than a bureaucratic clerk, but instead someone who takes upon himself spiritual responsibility to bequeath to Judaism a connection to the ongoing reality of our time and a broad and wise vision for the coming generations.”
The Elephant in the Room
The rabbinate responded staunchly to its detractors, stating that “the Chief Rabbinate of Israel firmly rejects the attempts of officials and various organizations to exert unacceptable pressure on the Chief Rabbinate Council and try to intimidate its members in order to influence the decision regarding the extension of the term of Efrat’s rov. The use of strong language and bullying of chief rabbis, the institution of the Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinical Council is an extremely serious act and it is not the way of our Torah to express oneself in such a way.”
In defense of the rabbinate, Rabbi Avraham Gordimer, a member of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and the New York Bar, argued that whoever disparaged the rabbinate left out a vital point. After discussing their views, he noted, “Yet, the elephant in the room – the very real controversies surrounding Rabbi Riskin – controversies in which Rabbi Riskin materially violated the policies of the Chief Rabbinate, his employer – is intentionally omitted and concealed. For despite Rabbi Riskin’s rabbinic dynamism and love for Torah and the Jewish people, he has been at the forefront of the ordination of women, he has publicly displayed an uncomfortable enthusiasm for Christian religious values, and he has in various additional ways materially undermined the policies and halachic positions of the Rabbanut, including promoting the chanting of Megillas Rus by a female at the main minyan of a synagogue under his jurisdiction. These are but a few of the many deviations from normative Orthodoxy and from fundamental Rabbanut standards on the part of Rabbi Riskin.
“Yes, Rabbi Riskin’s devotion and passion to spread Judaism are hard to beat,” Rabbi Gordimer added, “but when he violates the trust of his employer, and he contravenes the rulings of the most preeminent halachic authorities of this and previous generations, let us realize that it is not the Chief Rabbinate who is the offender, and that it just may be that the employer had more than ample reason to maintain that its employee was not being faithful to the policies and values that he was hired to uphold.”
Blogger Rabbi Gil Student also spoke up in support of the rabbinate.
“If you want to know why Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is apparently being forced into retirement by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, you have to read his recent book, The Living Tree: Studies in Modern Orthodoxy,” Student wrote.
Student noted that in Riskin’s introduction to the book, he emphasizes the utilization of meta-halachic principles in p’sak, such as tikkun olam, man’s Divine image, and love of the stranger and the convert. Student points out that these principles, legitimate as they may appear, have been utilized in the past century by reformers to “overturn wide swathes of Jewish law.”
Student also notes that Riskin has become more rebellious over the years. In earlier years, when he discussed changing the nusach of the brachah of “shelo asani ishah,” Riskin wrote in an article printed in his book, “I would not permit even so minor a change without the approval and approbation of several leading halakhic authorities.” Similarly, regarding the annulment of marriages, Rabbi Riskin wrote that “this should be effectuated by a special Beit Din for agunot in Jerusalem with impeccable halakhic credentials who would render judgments and rule on urgent issues of mesuravot get throughout the world.”
But in later essays in his book regarding the appointment of women halachists and judges, he makes do with merely citing a responsum of Rav Eliyohu Bakshi-Doron and even went ahead to found a program for ordaining women on his own.
Similarly, in more recent essays about women dancing with Sifrei Torah on Simchas Torah and establishing a Hesder yeshiva for women, Riskin “omits discussion with great authorities.”
“What I see is a rabbi whose agenda has become increasingly radical,” Student concludes. “Realizing that he was engaging in activities for which he would not gain approval of his elders, he stopped asking. Instead, he moved forward on his own authority. A young Rabbi Shlomo Riskin regularly consulted with Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Moshe Feinstein and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. When they passed away, he was no longer restrained.”
A Leader in Pushing the Limits
A JTA article described his liberal activities in recent years, pointing out that “since he received rabbinic ordination more than 50 years ago, Riskin has been a leader in pushing the limits of Jewish law within the Modern Orthodox community.”
These activities include founding the first school to train woman as advocates in botei din after appealing in Israel’s High Court against laws that prevented it, as well as founding a five-year program to train women as halachic authorities. A book of piskei halachah issued by graduates of the program was published in 2014. In February, Riskin appointed Jennie Rosenfeld, a participant in such a program, as Efrat’s first manhiga ruchanit (spiritual leader), JTA notes.
As mentioned earlier, Riskin is particularly liberal when it comes to conversion issues.
“Throughout Jewish history, especially regarding conversion, there have been two schools – the lenient school and the more stringent school,” he wrote of conversion. “The people of Israel are crying out for the more lenient school.”
“I do not understand the whole issue [of centralized conversion],” he said in an interview. “Yes, I think there is a commandment of you shall love the convert. Yes, I think that the Chief Rabbinate until now did not know what it is to get someone who wants to convert treated properly, with love and care. How dare they say that my conversions were not done according to Jewish Law?”
In reply to the challenge of the chareidi interviewing him that he may be replacing halachah with love, Riskin responded, “The halachah itself talks about love. Don’t you know a very simple Mishnah: ‘Be disciples of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace’?”
As mentioned earlier, Riskin also advocates civil marriage in Israel, arguing that this would solve subsequent problems of potentially improper divorce, and is in general opposed to a coercive rabbinate.
“I don’t believe in a coercive chief rabbinate,” he told reform rabbi Uri Regev two years ago. “If you feel that you are paralyzed by such a chief rabbinate, I, too, feel paralyzed by such a chief rabbinate. There must be room for different ideas and values. There cannot be any sort of religious coercion in Israel. My teacher and rabbi, Rav Soloveichik, said that religious coercion is an oxymoron. If it’s coercion, it’s not a religious act.”
During the discussion with Regev, he also expressed support for civil marriage.
“There is no logical reason why everyone is obliged to marriage according to Orthodox Jewish law,” he said. “People may certainly live together as husband and wife according to any ritual they want, with no interference and no difficulty.”
Riskin’s liberal attitude was most recently evident in his vehement objection to a clause in the Shas coalition agreement which demands the transfer of botei din administration from the Justice Ministry to the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
“Among veteran dayonim, there are insufficient dayonim with an approach that gives sufficient importance and attention to women’s distress,” Riskin wrote. “Many are entrapped as married women against their will. When new dayonim are appointed, the central issue before the committee must be the status of women as having equal rights. Moving the committee for the appointment of dayonim from the Justice Ministry to the Religious Ministry is likely to cause severe harm in this important issue.”
Rabbi Ysoscher Katz of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah made the ridiculous claim that Riskin’s approach is a direct continuation of Chazal’s path.
“Chazal were the Rabbi Riskins of their time,” Katz said. “They, too, were committed to creating a Yiddishkeit which is in constant dialogue with their ethical sensibilities. They read Torah with a critical lens, and whenever they encountered a perceived injustice, they did whatever they could (within legitimate boundaries) to undo the challenging misread.”
Dangerous Attitude Toward Christians
Rabbi Riskin is the founder and leader of the Israel Jewish Council for Interreligious Relations. As mentioned earlier, he has been lambasted for his attitude towards Christianity and its founder. In one video, he even stated that that the Christians share in Hashem’s covenant with the Jews.
“G-d is asking from the Jewish people to fulfill our covenant, and the covenant means a contract of two sides, an eternal, irrevocable contract,” he said. “The party of the first part, as it were, is G-d Himself. The party of the second part is the Jewish people, but not only the Jewish people, because as Romans [a book of the New Testament] states quite clearly, certainly the evangelical Christian community has grafted itself upon the covenant… It’s critical that we join hands and it’s critical that we resurrect G-d in this generation.”
Riskin later conceded that “resurrect” was an unfortunate choice of words.
Vehement complaints led Riskin to explain, among other things, that he considers it important to unite with Christians in order to fight fundamentalist Islam. But Rabbi Dr. Sholom Gold of Yerushalayim had this to say: “While recent clarification from Rabbi Riskin is welcome on this matter, I remain concerned. Rabbi Riskin’s consistently radical statements and ambiguous positions on interfaith dialogue and endeavors can be misinterpreted by both Jews and Christians and manipulated and twisted to fit the agendas of those who are trying to undermine the foundations of the Jewish faith and wreak confusion among our people.
“Furthermore, it would be advisable for Rabbi Riskin to steer clear of mixing politics, history and Christian theological issues together with what is clearly a halachic matter. I imagine Rabbi Riskin’s revered teacher, Rav Yoseph B. Soloveitchik z”l, would have been greatly distressed over the crossing of theological lines between faith communities which is currently taking place under the pretense of an Israel-evangelical alliance.”
Does the rabbinate really intend to fire Rabbi Riskin on June 29th, and if it does, will it stand firm in the face of local and overseas criticism?
They deserve our public and vocal support.