By: David M. Weinberg
May 26, 2015
Published in Israel Hayom, May 26, 2015.
The Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s attempt to oust Rabbi Shlomo Riskin will be its own death knell. A nasty and radical ‘rabbinocracy’ that humiliates Riskin will lose its legitimacy.
The brazen, ugly attempt by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate to oust Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin from his post is a watershed moment; one step too far that may mark the beginning of the end of the official rabbinate.
In fact, if the reported move to force out Rabbi Riskin goes ahead, the Rabbinate will be digging its own grave. It will lose whatever remains of its legitimacy and moral authority.
Rabbi Riskin should be feted on his 75th birthday this month, not trashed, for multiple reasons.
A close student of the late, great Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Riskin’s entire career has been about reaching out to Jews across the spectrum and bringing them closer to Orthodox Jewish life. His Lincoln Square Congregation in New York was the flagship welcoming community.
Then Rabbi Riskin boldly became a founder of Efrat, and has led that community with devotion for more than 30 years. He is the beloved, authentic community rabbi par excellence, and has touched the lives of thousands.
He is also a true educational leader and builder. He founded and is the Chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Institutions, a network of outstanding high schools, colleges, and graduate programs in the United States and Israel. He has raised tens of millions of dollars for core Torah education over the years.
He also has published half a dozen excellent Torah books that can proudly be found in the homes of many, many Orthodox Jews around the world. His autobiography “Listening to God” (published in English and Hebrew in 2010/2011) is a must-read volume that demonstrates deep religious commitment and courage.
Alas, Rabbi Riskin holds liberal attitudes on conversion and women’s rights that have irked the Haredi-controlled “rabbinocracy” (the rabbinate bureaucracy). So it is taking advantage of a never-before-used loophole to “review” Rabbi Riskin’s tenure at 75, and threatening to deny him the automatic five year extension as City Rabbi he richly deserves.
It’s true that Rabbi Riskin is a maverick religious leader, who has been willing to push the envelope of accepted public policy beyond conventional thinking within Orthodox circles. He has been a critic of the Chief Rabbinate and the rabbinical courts on various issues, including its policies on marriage, divorce and conversion. More than that, he has established independent conversion courts and appointed women to formal positions as spiritual advisers.
Yet Rabbi Riskin’s approach always has been one of pleasantness. He moves cautiously and civilly, always watchful to respect his senior colleagues and careful to anchor his moves within valid halachic boundaries. Even those who disagree with him have no cause or right to strike at him so brutally. At most, they should continue to debate and challenge him.
The Chief Rabbinate Council seems not to understand that Rabbi Riskin is not just a forthright and independent rabbinical figure. For many in Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism he is truly an iconic figure: A symbol of religious broad-mindedness, moderation, and intellectual sophistication.
Crushing him will be considered open warfare against Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism – and I expect that those communities will fight back.
They will fight back by doing the one thing they have debated and debated and so not wanted to do, and until now have tried to avoid: Support the dismantlement of the state rabbinate. But a nasty and radical rabbinocracy that humiliates Rabbi Riskin will have lost its legitimacy. The Chief Rabbinate’s glory of yesteryear will be gone.
Who then will be left looking up to the Chief Rabbinate for religious rulings or authority? Almost nobody.
For the Haredi world, the real “Chief Rabbis” are the 90-year-old yeshiva sages who placed the young Rabbi Lau Jr. and Rabbi Yosef Jr. as puppets in their current state-salaried positions. In the secular world, the Chief Rabbis have long been considered a nuisance at best. And in the Religious Zionist world, the Chief Rabbinate will now have been tainted almost-beyond repair; poisoned by Haredi antagonism and vengeance, as well as inefficiency and corruption.
The move towards privatization of religious services, already underway, will become inevitable. The Modern Orthodox, Religious Zionist “Tzohar” rabbinical alliance can be expected to expand its 18-year-old flagship marriage project. The same decentralization will inexorably apply to kashrut services, burial services, and yes, even to conversion courts.
In their zealousness to strike at the noble Riskin, Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef will have pushed Riskin’s world over the edge. As a result, I’m afraid, they may end up as Israel’s very last chief rabbis.
Join Bonnie and I on a fantastic Western Mediterranean Kosher Cruise to Spain, Italy and France next month (June 21-28).