Riskin's 'anecdotage'

Book Review: 'Listening to God' by Shlomo Riskin.

By JACK RIEMER
February 18, 2011 15:58
3 minute read.
Listening to God

Riskin 58. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is surely one of the giants of our generation.

He has had two careers – both of which have been full of achievements.

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He was the founder and, for nearly 20 years, the rabbi of the Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York. He turned a synagogue that started out with a handful of members who met in a living room, and who could have just as well been Reform or Conservative, into one of the most exciting Orthodox synagogues in the US.

He did it by combining uncompromising loyalty to his principles with imaginative and effective outreach. When he began there, he set these ground rules: He would pray by himself before the services began. He would not live in the neighborhood. And he would set a deadline by which time he would either be able to put in a mehitza or he would leave.

Within a few years, the mehitza came, but as important, hundreds of young Jews came too. Many of these young people eventually became observant Jews.

And then, he left all that he had created in America, and moved to Israel, a much harder place for a modern Orthodox rabbi to succeed.

To stand for making conversions less difficult, or helping women who need release from their marriages, or to permit a woman to teach Bible in a yeshiva, or to insist that rabbis have to have a serious secular education – to take any of these positions is to defy the religious power structure of the country, and to face cruel and constant opposition.



Now he seems to have entered the third stage of his career: “anecdotage.”

A superb and spellbinding storyteller, he has collected 100 of his favorite stories for the sake of his grandchildren, and for the sake of the grandchildren of his many supporters and admirers.

This generation in which he participated was surely one of the most remarkable in all of Jewish history, and his own life story which he tells in this book demonstrates what an adventure it has been.

Many people do not know this, but he did not come from an observant family. His parents, reluctant to send him to public school in Bedford- Styvesant, the neighborhood in which he grew up, sent him to a Jewish day school.

The second formative influence on his life was his grandmother. She was a widow and lived alone, and so his parents sent him to stay with her every Shabbat. And the experience of watching her pray so fervently as she lit the candles, and the experience of sharing words of Torah with her at the Sabbath meal had a profound influence upon his life.

Some of the tales he tells about what it was like growing up in those years are among my favorites.

While there are too many stories in this book, the life he recounts is remarkable and ranges from being jailed in America for demonstrating at the Russian embassy on behalf of Soviet Jewry to being jailed in Israel for demonstrating against Oslo II. From graduating at a time when everyone believed that Orthodoxy was on its last legs to a time when Orthodoxy has prospered beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.

And from a time when Israel was a dream to a time when Israel is a reality, with all the complications and all the corruptions and the dilemmas that are part of any reality.

To have participated in these dramatic battles is a lot for one man to do in one lifetime. As well as being simply a good read, this book reveals the adventures of one of the key figures of our generation.


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