Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The Talmud (Pesachim 50a) records that Rav Yosef passed away briefly, and was then revived. After his recovery, his father asked him what he saw during his brief journey heavenwards. Rav Yosef answered: “I saw an upside-down world. I saw upper ones below, and lower ones above.”
Rav Yosef perceived that people who were “uppers” in this world – who receive all the honor and respect – often occupied the lowest positions in the World to Come. The “lowers” – those who were disdained or dismissed in this world – however, were granted what they truly deserved. Rav Yosef’s father answered him: “My son, you have seen a clear world.”
The current controversy surrounding Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who has reached the age of 75, and the implied threat to not renew his tenure as Efrat’s chief rabbi, indeed indicates what a topsy-turvy world we live in, and how convoluted our values can be. For if ever there was a spiritual leader who should be respected and encouraged to continue his magnificent service to the Jewish People, it is Rabbi Riskin.
This is a man of immense spiritual courage and commitment. He had a major impact on the American-Jewish scene for two decades, serving, among other positions, as the young and innovative rabbi of Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue, dean of Manhattan Day School and chairman of the organization Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. Rabbi Riskin can truly claim the distinction of “America’s rabbi.”
At the height of his career, he made aliya with his family and cofounded the settlement of Efrat in 1982. Soon after he established Ohr Torah Stone, a network of yeshivot and religious institutions that has educated and inspired thousands of students. It has trained rabbis, expanded and enhanced Torah study for women, and pioneered numerous social justice initiatives.
Rabbi Riskin is a tireless, indefatigable teacher and counselor who, simply put, loves people. Like the “circuit rabbis” of old, he travels the length and breadth of the Jewish world, spreading the message of Torah and Israel. A rabbi’s greatness is commensurate with his accessibility, and I have found that Rabbi Riskin is always available, always ready to assist in any worthwhile cause. I recall with much gratitude that he was the first rabbi to visit us during the shiva mourning period when our son Ari was killed, and did much to comfort us in our grief. He has returned to Ra’anana numerous times to share his brilliant, innovative approach to Jewish life and law with our community, always to an enthusiastic reaction.
Age is a number, no more and no less.
There are chief rabbis in Israel older than Rabbi Riskin; there are even chief rabbis, I am sorry to say, who do not even reside in the city where they serve. What a loss it would be for all of us if Rabbi Riskin was removed from his post. If there are those who take serious issue regarding some of his halachic positions – be it his stance on conversion, agunot or women’s rights – let them convene a national convention to openly discuss those issues.
That is, after all, precisely what this country needs: an airing of fresh ideas to solve long-festering problems that affect our entire nation and that must, finally, be confronted.
Is there another rabbi who can claim to have done more for his fellow Jews than Rabbi Riskin? In a more perfect Israel, not only would Rabbi Riskin not be under fire, he would be the chief rabbi guiding religious life and he would be the one critiquing the rabbinic establishment, not vice versa. It would be a sad day for the people of Efrat and all the Jewish People were we to be deprived of his learning and leadership. Let us hope that wisdom and justice prevail.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana firstname.lastname@example.org