Middle Israel: Who’s afraid of Rabbi Riskin?

By unleashing his clerics on one of Modern Orthodoxy’s icons, Arye Deri has picked a fight he cannot win, and the Chief Rabbinate might not endure.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Most Israelis don’t know their town rabbi’s name, and many don’t even know he exists – but in Efrat, the suburb of some 8,000 residents south of Jerusalem, everyone knows the rabbi: This stocky, bespectacled and outgoing man, unlike most other local rabbis, was actually among the founders of the town – where he led many others while giving countless lectures, routinely sitting with the community’s kids when they turn bar or bat mitzva, comforting those in mourning, bridging financial, residential and marital conflicts, and shoring up the town’s sensitive relations with its Palestinian neighbors.
Now, 32 years after having assumed the humble position for which he left Manhattan’s glitzy Lincoln Square Synagogue, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin faces a plot to push him overboard.
In a uniquely Israeli saga that mixes politics, theology, sociology, ego and cultural gaps, the Chief Rabbinate emerges as the improbable arena of a proverbial targeted killing – whose perpetrators aimed the wrong weapon, in the wrong moment, at the wrong target.
Technically, this affair begins in biology.
When a town rabbi turns 75 – as Rabbi Riskin just did – his appointment’s extension requires the Chief Rabbinate’s formal approval. In practice, this provision was ignored even when a town rabbi was losing the ability to function, which is the sort of circumstance for which this sensitive instrument was created.
Even his detractors do not question Riskin’s sanity or alertness. What they doubt is his piety, which to them seems flawed because his Judaism is so different from theirs.
A disciple of Modern Orthodox philosopher-Talmudist Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik and a graduate of Yeshiva University with a PhD in history from New York University, Riskin is indeed as liberal as one can get while remaining within Orthodoxy’s rigid confines.
A self-described feminist, he created a Talmudic yeshiva for women, ordained women as rabbinical advocates, appealed to the Supreme Court to allow women’s advocacy in the state’s rabbinical courts, supports prenuptial contracts and established an organization that helps women divorce husbands who refuse to grant divorce bills.
Worse, from his opponents’ viewpoint, Riskin established a center for Jewish-Christian understanding, and has spoken moderately about non-Orthodox Judaism.
And so, two of the Chief Rabbinate’s rabbis opposed in its recent meeting the extension of Riskin’s appointment as town rabbi, and convinced that 16-member conclave to summon him for a special hearing where they plan to probe his liberal rulings – in what promises to be a caricature of Galileo’s clash with the pope.
It is the sort of fight the already devalued Chief Rabbinate has never picked, cannot win and in fact might not endure.
The rabbis who rose against Riskin, Beersheba Chief Rabbi Yehuda Deri and Holon Chief Rabbi Avraham Yosef, both graduates of the Porat Yosef Yeshiva, hail from an insular haredi world where feminism, interfaith dialogue and non-Orthodoxy are oddities at best, anathema at worst.
Beyond these cultural backgrounds, the two are also part of a political fold whose relevance to the attack on Riskin is even greater than the contrast between their beards and black hats, and his shaven cheeks and knitted skullcap: Yosef is the son of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and brother of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, and Deri is brother of Shas leader Arye. The pair – whose son and daughter are married – owe their jobs to Shas and would not lift a finger, let alone wage such an attack, without their leader’s nod.
The provocation, then, is not only about theology but also about raw politics, pitting non-Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodoxy directly against Modern Orthodoxy, and indirectly against much of American Jewry – where Riskin’s sway travels beyond the Orthodox pale.
Having built a sprawling educational empire of high schools, rabbinical seminaries and women’s yeshivas, as well as programs that bring students to Israel from abroad and charities for children with developmental problems and for women going through difficult divorces – Riskin has thousands of disciples in and beyond Israel including hundreds of rabbis and educators, besides cohorts of funders whose enlistment over the decades has made him one of Israel’s most effective fund-raisers.
In short, what Shas did with the national budget, Rabbi Riskin did with American Jewry. That alone should make Deri jealous, considering his limited access to American Jewry – even before recalling that his low-income constituency is several tax brackets below Riskin’s handsome upper-middle class town.
Even so, Shas and Israeli Modern Orthodoxy have generally lived in peace and mutual respect since the former’s inception three decades ago, despite the fact that Shas’s electoral base was largely siphoned from the former National-Religious Party, and that its establishment resulted from Rabbi Yosef’s rivalry with the late Rabbi Shlomo Goren and the Modern Orthodox establishment that backed him.
The two movements cohabited in many governments and generally looked each after its affairs without much friction, in what reflected the social distance between their constituencies.
All this changed two years ago, when Modern Orthodoxy’s new leader, Naftali Bennett, joined Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid in demanding that Benjamin Netanyahu leave the haredim outside his government, an ultimatum Netanyahu was forced to heed.
Life in the opposition is painful for many politicians, but for Shas it is intolerable, and for its newly restored leader it was also traumatic – as it further cemented upon him the mark of Cain with which he emerged from jail in 2002, and which he was determined to shed by reoccupying the cabinet seat from which he had been ejected back in 1993.
This was the ditch from which Deri’s clerics sprang when they ambushed Riskin – whose Americanism, Zionism, liberalism and good rapport with secularists are everything Bennett stands for.
AS WITH ANYTHING Deri does, there is also calculation in his move, beside the insult, vengeance and envy with which this particular maneuver is fraught.
The position of town rabbi can be performed as meaningfully as Riskin performs it and as lazily as others do, particularly in big cities where there are special bureaucracies that deal with the burials, weddings and kashrut supervision that smaller towns’ rabbis administer by themselves.
Yet with some 150 such state-appointed clergy earning salaries that range, according to seniority, from less than NIS 10,000 to a monthly NIS 60,000, the appointments to these positions mean power.
Having defeated Modern Orthodoxy’s candidate for chief rabbi, David Stav, two years ago, Shas’s next aim was to install as many town rabbis as it could.
There is nothing new in this dynamic, and as politics goes it is normal. However, in attacking Riskin, Shas has overplayed its hand. Besides misunderstanding the depth and sway of Riskin’s backing abroad, Shas has also underestimated what it was provoking at home, both in Riskin’s town and in his rabbinical milieu.
In his town, Rabbi Riskin is not merely popular. He is a limb of its body, so much so that if forced out its residents might well elect and salary him on their own volition – the way thousands of communities, of all denominations, do in North America. Judging by the town council’s unanimous announcement of support in its rabbi, the prospect of a non-rabbinate town rabbi is realistic.
Such a scenario could be fatal for the Chief Rabbinate, as it would expose the absurdity whereby ultra-Orthodoxy, which disparages the Chief Rabbinate religiously, controls it politically – while Modern Orthodoxy, which sanctifies the Chief Rabbinate religiously, is distanced from it politically.
The risk for the rabbinate is even greater, because Modern Orthodoxy has produced scores of rabbinical luminaries in recent decades, whose stature and popularity haredi rabbis often fail to appreciate.
One of these modernists, Rabbi Yuval Sherlo, who heads Yeshivat Orot Shaul in Ra’anana, responded to Riskin’s summons by warning that he, Sherlo, might join those who already call for the Chief Rabbinate’s dissolution.
For his part, Riskin says he will happily show up for his hearing and answer whatever he is asked. Meanwhile, Education Minister Bennett said he intends to show up at the hearing, should it be held, and thus show his support for Riskin.
Had Riskin’s inquisitors read about Galileo, they might have considered ahead of their approaching embarrassment the persecuted astronomer’s warning that where people’s senses fail them, reason must step in.
Just how the disputation they have concocted will unfold remains to be seen, but its aftermath can already be told: Efrat will retain its rabbi, Shas will lose its battle, and the Chief Rabbinate will lose its last followers’ respect.