A leader with compassion

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin conveys a powerful message in a Rosh Hashanah interview.

Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin in his office (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin in his office
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
IT WAS a Thursday afternoon in Efrat, south of Jerusalem, and I sat nervously outside waiting for the community’s charismatic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. Not nervous because I was about to interview one of my heroes, now 78, who had become Efrat's chief rabbi soon after immigrating to Israel from his native New York in 1983, with his wife, Victoria, and four children.
Rather, it was memories of the last time I sat outside that office. It was more than 13 years ago. I was a 13-year-old, gawky preteen, just two days before my bar mitzvah.
Today, as a generous gesture, the rabbi came out to greet me.
“Shalom, Matan,” he said, smiling. “Good to see you!” He led me into his new office. Riskin stepped down in July as the head of the Ohr Torah Stone educational network, which he founded and which became his lifetime project, and turned it over to his successor, Rabbi Kenneth Bander, the former vice-president of Yeshiva University.
Riskin’s new office is a modest room filled with the Talmud and books of Jewish law, and a large portrait of his rabbi and teacher, Rabbi Joseph B. Soleveitchik. Finding him in a nostalgic mood. I put my pen and paper aside, and decided that the best way to understand Rabbi Riskin was simply to have a conversation with him. I began by asking him what he believed were the most important achievements of Ohr Torah Stone since its establishment in 1983.
He described the extensive network of high schools, yeshivot, rabbinical training programs and various other educational programs from which its thousands of graduates have taken positions as rabbis and leaders all over the world, including such far-flung locations as Uganda, Central America and Hong Kong.
We then talked about the two central issues, which Riskin has promoted tirelessly and even controversially throughout his career: enabling women to take on key leadership roles in Jewish life and easing conversion to Judaism.
With regard to women and Judaism, he said, “We feel very deeply about women’s leadership and women’s halachic leadership, Ohr Torah Stone confers the degree of Morot Halacha, enabling women to provide Halachic direction. Some women graduates have written Halachic responses and although there is much work to be done, this is something which I am very proud of.”
“Halacha has to be sensitive to all of the issues of modernity including scientific and societal changes,” he said. “The Torah and the Halacha that we teach are a universal Torah and Halacha. Noting that Halacha means progression, Riskin added that it “has always dealt with and must continue to deal with the most pressing and profound problems of human existence.”
After the rabbi began telling me about several cases of agunot (women refused writs of divorce) and explaining to me he believes that women’s advocates on these issues inside the Rabbinical courts will have more compassion toward these women, I asked him whether there are times at which he gives up? I asked him further where there are instances when his universal and humanistic values contradict Halacha? “I have never found a case in which the Halacha doesn’t have answers,” he said.
“The Talmud is an amazing body of literature written over centuries and embodying a great deal of discussion and differences of opinions.”
He went on to criticize the rabbinical establishment in Israel, saying, “Unfortunately, we don’t always have the kinds of rabbinical judges who are willing to stand up and employ solutions, which are actually available in the Talmud itself.”
Voicing what remains his greatest dream, he added, “I hope that Ohr Torah Stone will continue to produce the rabbinical and educational leadership that will teach a Torah of love and compassion. I would also hope to establish a religious court [Beit Din] in Efrat that will deal with these kinds of difficult problems and find solutions. This is a dream that I have not yet fulfilled but I am hoping to see this come to fruition.”
Riskin understood that the subtext for my questions were the struggles over which he and other like-minded rabbis, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, have challenged the way the rabbinical courts and religious establishment of Israel have dealt with Judaism, and particularly issues such as conversion in Israel of the Jews of the FSU. He believes that his Conservative and Reform colleagues are his partners, and not his enemies because “all of us are trying to make Jews better Jews.”
I asked the rabbi if he sometimes felt lonely in his struggles. “First of all,” he replied, “I don’t think I’m alone. There are many heads of yeshivot who fight the same fights that I have been fighting. When I arrived in Israel in 1983, no one wanted to hear about prenuptial agreements and other such matters, whereas today, we have an entire organization, Tzohar, which has brought a more compassionate loving Torah to the general public in Israel. I believe that my voice is no longer a lone voice.”
I asked Riskin about recent comments by leading rabbis in pre-military academies against homosexuality, equating LGBTQ with animals and calling them “perverts” and other derogatory terms. He took a deep breath and instead of directly responding to these rabbis, he chose instead to share a philosophical position of acceptance, which is not shared by mainstream Orthodox Judaism.
More directly, I asked how he responded when a male student sat before him and told him that he loved God, but is sexually attracted to men, not women.
Riskin said he tells them that “first of all, you love God, and God loves you.” He went on to lay out his halachic and moral opinion on this issue. “Everyone who sins,” he said, “can say before God, ‘This is the best I can do. This is how you made me. What do you want from me?’ This is not me speaking, it is the Tosefta to Mishna Avot.”
For Rabbi Riskin, philosophy alone does not suffice. Everyone should be accepted by any synagogue and be able to be called up to the Torah, according to Riskin.
One of the most fundamental things defining Rabbi Riskin’s life work and philosophical opinions is that he is an unapologetic Zionist and finds no contradiction between his love of Israel and his allegiance to Halacha. When I asked him to whom he feels closer, the ultra-Orthodox, non-Zionist camp, or the secular Zionists, he answered, “I believe that Zionism is a very important part of Judaism, one of the most essential parts, and therefore I very strongly identify with Herzl, although I do not agree with everything that he wrote.”
Seeming to take a stab at some of the progressive voices within American Judaism, Rabbi Riskin said, “Zionism is universalism.”
The ultimate role of Zionism, according to Riskin, is to return to the Land of Israel. "It is through the Jewish national movement that the universal message of the Jewish people will be fulfilled in the world," he said. And, he added, matter of factly, “Jerusalem is the city of peace.”
There was one question, the rabbi said, to which he does not have an answer and it seemed to anger and hurt him deeply on the most personal level. This was the distancing of many progressive Jews in America from the State of Israel. “I believe,” he said, “that liberalism in America has taken a turn, a sad and tragic one. In particular, there is an identification with the perceived underdog even if that perceived underdog is not acting morally.
We are a Jewish state and at the same time a democratic state.
"It saddens me deeply," he said, "that some Jews in America are active against our right to have a Jewish state. This is something for which I don’t have an answer.”
Towards the end of our interview, I reminded Riskin that some equate the relationship between American Judaism and Israel to that of Babylon and Jerusalem, both thriving Jewish communities that in many ways connected with each other and at the same time competed. Taking a while to contemplate the question, he surprised me with his answer.
“There is no comparison,” he said. “Babylon was a successful, dynamic, thriving Jewish community, in fact a Jewish state within a state producing the Babylonian Talmud.
American Judaism is a tragic failure. More than 70% of American Jews are assimilating and intermarrying without undergoing serious conversion. It is perceived to be anti- liberal and anti-Jewish to be against intermarriage.”
At one point in the interview, he became silent as he reflected on his answer to a question.
“I want to show you how the Gemara states it,” he said. Riskin arose from his chair and reached for Tractate Gittin in the Babylonian Talmud. He wanted to make sure that he was precise and clear in his answer. He did what he has done most of his adult life; he looked into the text of the volume in front of him. I thought to myself that this moment in many ways sums up Riskin’s fascinating, complex, and courageous biography: his ability to have his head deeply inside the holy texts but never to forget to raise it and look up at the human being who sits beside him and the society in which he lives. The rabbi referred many times in our interview to what he explained is the basis of his philosophy – that the Torah is “a Torah of compassion.”
I ended the interview by asking the rabbi on the eve of Rosh Hashanah what does he see as the greatest challenge confronting the Jewish people today. “For the first time in 2000 years, there is a nation state for the Jewish people,” Riskin replied. “We have to understand that Zionism was not defined as merely having a Jewish state. It is a place that continues to teach the world the commandments, to live in peace and to search for righteousness and moral justice. This is what God said to Abraham and that is the mission of the Jewish people today.”
This year, Rabbi Riskin was awarded the Sylvan Adams Nefesh B’Nefesh Bonei Zion Prize for his outstanding contribution to education in Israel. The committee said his “visionary contributions to Israel and world Jewry over the course of the past half-century have impacted upon the lives of thousands while redefining modern-Orthodox leadership, shaping the face of contemporary Jewish education, and in many cases, literally changing the direction of Jewish history.”
Throughout our two hours together, Rabbi Riskin glanced up at the portrait of Rabbi Soleveitchik. After receiving his rabbinic ordination from the Rav, as his students called him, Riskin founded the Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City, which he led for 20 years before making aliyah. In his mind, Riskin has continued his dialogue with his mentor long after Soloveitchik died in 1993 at the age of 90.
Sitting between them, I was reminded of the old saying by Maimonides, “We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants.”