Interview: Back to the sources

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin draws on his unobservant background to speak to the next generation in his new book, ‘Listening to God.’

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and children  (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and children
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
‘Ihave always believed that God has sent me messages through special individuals, special moments, special experiences. It is these divine messages that I have attempted to record in this book,’ writes Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat and founder and chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone institutions, in the introduction to his new book Listening to God: Inspirational Stories for My Grandchildren.
This union of sincere belief with the feeling of responsibility to spread the word is the leitmotiv of Riskin’s very readable memoir, chronologically advancing from his childhood in the 1940s in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, through his years at Yeshiva University and as the rabbi of the Lincoln Square Synagogue, to his aliya in 1983, where he was a founding rabbi of Efrat and established a thriving educational empire of modern Orthodoxy.
Openness to the other without compromising one’s truth and beliefs is an important theme in the book (reviewed on page 41), in which the author’s nonobservant background is shown to be a source of strength and inspiration.
One of the first points that arose in a recent interview with Riskin ahead of the book launch last Saturday night was the stark contrast between that model of Orthodoxy and attempts to limit the exposure to external, nonhalachic forces.
Why is such stringency, which seems to be more prevalent in recent years, considered the correct model of Orthodoxy by so many? “I’m not certain it wasn’t always part of Jewish life,” Riskin said. “It’s not for naught that 36 times the Bible commands us to love the other, the stranger. Most people are wary at best of the stranger. In many cases, downright negative to anyone who is different from the way they are. The anthropocentric predicament makes everybody his center, as everybody else should be.
“I believe the Torah tries desperately to get us out of that mode. The fundamental commandment is that every individual is created in the image of God. That means that what makes us all one is that we are all part of the womb of Shechina, every one of us human beings. That’s what makes us not strangers but siblings. And that’s the most important biblical command. And that’s why it’s most easily forgotten.
“If you subject your child to a religious educational system, in which he’s never going to study anything that wasn’t written by an Orthodox Jew, he’s going to willy-nilly grow up in a way in which he thinks non-Orthodox Jews have nothing of importance to say or teach.”
Why is the book dedicated to your grandchildren? “From a very young age, I always had very strong intimations of mortality, and felt that I was fighting against the clock and against time,” Riskin said.
“The greatest gift I feel I’ve gotten in my life has been my grandchildren, who have existentially given me a whole sense of into the future.
“I meant for this book to be my legacy to my grandchildren. I feel very much that God speaks in the world, that’s the burden of the book. I feel that after Sinai, God spoke through the cherubs and the sanctuary, and the Sanhedrin of the holy Temple. And then I believe that God speaks through the human beings who were created in His image, Jewish and gentile. And our souls just have to be sensitized to hearing God’s words.
“I feel that I’ve been privileged to have had encounters, and met individuals whom I see as angels, as Maimonides explains the term – people who have shown you the way – throughout my life. I wanted to leave this as a legacy to my grandchildren, through the stories of those angels and my encounters with them.”
AN ESPECIALLY striking chapter details the atmosphere of study at Yeshiva University under the uncompromising Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, Riskin’s teacher and mentor under whom he was ordained, and whom he considers the ultimate Jewish scholar of this generation.
“To his mind,” Riskin writes, “a rabbinical student... couldn’t afford to make a mistake... after all, European Jewry was dead and Israel had not yet become a powerful and leading Jewish presence. The center of world Jewry had shifted to America, the preservation of our 4,000-year-long tradition rested in our hands – and especially in his hands, our teacher.”
Can you breathe a sigh of relief today, with the flourishing of the world of Torah study we are witness to? “My sigh is different,” Riskin answered with a deep sigh. “The way Judaism is being defined today, especially Orthodoxy – I find it frightening.
It’s not the Judaism of Rav Soloveitchik, uncompromising in Halacha, but with the ability to speak to the modern world. It’s not the Judaism of the beit midrash that says – if you have a different view from your rabbi, just prove it to him, through the sources. In that Judaism, rabbis had the ability to make halachic judgments and be creative in them, and leniency takes precedence, especially when there is a human being in trouble and suffering.
It’s the individual aguna who is entrapped in an impossible marriage – getting her freed is the object, that’s what the Talmud says. We bend over backward to be lenient for the sake of the aguna.
“And modern Halacha, as it’s being applied even by the religious court of the Chief Rabbinate, rules too often as a different point of departure. Taharat Yisrael – the purity of Israel – at all costs. That was not the halachic direction I was trained in, when rabbis made things easier and not harder and more complicated. These are the things concerning me today, in terms of trying as best as I can through my institutions and writings to help define Orthodoxy in a different way.”
Is there a way to reverse the trend of that stringency in Orthodoxy? “I think we’ve got to reverse it. That was the greatness of talmudic Judaism, that was the greatness of responsa literature in Judaism. The haredi world, which is changing that, is creating an educational system that leaves grandfathers and fathers and grandsons all studying in the same kollel – that instead of being a prescription for life, Torah has become a substitute for life. That is not authentic, traditional Judaism; that’s a reformation of Judaism. A Judaism that forgets ‘you shall love the convert’ and substitutes it for purity of Israel; that forgets you should be lenient towards the aguna, and again substitutes it for purity of Israel – that’s reforming Judaism.
“We must be totally committed to Halacha,” Riskin stressed, “but Halacha is not as narrow as it’s being interpreted.
That is what concerns me today, but I’m convinced my position is the right one and will prevail.”
To back his optimism, Riskin mentioned as an example the Straus-Amiel Rabbinical Seminary, which is apparently the largest Orthodox institution of its kind, outside of Chabad. “We’re the way of the future,” he stated.
As for the haredi method of learning, “that is a narrow Torah,” Riskin, who holds a PhD from New York University’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Literature, explained.
“If you open your mind to those things that challenge Torah, real creativity emerges. If you’re afraid to open your mind to that, the Torah is going to emerge as a very narrow Torah. And that’s what’s emerging from the haredi world.”
His Ohr Torah Stone institutions, which began as high schools in the US, have grown into 18 programs on 11 campuses here educating some 3,000 men and women from junior high to graduate school. While they might seem to serve the same crocheted-kippa public as any other equivalent establishment that combines Torah with Zionism and modernity in varying ratios, Riskin’s institutions have a distinctive direction that was not to be taken for granted in the early 1980s.
“I found that this message of modern Orthodoxy was to a great extent lacking in Israel when I arrived,” he said. “I thought it was the same as religious Zionism, but it’s not at all. The compassionate aspect of Halacha, the importance of secular studies, the universal message of Judaism,” were what was lacking in the traditional religious Zionist institutions.
So if 50 years ago Soloveitchik’s teachings and Orthodox outlook paved Riskin’s physical and spiritual way from New York to Israel, now Riskin is exporting the same principles back to the Diaspora, but the messages of modern Orthodoxy are not aimed only at Jews.
“Judaism has a message to the world and it’s a world that is threatened by Islamic extremism, a world that is looking for religion and morality, but it has to be a religion and morality that speak in sensible terms,” he said. “Judaism came into the world as a world religion. God, when he elected Abraham, said, ‘Through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth’; so that the message God wanted us to give to the world, to be a light to the nations, was not just a message for Jews, but for the entire world.”
What about leaving the comfort of the US for Israel? How much of a leap of faith was that? “People say I gave so much up coming here – I had a big synagogue and so forth – but I didn’t give up a thing. I think that the opportunities one has in Israel to be creative in the areas I wanted most to be creative in – education, Jewish philosophy and thinking, theology – I never would have had an opportunity like this in the United States. And to be able to be one of the founders of a city, which now has 35 synagogues,” he said.
“This is where the future of the Jewish people is and this will determine the future. The way Halacha goes here will ultimately be the way Halacha goes in the world.
“There is a line in the book – at best, in the Diaspora you’re a footnote in Jewish history. Here, you are a chapter head – how we’ll define Judaism on every level.”
One of the biggest challenges facing the religious establishment is the presence of a large group of Israelis who are not Jewish according to Halacha, primarily immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Estimates number them around 300,000, with 80,000-100,000 of them youths who will eventually want to marry. Lawmakers and rabbis who fear intermarriage are attempting to present “user friendly,” albeit Orthodox, conversions, relying in part on the fact that since they came under the Law of Return, they have Jewish blood; and since they are citizens who serve in the IDF, they are intent on joining the Jewish people.
But many veteran immigrants see no point in such a process, since their life here doesn’t feel lacking to them. At the same time, Ashkenazi haredi elements claim such conversions, which do not stem from religious motivation, should not be encouraged and, at times, not accepted.
For Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat and founder and chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone institutions, undoing the unholy matrimony between politics and religion could create a shift in the public’s perception of Judaism and enhance the understanding of the centrality of the Jewish religion to the character of the Jewish state. As a result, those non-halachic Jews for whom the Israeli element is central to their identity would want to convert. And those who claim that conversions can be annulled are nothing less than reformers of the Halacha, he states.
The fusion of politics and religion, Riskin says, “is the worst thing in Israel. I understand it was very necessary in the beginning of the state, in order to give the state a Jewish dimension; now it’s totally counterproductive. If the religious parties would legislate circumcision today – I would venture to guess 97 percent circumcise their sons on the eighth day – it would stop immediately if it became legislated by the Knesset. It’s totally counterproductive.
“Religion, as a moral voice above the fray of politics, no longer exists. That’s the tragedy of Israel. And a nonobservant Jew just doesn’t go to synagogue. Because of the religious-political situation, because they see the rabbi as more of a politician than a moral leader.
“Religion has become so politicized, so part of the political environment, they want no part of it. They certainly don’t feel inspired by it. As a result, the answer is not by providing ‘synagogue rabbis.’ They are not going to be channeled to the unaffiliated.
“So about seven or eight years ago, we came to the conclusion at Ohr Torah Stone that the way to do it in Israel is through the matnasim [community centers], which are basically Jewish centers, which have sports and other activities from the tots to the aged, with everything in between.
And if we can get a religious, inspired cultural facilitator who will not try to make them Orthodox, just try to make them attuned to Jewish culture, Israelis – but Israeli Jews, in whom the culture of the Jewish people for 4,000 years beats in their veins. I think we can say this will make us one nation again.”
Such outreach would also apply to Israelis who are not Jewish according to Halacha. We speak to them “in terms of the Bible, because the Bible is our culture; Shabbat is also part of our culture, the holidays are also part of our culture,” says Riskin. “And then, they would want to become Jewish, since part of being Israeli would be to be Jewish.
“That is the most important thing we’re doing, and what we want to reach our through the matnasim, the JCCs, in neighborhoods like Ashdod, Ramle, and even in [the Jerusalem neighborhood of] Talpiot, where there are large Russian populations of Israeli citizens who may not be halachic Jews – to reach out to them in terms of their Jewish identity, and try to work on them for a userfriendly conversion.
“Of course it has to be a halachic conversion. In my experience, everything depends on the attitude.
The content is obviously going to be the Sabbath, the festivals, kashrut, but these things are even enjoyable; in Israel they are not difficult.
Kashrut certainly isn’t, the holidays are in the same calendar, and it gives chance for family togetherness, development; it’s beautiful stuff.”
As for the claim that not maintaining an Orthodox lifestyle proves that the convert’s intent was not to accept Torah and therefore the conversion should not be considered valid: “That is not the Halacha of conversion, that’s reforming Halacha,” Riskin says. “Halacha never insisted on [converts maintaining a haredi lifestyle], Halacha insisted on accepting the commandments, but you don’t have to teach them the whole Shulhan Aruch; you can never teach the whole Shulhan Aruch – I’m still learning the commandments. As for annulling conversions – it’s very difficult. According to Maimonides, there’s no such thing. Once you underwent a true conversion, you cannot annul a conversion.”