No holds barred: Rabbis under siege

The interplay between a religious leader’s personal life and his public responsibilities is in no way simple.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
These past few weeks have been challenging for the rabbinical world. Not once, but twice, leading rabbinical councils have moved to impose punitive measures against some of their most successful figures.
Last month we watched in astonishment as the Israeli Chief Rabbinate reportedly tried to force Rabbi Shlomo Riskin into retirement.
Rabbi Riskin is arguably the single most accomplished rabbi in the world. Any rabbinic leader who could claim to have built even a single major synagogue would be considered highly successful. The same could be said of a rabbinic figure who created a single significant educational institution.
With Rabbi Riskin, however, the achievements boggle the imagination. Here is a man who created not only educational institutions of a world-class caliber, rabbinic ordination academies that have graduated leaders who are now dispersed throughout the world, and one of the most successful New York synagogues, Lincoln Square, going back to the 1960s. Rather, Riskin did something unprecedented. He created an entire city. To travel to Efrat in Israel is to be awestruck by the magnitude of Rabbi Riskin’s achievements. A town of some 10,000 residents, just 20 minutes outside Jerusalem, Efrat is brimming with Torah-observant Jews, a great many of whom were inspired to make aliya through Rabbi Riskin.
Riskin is the equivalent of perhaps 50 rabbis. He is a global powerhouse.
As an American rabbi, I do not know all the ins-and-outs of how the Chief Rabbinate of Israel operates.
Less so do I know the intricacies of the controversies surrounding Rabbi Riskin. I know that some of it relates to his preparedness to give women leading roles within halachic Judaism. But surely we need women to feel that they are equal participants in the unfolding of Jewish history and tradition, to the fullest extent that Halacha (Jewish law) allows.
I do not wish to get into the important question of women in Judaism, for that is outside the purview of this particular column. My point, rather, is that whatever issues the Chief Rabbinate may have with Rabbi Riskin, is it really going to establish a precedent where people of monumental, historic and global achievement are going to find themselves with no place within the rabbinate? And will we, the Jewish community at large, allow rabbis to be hit with punitive measures without a fair hearing when they have brought tens of thousands of people closer to Judaism? The same question can be asked of the recent actions of the Rabbinical Council of America and Rabbi Marc Schneier. Once again, I do not know the details of what happened between Rabbi Schneier and the RCA. My understanding is that some of it relates to Rabbi Schneier’s personal life, even as I witness him today happily married to his wife, Gitty, with whom he recently had a beautiful baby girl.
But one must remember: Rabbi Schneier astonished the world by establishing an Orthodox synagogue in Southampton, New York, one of the most secular, affluent communities in the world, where no one believed that Orthodox Judaism could spread or have even a toehold – let alone form the bedrock of an energetic and lively community.
Every summer I speak as a scholar-in-residence at the Hampton Synagogue. It is a marvel to witness. While there are Jews of every economic background, there is a strong preponderance of congregants in the highest income brackets, many of whom previously had no connection to Judaism. They now come to shul and sit for hours studying, praying, listening, and engaging in Jewish life. For many Schneier is their sole connection to their people and he has instilled in them a passion for Jewish living and Jewish commitment.
Just last summer, I joined the synagogue again as a scholar-in-residence. It was at the height of the war in Gaza and Israel was fighting a genocidal adversary. Rabbi Schneier and his synagogue raised nearly $1 million for the Jewish state in the space of about 30 minutes. Raising large sums for worthy causes is a weekly tradition at Rabbi Schneier’s shul. I have seen many other miracles at the Hampton Synagogue and have beheld the effectiveness of Rabbi Schneier in bringing closer to Jewish tradition highly influential Jewish men and women who would otherwise be utterly unconnected to their people.
I recognize that none of this is an excuse for personal behavior that may be unacceptable. And we rabbis of course have to try and uphold the highest ethical norms.
But surely there was room to deal with this matter in a way that would recognize the tremendous and positive impact that Rabbi Schneier is having on so many lives and how he created one of the most successful Jewish communities in the world. What amazes me about the Hampton Synagogue is not that Schneier created a thriving Jewish community, but rather that he did so with a complete commitment to Orthodoxy. The RCA is the largest Orthodox body in the US. It should be saluting and acknowledging that achievement even as it holds us rabbis responsible for conducting themselves in a highly ethical manner.
Of course, this is a tricky issue. The interplay between a religious leader’s personal life and his public responsibilities is in no way simple. But the people who know Schneier best – his community – are standing by him completely. They recognize his contribution to their lives and have seen him acknowledge error and seek treatment for what he has said is a severe bipolar disorder.
But again, striking the balance between a rabbi’s personal realities and his public contribution is not the principal focus here. Rather I am trying to express how disheartened I am to see some of the leading and most successful rabbis in the world without enough of the people they served standing up for them.
Even as we rightly challenge rabbis for whatever issues we may have with them, it is crucial, righteous and just that we appreciate and forever remember the good they have done, and still do, for all of us.
Shmuley Boteach is founder of The World Values Network, an American organization defending Israel in the media, and is the best-selling author of 30 books, including The Israel Warrior’s Handbook, which is about to be released. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.