The Human Spirit: Branding at the Chief Rabbinate

"I’m writing as a taxpayer, as an observant Jew, and as an Israeli double-digit grandmother, who cares intensely about the Jewish future of the Jewish state."

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin at Midreshet Lindenbaum. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin at Midreshet Lindenbaum.
Dear rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef,
Branding in public-relations- speak is the process of distinguishing your product or approach from the others in your field. Coca-Cola is different from Pepsi. As the expression goes, “branding comes before advertising.”
Relatively new in your positions, you are doubtless taking the stands that will clearly brand your terms of office.
What will rabbis Lau and Yosef’s leadership be known for? Lest you think that the message you pledged of unifying the Jewish people at the beginning of the term is getting through, I feel compelled to share with you my profound disappointment that it’s not. Your decision to call in Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi and founder of Efrat, for an examination of his qualification to continue in his role as Efrat’s city rabbi is regrettable.
I understand that from 2008 to 2013, your predecessors extended the terms of city rabbis without such a grilling. Rabbi Riskin, the first city rabbi in modern times ever to be questioned by you, is the last rabbi whose credentials and qualifications could be in doubt.
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I know that senior politicians and other esteemed rabbis have weighed in on this subject. I’m writing as a taxpayer, as an observant Jew, and as an Israeli double-digit grandmother, who cares intensely about the Jewish future of the Jewish state.
No one is fooled. This summoning of Rabbi Riskin isn’t about his age. Rabbis often continue their leadership into their 80s and 90s and beyond. Think of the revered Rabbi Yitzhak Kadourie, whose birth date was always in dispute, whose age was estimated between 103 and 118. At 75, Rabbi Riskin is youthful, energetic and clear-thinking. He travels the world to inspire Jews and support Torah institutions, makes it back for britot and weddings, and counsels those in need of personal and religious guidance.
The Chief Rabbinate isn’t an amorphous body. You are its two elected leaders, both bearing illustrious names of rabbinic dynasties. But unhappily, occasionally Sabra religious education – which should expose rabbis to the hearts, minds and dilemmas of their brethren – hardens extreme elements.
The challenging issues of conversion, religious status and the roles of women mark our contemporary times. Conversion is mostly about women. Religious status is mostly about women, too.
The summons to Rabbi Riskin, coming so soon after Rabbi Lau’s suggestion that a law be passed to require every Knesset bill to go to the chief rabbi for review, has me worried. Exactly when we need a creative, resourceful, embracing Chief Rabbinate, why would you brand yourself as muscular and power-grasping? Surely you realize true authority comes from respect and influence, not threats. Other rabbis will hesitate even more than they do now to make courageous decisions.
At a time when the question of whether or not we need one chief rabbi, let alone two, is frequently raised, we need leadership, and not attempts to throttle different ideas. Unity in Judaism has never meant subscribing to an enforced doctrine.
You knew when you competed for your jobs that state-mandated religious authority was already unpopular. Dealing with the Israeli rabbinical authorities has never been easy. The simplest act – signing up to get married – isn’t simple. Those of us born abroad who have had to prove we were eligible to marry in the tradition of Moses the Lawgiver remember how disagreeable this was. I can still recall my relief that my mother’s family rabbi in New London, Connecticut, was still alive – far older than 75 – and could provide documentation about my maternal grandparents, Moshe and Esther.
Still, despite the paperwork, only couples who couldn’t qualify for marriage in Israel went abroad to wed.
Today, thousands of Sabras who can easily prove their Jewishness opt for weddings abroad so that they don’t have to wrangle with the rabbinical authority. My own Sabra cousin, whose great-grandparents settled in Petah Tikva when mine put down stakes in New London, recently chose a Cyprus ceremony. Only extreme antipathy toward what should be one of the most welcoming and spiritually supportive institutions in our country could have made her and thousands like her forgo what I have always felt was the beauty of an Israeli huppa.
But instead of embracing a more felicitous model of Judaism, the Chief Rabbinate threatens a rabbi who should be one of its role models, sending a warning message to the rabbi who dares to be an independent thinker and to take corrective independent action.
The institutions of Rabbi Riskin’s Ohr Torah Stone high school yeshiva for boys and ulpana for girls expanded the curriculum and modeled a mix of Torah education and general studies. Midreshet Lindenbaum provides uncompromised Jewish education for highly motivated young women. There’s a women’s hesder program including Torah study and military service.
There’s a program that is providing a course of study parallel to that of rabbis. Rabbi Riskin employs a woman spiritual leader to assist him in Efrat.
Most potential converts are women, too, we all know. The process of conversion has been sullied by those taking advantage of the helplessness of women trying to undergo a serious and respectful process. Rabbi Riskin is known for being strict on conversion essentials, and having converts understand that, like the rest of us, they need to be constantly growing in their Judaism.
None of us knows if the proposal to grant more autonomy to municipal rabbis and to allow us to choose from among them in matters of Jewish status and conversion will succeed in creating a better system. There have always been differences among the styles and rulings of municipal religious authorities.
Why should geography rule? A resident of one town shouldn’t be forced to adapt to the strictures and style of her own rabbi when she might be better pleased with an equally qualified rabbi from a different town. A person from Ashkelon should be able to apply to the rabbi of Efrat, or vice versa, choosing a religious guide the way we all choose these days: word of mouth and online ratings.
You, as chief rabbis, should be getting behind this proposal, seeing it as the last attempt by citizenry to preserve a system in which they have a say.
Rabbis, who are not only devout, but also wise and compassionate, have an advantage, of course. Rabbis should also know how to help solve the problems of native-born Israelis and immigrants from many countries. Rabbis require an understanding of all facets of life in Israel and the Diaspora. Expounding on Rabbi Riskin’s superb qualifications and track record is superfluous.
By making him the first rabbi ever to be called in for inspection, you demean not Rabbi Riskin, but yourselves and the institution you represent.
You should be summoning him not to question extending his role, but to ask him to help less adept colleagues get with the program.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.
It’s not about age, it’s about women and power