The great merits of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who gave up on the good life in America and made Aliya in order to settle the Land, where he created exemplary institutions * Different approaches are part of the world of Halakha; even if our approach varies, it is forbidden to invalidate Rabbi Riskin’s position * Threatening his tenure is comparable to ripping entire sections out of a Torah scroll * Can the Chief Rabbinate obligate rabbis in general to accept its positions, and under what conditions? * As long as the Rabbinate looks the other way when it comes to Charedi rabbis, there is no justification for their treating Rabbi Riskin differently
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, shlita
Recently, it has been revealed that the Chief Rabbinate Council is debating whether Rabbi Riskin, shlita, Chief Rabbi of Efrat, should have his tenure extended despite reaching the retirement age of seventy-five.
The discussion should have been solely procedural. However, it seems that certain members of the council have grievances against Rabbi Riskin, and therefore decided to take the opportunity to put an end to his tenure. This is an opportunity to speak in praise of Rabbi Riskin, who is a tzadik, sage, and leader with tremendous merits.
Rabbi Riskin was born into a non-religious, poor family. As a result of a conscious, personal choice, and with the help of his grandmother, he began to forge a path towards Torah and mitzvot at a young age. Because he was a genius and excelled in his studies, he was accepted by the most prestigious university in the world, Harvard, and offered a full scholarship. Attending that esteemed institution would have guaranteed his professional and financial future, as all doors are open to graduates of Harvard. This was an unbelievable opportunity. Few would have been able to resist this temptation. Yet, Rabbi Shlomo gave up the scholarship and went to study at Yeshiva University. There too, the faculty recognized his immense talents and offered him a full scholarship. From that point on, he began dedicating his life to Torah.
As a young, talented, charismatic rabbi, and a gifted orator with the ability to spiritually inspire his listeners and draw them closer to Torah and mitzvot, Rabbi Riskin was very well established and respected in the United States. Successful and intelligent people also found his Torah teachings meaningful, and were privileged to draw closer to Jewish tradition thanks to him. The Torah of truth was in his mouth, and he helped many return to their roots. A brilliant future awaited him as one of the leaders of the Jewish community in America. Yet before turning forty, out of a pure belief in God and Torah, he gave up his position in America and chose to come to Israel and grace it with his presence. With this decision he also sacrificed one of the basic tools of his trade, the English language, in which he so exceled in America. He learned to speak Hebrew fluently as well, but people say that in English he is one of the best orators around.
Thanks to his vision, talents, and leadership, he was privileged to bring many members of his congregation to Israel and to establish a city, Efrat, whose spiritual life centers around Torah study and mitzva observance. Its residents tend to be financially successful and contribute to the development of Israel’s economy, science, and society in general. His Aliya influenced hundreds and thousands to follow in his footsteps, emigrants who moved to Efrat and all over the Land of Israel, and by doing so strengthened their connection to Torah and mitzvot. In due course, he was privileged to found schools and educational institutions in Gush Etzion and in Jerusalem for both boys and girls. He has done all of this with amazing energy – he personally visits all the institutions, teaches, tells stories, and generates enthusiasm in the hearts of the students for a life of Torah and mitzvot. However, when he chose to make Aliya, nothing was promised to him. Like our father Jacob, ‘he crossed the Jordan with only his stick in hand’.
Aliya from Western Countries
Sometimes we fail to remember, but much to our dismay the vast majority of emigrants to Israel in modern times arrived from lands where Jews suffered poverty and oppression. In contrast, Aliya from the West, especially from the United States, is perhaps the Aliya with the purest motivations of all. Most of the emigrants from the U.S. could have done very well for themselves financially and socially had they remained in America, the epicenter of economy, science, and culture. Yet, they decided to forgo all this in order to emigrate, to establish towns and communities, to send their children to the army, and alongside all of this, to seek out employment while having to deal with the difficulties of mastering a new language and adapting to a different culture. With God’s help, many have been blessed with success in both their personal and professional lives. Indeed, Member of Knesset Naftali Bennet is one of the blessed products of this Aliya.
Would We Have Withstood the Challenge
Sometimes students, who come from the United States to study for the year in a yeshiva in the Holy Land, visit Har Bracha. They often ask about the mitzva to live in Israel. I try to answer them in accordance with the halakha: yes, there is a mitzva to live in Israel. I add, however, that if completing their professional studies in the United States would be greatly to their advantage, or if their doing so would
make their parents happy (kibud horim), they may delay Aliya until they complete their studies. Still, I make sure to preface this by saying: I am answering you in accordance with the halakha, but to my sorrow, I cannot say to you with certainty that were I in your position, I would follow the halakha that I am presenting to you, for indeed, sometimes the challenges are enormous, and excuses abound. It is a known fact that there is a mitzva to settle the Land of Israel, yet not all observant people do so.
Therefore, I admire Rabbi Shlomo Riskin tremendously, together with all the immigrants from the United States.
True, a variety of approaches exist in dealing with numerous halakhic issues. This has always been the case, and differences of opinions were prevalent among the Tanna’im, Amora’im, Ge’onim, Rishonim, and Acharonim. Sometimes these differences are a result of diverse personalities, as is the case with Hillel and Shamai. Other times, the differences result from a contrast in background or ways of thinking. Regarding this our Sages say: “The phrase ‘Masters of Gathering’ (ba’alei asufot) refers to Torah scholars who gather together and study Torah. These declare x impure, while those declare it pure; these forbid, while those permit; these invalidate, while those validate. A person might be tempted to say: ‘How in these circumstances can I learn Torah?’ Therefore, the verse goes on to state: ‘They were all given by one shepherd’ (Kohelet 12:11) – One God gave them; one leader stated them. They come from the mouth of the Lord of all creation, blessed be He. Thus it is written: ‘And God spoke all these words (Shemot 20:1).’ Make your ears like a funnel and acquire a perceptive heart so that you can understand the words of those who declare pure and to those who declare impure, those who forbid and those who permit, those who invalidate and those who validate” (Chagiga 3b).
Rabbi Riskin’s American background is very significant in his work. Jews living in the U.S. and those emigrating from there are on the frontlines in engaging with the challenges presented by Western culture — the ideals of liberalism and egalitarianism, as well as feminism. Rabbi Riskin and his associates are paving the way to deal with these critically important questions while retaining unwavering loyalty to Torah. Even among American Rabbis there are differences in approach in regards to general culture — how open we should be, and where to draw the line; which outside elements should be welcomed, and which rejected.
Occasionally, other rabbis, myself included, favor solutions different from those of Rabbi Riskin. Sometimes this preference is a result of common practice which we feel bound by; other times, we simply believe that a different solution is preferable. These differences of opinion mainly center on educational and social issues and not on significant halachic questions. Only with hindsight will we be able to properly evaluate the pros and cons of each approach. In any case, one may not invalidate Rabbi Riskin’s approach, which is one of the important conduits through which Torah is being revealed today.
A Complete Torah scroll
A Torah scroll which is missing even one letter is invalid. So, too, in the world of Torah, each true Torah scholar has a letter in the Torah. Anyone who excludes a Torah scholar from the community invalidates his Torah scroll. Threatening the tenure of Rabbi Riskin is the equivalent of ripping out entire sections from the Torah.
I assume that the Chief Rabbinate’s council is debating Rabbi Riskin’s future because it is not really familiar with him and his work. However, once they hear a bit about his fear of God, wisdom, and righteousness, I believe that most of the members of the council will stand by him.
If, God forbid, they decide otherwise, Rabbi Riskin’s honor will not be damaged one iota. The status of his community and his institutions will continue to rise, and his influence will increase. However, the status of the Chief Rabbinate as the flag bearer of Torah for the people of Israel will be weakened, as many will come to the realization that the Torah scroll it represents is lacking and thus invalid.
The Chief Rabbinate’s Policy
Some maintain that the Chief Rabbinate needs to establish guiding principles that all rabbis must accept, and that Rabbi Riskin has not been following them with regards to conversion and other matters.
Indeed, it is true that it would be appropriate for the Rabbinate to take a position regarding contemporary communal issues. However, to do so it must engage in a profound and serious analysis of each issue. The discussion needs to involve Gemara, Rishonim, and Acharonim, and an analysis of the reality being explored in all its complexity. In order to expedite the discussions, the Rabbis engaging the issues need to study and read a variety of articles dealing with the issues. Even after this groundwork is laid, the discussion of each issue would minimally need to extend over a number of days. To our dismay, there are no serious discussions taking place today about any significant issues, neither in the Rabbinate, nor in any other Torah organization. For example, Rabbi Chaim Amsalem shlita wrote a very serious book dealing with conversion, which deserves to be discussed. True, my conclusions differs from his, but most who disagree with him offer frivolous objections backed-up with attacks, as is customary in Charedi circles.
I must add that despite the importance of establishing an official position on every issue, this position must not negate the rights of individual rabbis to their opinions. Even when the Sanhedrin sat in the lishkat hagazit (the hewn chamber) on the Temple Mount, the local courts still retained a certain amount of authority. For the position is not merely a fine line, but rather a field, blessed by God — a wide field encompassing various practices and approaches, in whose merit the Oral Law is enriched and blessed. This is even truer today, when we have no Sanhedrin ordained in an unbroken chain from the time of Moshe Rabbeinu. The Rabbinate cannot demarcate a sharp line which leaves important Torah positions on the outside. When the status and authority of the Chief Rabbinate is weak, it must be even more careful to take into account a variety of opinions when it formulates its positions. This is longstanding rabbinic practice.
With Equal Justice for All
Leaving all of the above aside, there must be one law which applies to all. The Council of the Chief Rabbinate overlooks serious disrespect towards its honor and positions imposed by Charedi rabbis who boycott its kashrut and demean the Chief Rabbis, as well as city and community rabbis. Given that, they must certainly show tolerance and favor towards rabbis like Rabbi Riskin, who respect the Chief Rabbinate, but occasionally adopt differing positions.
Today, the Chief Rabbinate does not attempt to immediately fire Rabbis who, contrary to halakhic norms, invalidate conversions performed by the Rabbinate’s representatives. It still recognizes Charedi kashrut organizations, and their marriages and conversions, even though they dare to publicly uproot biblical commandments. These include the mitzva to settle the Land of Israel and to protect the people of Israel by serving in the army. These rabbis are also ingrates, refusing to recognize God’s goodness in establishing the State, and denounce those who recite Hallel on Israeli Independence Day. Yet they are recognized. In light of this reality, the Chief Rabbinate must certainly refrain from acting against a rabbi whose fear of God, good deeds, and wisdom are greater than those of the Charedi rabbis whose honor they over-zealously guard.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at: http://en.yhb.org.il/