‘God listens to Reform Jews, too’
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a devoted educator and scholar who combines Orthodox religious practice with a willingness to butt heads with the rabbinical establishment, insists that Israel and U.S. Jewry cannot give up on each other. “We don’t have to agree but we have to listen,” he says.
It’s doubtful there are even a handful of Torah scholars who have the stature, experience and deep understanding of all aspects of U.S. Jewry as Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin. As a member of mainstream modern Orthodoxy and rabbi of the city of Efrat, he is pained – almost physically – by the current crisis between Israel and the second-largest Jewish community in the world. Although he is aware of how difficult things are, he is concerned by the terms “divorce,” “cutoff” or “rift,” which are being bandied about in this context.
“We cannot allow ourselves to give up on them, just like they cannot allow themselves to give up on us,” Riskin tells Israel Hayom.
“The talk about accepting a possibility like that horrifies me. … Dialogue, even if we don’t reach an agreement, is essential. It can be incisive but also embracing and loving because aside from the dispute – and it exists – we are brothers, sons and daughters of one people.”
Riskin, 79, is one of the best-known figures among Jewry outside Israel. He was a leading activist in the struggle to free Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain of the former Soviet Union. In the U.S., he took part in marches organized by Martin Luther King Jr. on behalf of civil rights for African-Americans and when he made aliyah, he established the Ohr Torah Stone school system, an umbrella organization for a group of educational and social institutions that teach Judaism combined with Zionist, social, Western and modern values.
Introspection by both sides
Now, he is sparing neither side from criticism. Discussing progressive U.S. Jews who are currently working against Israel, Riskin says that they have adopted a twisted approach: “Anyone who appears weak and persecuted is automatically embraced by them, whether he is in the right or isn’t. A lot of Jewish Democrats and progressive Jews in the U.S. have forgotten the basic moral principle of ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.’ The way they see it, because the Palestinians have the lower hand and are the weaker side right now, they are automatically the justified side and it doesn’t matter that they are killing us and committing terrorism.
“They’ve also forgotten that we liberated the historical parts of the land of Israel in wars that were forced on us, that we did not initiate. They’re a little confused. In effect, what is happening is that their automatic alignment with the weaker side is dragging them into ‘understanding’ the Palestinian hatred and injustice and even terrorism. The progressive philosophy of life held by some U.S. Jews says that if you were the weak side and discriminated against for years, even if now you’re behaving in a barbaric, criminal manner – you need to be the recipient of affirmative action. It’s a little like someone who automatically justifies a black person who is shot by a white cop, even if the black person attacked the cop and threatened his life. That view is an end to society, a perversion of reality.
“On the other hand, the dismissive way Israel treats matters that are close to the hearts of U.S. Jews, like the Western Wall prayer compromise, conversion and the Orthodox establishment’s attitude toward other streams of Judaism, Reform and Conservative, hurts and offends them deeply. I am an Orthodox rabbi who works within the confines of Jewish law and I have disagreements with my colleagues there but they are my colleagues and they are part of the Jewish people and we need to stop offending them. We must talk with them.”
Q: Many Jewish leaders in the U.S. talk about the “occupation,” about how “the Palestinians are treated,” and describe the settlements as exploitative. When they are asked what right they have to intervene, since they don’t live here, don’t serve in the IDF, don’t experience what we do here, they almost immediately link their political support and financial donations to a “right to intervene.” Do you think that’s correct?
“My American-ness says that if I ask Jews in the U.S. for money and we’ve sought and received plenty for our institutions, then I need to listen closely to their words and their outlook. Listen and respect it but not necessarily agree. On the other hand, I expect them to have a little humility. In the end, our lives here are hanging in the balance. We are sacrificing our lives here because we want to live. In progressive America, patriotism is considered a bad word but without a nation, we wouldn’t have a country. They’ve forgotten that.”
Q: As someone who has recently been speaking with Jewish leaders in the U.S., my impression is that many of them absolutely hate President Donald Trump and the close cooperation between him and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drives a lot of them crazy.
“Trump is a gift to the U.S. in the field of economics, and of course, to Israel. There has never been a president who has been so good for Israel. The Jews who criticize him aren’t well-enough versed in the history of the state of Israel. They take in biased information from hostile officials, some of whom are anti-Semites. Even The New York Times, into which – I am sorry to say – anti-Semitism has filtered.”
The Lord listens to Reform Jews, too
Thirty-six years ago, along with several dozen other families from the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan, Riskin made aliyah and helped found the settlement of Efrat in Gush Etzion, which is now home to 11,000 residents. Nothing similar has happened since. U.S. Jews, who are used to living well and in comfort, make aliyah as individuals or in hastily organized groups, not as organized communities.
Riskin has written books on philosophy and is considered adept at Greek, as well as Jewish, philosophy and literature. He used to direct the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation. On several occasions, he has spoken out “with great regret” on behalf of separation between religion and state. His statements on the issue came on the heels of what Riskin described as “dirty political involvement” by politicians and rabbis in matters of faith, religion and Jewish law. He also launched, along with a number of other rabbis, the practice of prenuptial agreements, which are designed to prevent situations in which a man denies a woman a Jewish writ of divorce. He also heads conversion panels, something that has brought the wrath of the Chief Rabbinate upon his head several times. Today, Riskin says, “all is quiet on that front.”
Along with all of this, Riskin has spent years working to advance the status of women in Judaism by appointing female teachers who deal with religious rulings. However, unlike the female rabbis who are ordained in the U.S., these teachers do not lead synagogue congregations.
“A woman cannot read the Torah or participate in public prayer like men are required to do but there is no reason why a woman cannot be a spiritual leader and teach Torah to men,” he says.
And unlike some other Orthodox rabbis, Riskin is careful not to shun his Reform and Conservative colleagues in the U.S.
Some of his colleagues have referred to Reform and Conservative Jews as “goyim” and “heretics.”
“Even though I can’t pray with them in a minyan because I pray strictly according to Jewish law and my prayers are different from theirs, I believe that the Lord hears their prayers, maybe even more than mine. For the most part, they make a great effort to give Jews knowledge and Jewish pride. So woe betide us if the centers of religion here in Israel are for the Orthodox only. The Western Wall prayer compromise, which is frozen, is an example of that mistake. We need to put it in place and give them the possibility of praying next to the Western Wall, in their own area, as they are used to: men and women together. The government’s conduct in this affair hurt U.S. Jewry deeply. It’s like they were told: ‘Keep out,’ which is, of course, a terrible thing to say.”
Q: The Chief Rabbinate claims they don’t even go there. That in Israel there is no Reform or Conservative public that would use an area like that – that it’s all a provocation.
“That’s not the point. We Orthodox have plenty of synagogues nationwide that are pretty empty. We need to do everything we can to fill them.”
Q: Would you like to see large-scale aliyah of Conservative and Reform communities?
“That would make me very happy but they must understand that here in Israel, Jewishness in the public sphere needs to be Orthodox, that their conversions do not comply with Jewish law and that here in Israel there are laws about marriage they’ll need to follow, and we’ll need to respect them, too.”
Q: Other streams of Judaism make Judaism accessible to their followers as a culture, community life, as a way of being and not so much as an obligation to Jewish law.
“Right. But I don’t see a problem with that. I wish that most Jews in the U.S. would see Judaism as a culture because the Jewish culture includes the Bible and Jewish literature and the holy texts down through the generations and Shabbat. Jewish culture and law are intertwined. The problem isn’t culture. The problem is the immense assimilation, which is threatening to seriously cut down the number of Jews there.”
Q: Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, claims that mixed marriages are a reality that stems from Jews in the U.S. living in a free society and that it can be turned into something positive. In his view, mixed marriages expand Jewish communities and are an opportunity to bring more people into Judaism.
“Insisting that a Jewish man marries a Jewish woman and vice versa is what has always preserved the existence of the Jewish people. Without that, we wouldn’t have continued to exist as a people. At the last Hebrew Union College ordination of Reform rabbis, the Jewish writer Michael Chabon got up and claimed that a religion that forbids his son or daughter to marry a non-Jew is racist. A statement like that is laughable. Taking goyim and putting them among Jews doesn’t increase the Jewish people – exactly the opposite.”
Nevertheless, Riskin believes that in general, the very existence of the Reform and Conservative movements in the U.S. has allowed more Jews to embrace Judaism, even if they do so minimally: “If you ask me if we’ve lost more Jews or gained more Jews because of them,” my answer is we’ve ‘saved’ more. I don’t blame them for mixed marriages. I do have strong reservations about the tolerance they demonstrate toward them.”
Q: How would you treat a mixed couple if you were a pulpit rabbi in the U.S. today?
“With explanation, education, instruction, by embracing them [the couple] and a lot of love and emotional acceptance but not by compromising on Jewish law. After Chabad, we, Ohr Torah Stone, send the most rabbis out to communities throughout the world. On Saturday, we are holding a special Shabbat, where our emissaries in 100 different communities will talk to various sectors of the public about Judaism and Torah and education. We teach Judaism with a lot of acceptance. Not, heaven forbid, as something threatening. When you behave like that, often the non-Jewish member of the couple will bring the Jewish side closer to traditional Judaism.”
A most pluralistic text
Riskin has said more than once that even though he sees the Talmud as a most pluralistic text, the people who spend the most time studying it are more narrow-minded than everyone else. Riskin sticks to that statement and aims it mainly as the haredi leadership, “whose public, despite everything, is slowly moving toward practical Zionism.”
Riskin is convinced that “Jewish law is pluralistic.”
“I can’t look in the eyes of an agunah [a Jewish woman denied a writ of divorce] and tell her, ‘I have no answer for you.’ Jewish law needs to try and find solutions for changing situations. In the past, there were chief rabbis like Shlomo Goren and Yitzhak Herzog and even Ovadia Yosef, who made courageous rulings. How many of the people who refuse to allow women to sing in public know, for example, that the sage Ovadia allows women to sing religious songs in public? I personally forbid both men and women from singing when the song includes hints of sexuality but allow it when the song is pure – like the songs of Naomi Shemer, which in my opinion are holy. There are grounds to allow things. Anyone who sees himself as being unable to tolerate women singing should at least take care not to embarrass the women who do sing by making a pointed exit.”
Riskin also rules that women can serve in the IDF, including combat units. “All our wars were ones that had to be fought. I wouldn’t recommend that men and women serve together in the same tank. It’s not healthy, but the institutions we have set up include Hadas, a track similar to the hesder track for men, [which] includes religious study combined with army service for women. I’m very proud of that.”
Touching on the model of spiritual leadership that empowers women to make religious rulings that he and his people have developed, Riskin says, “If Deborah was a judge and the Midrash says that Sarah the Matriarch was a greater prophet than Abraham, then women can be spiritual leaders.”
Another subject that is keeping Riskin busy these days is the matter of LGBTQ rights.
“In Efrat, four young homosexual teens have committed suicide over the years because they had nowhere to turn. It’s clear to me that this is a life and death matter,” he says.
“The act is forbidden but there is no punishment for it. In any case, first and foremost, we must love and accept, and certainly as a synagogue and community. That’s the ABC,” he says.