“Rulings devoid of human compassion will bring Orthodoxy to its end”
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who is due to step down from his position as chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone this summer, explains where the poskim [Rabbinical adjudicators] of our times are wanting, why he himself is such a fervent feminist and answers the question whether the Chief Rabbinate is a redundant institution.
By Moshe Wistoch and Adi Mamo Schwartz
KIPA News 14 Nissan 5778 | March 30, 2018
“My grandmother definitely had the biggest impact on my life. She was the daughter of a Dayan (rabbinical judge), a very unique woman who was very observant. She had a great desire to study Torah and asked her father to teach her, which meant she studied everything with him – the Pentateuch, Mishnah, Talmud. In my youth I visited her every Friday afternoon.
“We prayed together and I was mesmerized by how she would light the candles and talk to God, in much the same way I am talking to you now. We said the Sabbath service, ate the Sabbath meal, sang and learned together. She started teaching me the tractate of Brachot. She had the entire Shas (Talmud), which her father had bought for her. She was my Rabbanit in my youth, and I was convinced that every woman emanating from Europe was, by definition, a Torah scholar who is knowledgeable in Talmud. The whole issue of teaching Oral Torah to women – a subject close to my heart – originated with her. If I am ‘somewhat’ of a feminist – it’s completely in her merit.”
With these very words, and with gleaming eyes, Rabbi Riskin (78) describes his maternal grandmother whom he would visit as a ten-year-old child in the USA back in the 1940s. The young yeshiva student was Chaya Bella’s little prince, the only one to bring her some solace after her own seven children did not choose the path of Torah.
Seated across the table from me, in a very plain room in the OTS Neveh Shmuel Yeshiva High School, is Rabbi Riskin, who besides serving as Rosh HaYeshiva [of Ohr Torah Stone] also holds the position of Chief Rabbi of Efrat and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone. However, only few know that the person who indefatigably developed the Ohr Torah Stone network did not, in fact, grow up as an observant Jew nor receive a Jewish education.
“I don’t have a religious background,” he tells us, “and my parents were not traditional. My father didn’t even celebrate his Bar Mitzvah.” However, there were others who were responsible for instilling in him our Jewish faith and a sense of connection to the Jewish people. “My [paternal] grandfather was an intriguing man. He was a communist who saw Communism as a form of Tikkun Olam. As a young man he unionized the workers in his father’s factory against his own father. Consequently, he was taken to Siberia. Eventually, he ended up in New York, where he started making some money – only to split the profits with the rest of the workers. This resulted in my grandmother not speaking to him for a very long time. But he truly believed in his cause and I loved him greatly.”
We once took the train and with us on the cart were two Hasidim and three Gentiles who began harassing the Jews. My grandfather threw all three off the train. I was in shock. I asked him: “Why did you do that?” He answered: “They are our family. One always looks out for family.”
One of the earliest memories engraved in his mind of the Jewish education he nonetheless received from his grandfather, Shmuel Riskin, is from the age of three. “I was the eldest grandchild and he asked me whether I could align my fingers in the position required for Birkat Kohanim [the priestly blessing]. He then said to me: ‘Remember that we are Kohanim, and never marry a non-Jewish woman.’ He believed that religion was like opium for the masses, but insisted that we were the aristocracy of Judaism. In every sense, he was an intriguing person.
“We once took the train and with us on the cart were two Hasidim and three Gentiles who began harassing the Jews. When the train was about to stop, my grandfather, who was a very strong man, jumped off his chair and threw all three off the train. I was in shock. I asked him: ‘Why did you do that? After all, you’re not a religious man!?’ And he answered: ‘They are our family, and one always looks out for family.'”
The Jewish values he had managed to absorb from some of his family members must have formed roots because, with time, the young boy Shlomo Riskin started becoming observant and even went to study in yeshiva. As to his communist grandfather, Rabbi Riskin attests to the fact that, in a sense, he finally followed in his footsteps.
“We talked a lot of philosophy and argued about God. He would talk to me like an adult,” he says, continuing with great excitement: “I had the merit to see him return to religion and become observant. He even said to me: ‘I now understand I was worshipping strange gods.’ I greatly respected and loved him. He was a very sincere person, and in addition to this he was a true humanist. If I am ‘somewhat’ of a humanist – it’s because of him.”
Rabbi Riskin was born in New York in 1940. As a young man he learned in Yeshiva University and received his rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Joseph Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, whom he considers to be his most significant teacher and mentor. Notwithstanding, he had strong ties with many different types of rabbis and intellectuals, some of whom appear to have a worldview quite different from his.
In 1983 he made Aliya and settled in Israel, although the actual Aliya process took place over 20 years. “The idea of making Aliya was born way before I came. In the beginning of the 1960s I graduated from Yeshiva University with a Bachelor’s in Greek Literature, and I felt the need to also study something about the Land of Israel and the State of Israel. I have always believed that we are a unique generation and that the establishment of the State was the fulfillment of an age-old covenant and the manifestation of God’s loyalty to His chosen people.”
When he was 20, Rabbi Riskin boarded a ship to Israel and studied in the Ponevezh Yeshiva for a while. “I was fortunate enough to learn from Rabbi Rozovsky and to hear Torah lessons from Rabbi Kahaneman.” During the winter learning session he made sure to attend lectures at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and studied with renowned professors like Prof. David Flusser, Prof. Ephraim Urbach, Prof. Shraga Abramson, to name but a few. He even managed to take a special seminar given by the philosopher Martin Buber. During the summer Rabbi Riskin studied in the very first Hesder Yeshiva [a Yeshiva program combining Jewish studies and military service], Kerem B’Yavneh, which was then under the leadership of Rabbi Chaim Yaakov Goldvicht.
I noticed how she was praying and knew I would marry her
A few weeks before young Rabbi Riskin returned to the United States he started mentoring in two of Yeshiva University’s summer programs in Israel. The first program entailed mentoring high school students; the second, lecturing to young people about to enter college. It was in the latter program that he met his wife-to-be.
“When I came to give a lecture on prayer,” he recalls, “I arrived a bit too early, so the students were still busy praying. It was then that I noticed that one of the young girls stood in the Amida prayer longer than the others. I asked the program head about her and he spoke very highly of her, also pointing out that despite her non-religious background she was already very observant. Even before she completed her Amida prayer, I had already taken the decision to marry her, God willing. And so it was.
However, the wedding only took place two years later, due to the fact that he had promised his future in-laws that he would enter into marriage with their daughter only once she completed two years of college. A short while after they were married they set for themselves a common goal: “We promised each other that we would make Aliya together. It was clear to me that every Jew must live in Israel.”
The return to America involved quite a few deliberations. “In all truth, despite my great desire to study for the rabbinical ordination under the mentorship of my most esteemed teacher Rabbi Soleveitchik, I did not feel comfortable leaving Israel.” Rabbi Riskin was advised to consult with a young and upcoming rabbi. “Hakham [learned rabbi] Ovadia Yosef may have been young at the time, but he was already considered to be a great Torah scholar.” After much deliberation, including the advice of the man [Ovadia Yosef] who would later become the Rishon LeZion [Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel], the Riskin couple returned to the United States with the intention of returning to Israel each summer until they felt ready to make their final Aliya.
At the age of 22, Rabbi Riskin attained his semicha [rabbinical ordination] from Rabbi Soloveitchik and was soon asked to deliver Torah lectures at Yeshiva University. Around that time, a posh new neighborhood called Lincoln Center had been built in Manhattan, which drew an intellectual crowd. A number of residents initiated prayer services for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in a hotel, and asked Yeshiva University to recommend a candidate to head the new congregation.
“At first I did not accept the offer because the synagogue had originally been designated as non-Orthodox, with mixed seating for men and women. My revered mentor and teacher, Rabbi Soloveitchik, told me to take on the position nonetheless, in the hope of turning the congregation into one that attended synagogue more often. However, I was not to accept a salary until I had succeeded in implementing separate seating for men and women and turning the synagogue into an officially Orthodox one.” Four months later, the young rabbi succeeded in putting up a partition and implementing separate seating for men and women.
For 19 years he served as the rabbi of the community and was responsible for creating a real transformation among its members. “Thousands of Jews, between the ages of 5 and 85, most of whom had no religious background, studied Torah intensively each week,” he recalls with delight. “And yet my dream of making Aliya did not leave me for a minute. Every summer I would spend six weeks in Israel with my family during which time I would be teaching, but all the while I would also be looking for a position which would enable me and my family to make Aliya.” This finally transpired.
190 additional families followed suit and joined the Riskins in Israel, but the first steps in the Holy Land were anything but easy, even for somebody who was a rising star in the USA. “I made Aliya with my wife and children but I had no job. I was very confident that I would find a teaching position, and was hoping to find one even in a yeshiva high school. I did not have grandiose plans of making lots of money, only of teaching.”
He was embarrassed when he explained to me that I looked too young and had no beard and that in Israel having no beard is a no-go. Afterwards I said to myself that I would never grow a beard. I was angry that because of a mere trifle I was not even given a chance.
Rabbi Riskin describes the huge discrepancy between the high position he held back in his hometown community and his new status upon arriving in Israel. “In America I had founded two yeshivas, so I was sure that if I could be the rabbi of any synagogue of my choice in America, I would have no problem finding my niche in Israel. But it was hard. They wouldn’t even let me give a model lesson.”
One painful episode which even impacted his external, and somewhat unconventional (at least among typical rabbis) appearance was an incident in which he waited for three hours to give a model lesson in a yeshiva in Beersheba, only to be rejected. “Years later,” he tells us, “that very same Rosh Yeshiva arrived in the USA and talked to students in our yeshiva in the hope of convincing them to come study [in his program] in Israel.
“We later sat down for breakfast together and I asked him: ‘Why did you lie?’ He didn’t understand what I was getting at, and so I asked him explicitly why he had presented me to my own students as a great scholar in my time, when he had refused to allow me to give a model lesson in Israel. He was embarrassed and explained that I had looked too young and had no beard and that in Israel having no beard is a no-go. Afterwards I said to myself that I would never grow a beard. I was angry that because of a mere trifle I was not even given a chance.”
But at long last Rabbi Riskin’s big opportunity arrived from somewhere unexpected, and involved one of the most prominent figures on the Gush Etzion scene. “When I was still living in the USA and arrived in Israel each summer, I gave Torah lessons [as an invited rabbi-scholar] in Kibbutz Ein Tzurim for a period of eight years. One Shabbat, a man from [Kibbutz] Masu’ot Yitzhak by the name of Moshe (Moshko) Moskowitz attended my class, and later approached me and told me I was needed in Israel.”
A few years later they joined forces to build the community of Efrat. “He told me that after Golda Meir visited Gush Etzion she promised that a new city called Efrat would be built in the area, but only on condition that two groups of founding members – from America and South Africa – would settle in the area.
“A few months prior to this he had visited my synagogue [in New York] without my knowledge and gotten to hear me. He later asked that I become his junior partner. ‘You will bring the new Olim,’ he said to me, ‘and I will use my experience to build the new city.’ He hoped he would be the city’s mayor and I would be the rabbi. I believed in the cause and was thrilled to be a part of the building enterprise in Judea and Samaria.
“When I told my wife of the offer she asked me who this Moshko person was, and how could I put our fate into the hands of a person I hardly new? Her question was quite appropriate, and so I decided to go about finding out more about Moshko. This was the plan of action: I knew that Moshko knew Rabbi [Aharon] Lichtenstein [who had been my Rosh Kollel at Yeshiva University], and I knew the latter’s wife, [Dr.] Tovah.”
According to Rabbi Riskin, “Rebbetzin Lichtenstein, who was a very honest and sincere woman, told me that for her he was like the Prophet Elijah. As far as I was concerned that was the seal of approval with regards to Moshko, and I can say today that I, too, view him as an extraordinary person, much like the Prophet Elijah [for me as well].”
This coming summer Rabbi Riskin is due to step down from heading the Ohr Torah Stone network. “I am filled with gratitude to the Almighty. Being a rabbi enables one to do much kindness and good for others and to still stay immersed in the world of Torah learning. The best thing I ever did, apart from marrying my wife, was making Aliya to Israel. I call upon all those who can do so to enter the world of education and rabbinical teaching, and all those abroad – to make Aliya.”
Rabbi Riskin will be replaced by Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander, who has served as vice president of Yeshiva University for the past 12 years and will be making Aliya to Israel. Rabbi Riskin points out the fact that Rabbi Brander is also a true disciple of Rabbi Soloveitchik in every sense of the word, and his worldview is very similar to his own. “Our way of learning Torah and our ideologies are very similar.”
To mention but a few of the 27 institutions belonging to the impressive network established by Rabbi Riskin: Yeshivat Hesder Ohr Torah Machanaim; the Straus kollel certifying rabbis and educators; Midreshet Lindenbaum [College for Women]; an institute training women to become spiritual leaders and Morot Hora’ah [certified to provide direction in matters of Jewish Law]; the Straus-Amiel and Beren-Amiel institutes preparing emissaries for rabbinic and educational positions around the world; pre-military yeshivot and midrashot for boys and girls in Karmiel and Lod; six yeshivas, high schools and ulpanot for boys and girls; the Yad La’isha organization which works on behalf of women trapped in marriages by husbands who are unwilling or unable to grant them a divorce; and the Yachad program promoting Jewish identity in community centers all over Israel.
Recently, controversial statements have been made as to women’s level of spirituality. It is no wonder that Rabbi Riskin, who has remained loyal to the Torah values he absorbed from his grandmother, has intentionally set up institutions that are intended for women and focus on the spiritual world of women.
There is no justification for the current state of affairs concerning women captivated in marriage who cannot obtain a get (Jewish divorce document). It is a huge disgrace, a chillul Hashem.
What, in your eyes, is a manifestation of your biggest achievement since making Aliya?
“I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing women learning Torah, without a doubt,” he says and points out that “although my parents were not religious, the fact that my grandmother studied with me as well as Rabbi Soloveichik’s constant emphasis on the importance of women learning Oral Torah, led me to act and help women become Torah scholars and even Morot Hora’ah. Ohr Torah Stone was also the first to take an innovative step and establish a women’s hesder yeshiva [providing them with intense Jewish studies before and during their full-term military service in the IDF].”
Another matter that comes up time and again during our interview is the necessity for leniency on the part of those rendering halakhic rulings. “I was fortunate to have three great and important rabbis living abroad in my time. Rabbi Solveitchik, who was my revered mentor and the greatest Torah scholar of his time [lamdan hador]; Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who was the greatest halakhic authority [posek hador] of his generation and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the most venerated leader [manhig hador] of his time. All three understood the importance of leniency and compassion in matters of halakhic rulings.”
In his opinion, “the truly great rabbis understood the importance of leniency and compassion. They understood that when gives a ruling in matters relating to people, one has to give a ruling that will solve the personal problem at hand. I think this is what the Rambam [Maimonides] believed in as well. The fundamental principle of Oral Torah is to ensure that the 13 rules of Talmudical Hermeneutics [used to interpret the Torah for every generation] should be based on the 13 attributes of compassion which God possesses. The three rabbis I mentioned earlier understood that in order to implement Oral Torah the laws must be in sync with these 13 attributes of compassion that God taught us. The Rambam [in his Mishne Torah Laws of Slaves, Chapter 9] refers to this as well. Jewish Law [halakha] is not mathematics. Just as God shows compassion, so must we.”
At what point do you recognize a problem in not utilizing the attribute of compassion?
“In the matter of recalcitrant husbands,” he utters with great resolve, “there is no justification whatsoever to what is happening today to the wives of these men. It is a huge chilul Hashem [desecration of the name of God], especially because our Oral Law offers so many different ways to solve this problem. The Rambam emphasizes the fact that our halakha must be a just law. My own rabbis understood this and so did Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and the great Torah scholars throughout the ages. Fortunately for us the laws exist; unfortunately – there are no judges presenting the solutions” [see Rabbi Riskin’s book ‘Yad La’isha: The Jewish Woman’s Right to Divorce].
Rabbi Riskin continues to explain that in his opinion there is something wanting in the rabbis’ spiritual world. “I believe that rabbis nowadays must also study philosophy and ethics. Rabbis of past generations didn’t need to, but today’s rabbis are apparently not getting it from the Torah so they should study.”
His philosophy is that a crucial component of halakhic ruling is human compassion. “It is so important that the rabbis exercise their authority with humanity and understanding; when determining halakhic matters there must human compassion involved. After all our Torah says, ‘And God created the human in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.’ On the basis of this verse the Rambam permitted a get me’useh [a divorce obtained from the husband by force] stating that this is ‘because our wives are not captives in the hands of their husbands,’ because as beings created in the image of God, all people [men and women] are inherently free.
“Furthermore, I don’t think that today we are permitted to say that one may not desecrate the Sabbath in order to save the life of a non-Jew who observes The Seven Laws of Noah. This is also the Ramban’s [Nachmanides] halakhic ruling in his strictures on the Rambam in the matter of a non-Jew who has the status of resident [ger toshav], and the Rambam himself states the same in the section of his work relating to the Laws of Slaves, Chapter 9. If we continue as we are [disregarding these sources], we will have no chance of becoming ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,’ teaching the Torah of Peace to the entire world, in keeping with what our prophets demanded of us – that is, giving expression to our human compassion in the world of halakha.”
This lack of human compassion, which Rabbi Riskin mentions so often, may result in traditional Judaism’s utter devastation. “I think it will mean the end of Orthodoxy. The new world will not accept rabbis who have no solutions for recalcitrant husbands who are unwilling to give a get to their wives. The Talmud offers many solutions for such cases and we should be using these. This is a matter that greatly concerns me. There are more and more couples who do not want to marry under Jewish Law as a result. It makes me want to cry. I think there is nothing more beautiful than a wedding ceremony, and there are many, including religious couples, who do not want to be married by the Rabbinate because of this problem. Everyone is wary of what is called a get me’useh, but there are so many values and concerns that are far more troubling than a forced get.“
Are you in touch with rabbis belonging to more conservative circles like Rabbi Tau or Rabbi Aviner?
“I have ties with them and I respect them, but we do not see eye to eye on certain matters, and I think that’s my prerogative.”
And what about the future of Religious Zionism, are you worried there will be a rift and that the Religious Nationalist sector will split into two different factions?
“I think Religious Zionism has a bright future,” says Rabbi Riskin and immediately gives an example as proof of his optimistic forecast. “I am very much for women becoming spiritual leaders. I think a woman can also become a halakhic authority. I admit I am against titles such as Raba [the female conjugation of the Hebrew word for rabbi] because it might lead to people thinking that anything a Rabbi can do a Rabbanit can do as well, and that is incorrect. I also object to women reading from the Torah [for the entire congregation], because according to Jewish Law they do not have the same obligation as men [and therefore cannot fulfill the obligation on their behalf].
“One of the greatest novelties introduced by Oral Torah is that ‘both conflicting opinions are God’s words.’ That is perfectly fine. Religious Zionism can exist concurrently in two different forms as long as our halakha is one of righteousness, justice and human compassion. The House of Hillel and the House of Shammai coexisted with a lot of mutual respect, despite their disputes and disagreements.
But maybe what we need is a very conservative approach with many “fences” to protect ourselves from that “slippery slope” that you yourself are wary of?
“I think the bigger fear is that halakha will no longer be a discipline of justice and compassion and will abandon the lofty values the world so desperately needs these days. It is not for naught that our Torah says ‘Love thy fellow human as you love yourself – that is the Torah’s golden rule.’ ‘Fellow human’ includes women; ‘fellow human’ includes a non-Jew of morals (see Ibn Ezra’s exegesis on the last part of the verse as proof of his explanation); and ‘fellow human’ includes secular Jews.”
In the past you said that Reform Jews should be treated as brethren. But what would you say to those who claim that it is necessary to place a mirror in front of them so that they see that their worldview is, in fact, destroying them and might also hurt the Orthodox faction?
“I said as much in the past because I truly believe they are our brethren. First of all, we were all created in the image of God so we all have the same DNA [Divine Natural Association], and as is written in the Torah: ‘Love thy fellow human as you love yourself, for I am the Lord.’ The Ibn Ezra explains that not only is every Jew my brother but every fellow human is my brother, and this is explained by the latter half of the verse – ‘I am the Lord’; just as I am One [with all humans], I created you as one [with all humans]. Furthermore, our Sages teach us that the way to bring people closer is not by hurling hurtful epithets at them or telling them they are destroying themselves. The Mishnah in the tractate of Avot tells us: ‘Be like the disciples of Aaron, who loved peace and pursued peace; loved his fellow humans and brought them closer to Torah.’ One can only bring people closer to Torah through love.”
Rabbi Riskin believes that the fear people have of the non-Orthodox factions is unsubstantiated. “The truth is in our court. Their temples are closing down one after the other, so why should we be afraid? We have nothing to fear. The truth lies in the Torah. That is why I don’t use derogatory language when speaking about them. They are respectable people who happen to be wrong. So why should we fear them? There is no reason for it. Fearing them is nonsense. We have to teach them and draw them closer.”
Rabbi Riskin, why do you rarely voice your political views?
“Interference of religion in politics will bring about the death of religion It is the most dangerous thing. The greatest gift America gave Judaism was the separation of religion and state, because the minute decisions are dependent on a government coalition, the considerations and calculations become political rather than based on halakha or truth. Politics makes us more stringent in matters of religion. Politics uses slogans, and slogans dictate that the ultra-Orthodox must be more stringent in everything, even at the expense of human compassion.
“I don’t want to imagine a complete separation between religion and state here in the Holy Land, because our holy Torah is not only a religious text but a cultural one as well, and the Jewish people, wherever they may be, are not just comprised of different sectors [there are general principles necessary for all Jews and even all human beings]. The same goes for our Jewish festivals – they teach us sublime values like freedom for all humans (Passover), or that freedom must nonetheless be subject to moral values (Shavuot). That is why I am not a fan of separating religion from state; however, religion in Israel must be more inclusive and also be geared towards Reform and secular Jews. Politics doesn’t make this possible.”
According to this approach, the Jewish Home party should have voted against the Israeli ‘Minimarket Bill’ [which enable the Interior Minister to override municipal bylaws which permit the operation of shops on Shabbat]?
“Coercion, by definition, empties the religious act of any form of religion. The Jewish Home must find ways to teach the majority of the people to honor the Sabbath and view it as a real day of rest. This is much harder than passing legislation, but legislation only pushes people away and does not draw them closer.
Must there also be such a separation when it comes to matters of Kashrut?
“What’s the problem? ‘Glatt Kosher’ is political. What does kosher have to do with politics?”
So it seems that your opinion is that there is no need for the Chief Rabbinate.
“I am all for the Chief Rabbinate but only if it perceives itself not as a political organ but as a means to bring the Jewish People closer to the Torah. In order to do so, the rabbis must view themselves as representing all types of Jews, both in Israel and abroad. The Rabbinate must love all Jews and draw them closer. When I read the rulings of the Chief Rabbis of Israel throughout the times I see that they understood this concept well.
“Rabbi Herzog, for example, gathered around him a group of sharp-minded Torah scholars and would ask them to help him find heterim [leniencies] for all sorts of difficult questions with implications on people’s lives. Such a Rabbinate is one that understands that the underlying principle guiding the 13 rules of Talmudical hermeneutics is the concept of God’s 13 qualities of mercy and compassion. If the current Chief Rabbinate would understand this concept then it would be indispensible – as was Rabbi [Abraham Isaac] Kook and the other Chief Rabbis who were in office since the establishment of the State.
Together with this, Rabbi Riskin explains that the Chief Rabbinate today is very different from what it was in the past. “Today, unfortunately, I hear a different tune coming from the Chief Rabbinate. From my experience as a rabbi in America, I must note that it was clear to my peers there that I am an Orthodox rabbi who does not accept alterations and reformations to halakha, as is the practice among Reform and Conservative Jewry. However, it was concurrently clear to my American peers that I respect them as partners whose intentions were the same as mine – to bring people closer to Judaism and prevent assimilation. What I did try showing them was that one can successfully draw people to Judaism by being a true role model rather than by compromising the Laws of the Sabbath; by demonstrating what a true Shabbat is, with no telephones and no cars. I was fortunate to see many rabbis, even Reform ones, coming closer to Orthodoxy as a result.”