By Elizabeth Kratz | December 12, 2019
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s brow furrows when he speaks of polarization in the larger Jewish community, but it smooths when he speaks of his teachers and their messages, his students and his work. He flashes his trademark wide smile, showing intrinsic joy in an unshakeable view that Judaism is a religion of human compassion, and that unity, not uniformity, is the hallmark of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Rabbi Kenneth Brander dancing with the Torah at the dinner this past Tuesday evening. (Credit: Brian Berkowitz/Twilight Artistry)
Visiting Manhattan to attend a dinner in his honor, to welcome and dance with a sefer Torah written especially for him by his cadre of supporters in America, Rabbi Riskin is without artifice as he comments on the unique variety of interviewers he has met over the course of the morning, noting how different each interview has been. He got up early to speak with Nachum Segal on JM in the AM, and still, several hours later, seems to relish meeting and interacting with new people, showing true enjoyment in speaking about the Torah, which he has spent his entire life teaching, and retelling stories of his own famed teachers.
At 79, with great-grandchildren and many thousands who call him “my rebbe,” Rabbi Riskin is arguably one of America’s most successful Orthodox pulpit rabbis, having engineered a minyan of 18 men at Lincoln Square in Manhattan in the early 1960s into a vibrant, worldwide baal teshuva community two decades later. With his 1983 aliyah to a then-non-existent community of Efrat, Israel (“This could be the Zurich of Israel,” he paraphrases Golda Meir as saying), he now basks in the glory of being chief rabbi of a 44-shul-strong community known the world over. Now, he chortles, “Zurich is the Efrat of Europe.”
Rabbi Riskin is also the founder, chancellor emeritus and rosh yeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, a global organization encompassing 27 yeshivot and learning institutions now headed by Rabbi Kenny Brander, formerly of Yeshiva University and the Boca Raton Synagogue. OTS sends out shlichim to spread Torah knowledge and love of Judaism on every continent, including Africa. “I found a wonderful successor,” he says of Rabbi Brander. “He is someone who I respect so much and he is doing magnificently.”
Learning Psak Halacha With the Masters
Rabbi Riskin’s first gemara teacher was his knowledgeable grandmother, the daughter of a dayan who had four bright, eager-to-learn daughters before his sons began to arrive. While Rabbi Riskin credits his grandmother with his natural support for women as teachers and halachic decisors, Rabbi Riskin credits his unique weltanschauung (worldview) to his three major rabbinic influences: Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik, zt”l, known as “The Rav”; Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, zt”l, the Lubavitcher Rebbe; and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt”l.
This story is now well known. At 23, after receiving his semicha from Yeshiva University, Rabbi Riskin was contracted to provide rabbinic services to a small community in Manhattan. Today, it’s part of the Upper West Side, but it used to be considered the northern end of Hell’s Kitchen. “My synagogue, Lincoln Square, was fledgling. It was completely baalei teshuva—people coming back to Judaism. The very first prayer service, we had 18 men. Not one of them could read a word of Hebrew. They had a lot of questions, and there were a lot of difficult questions asked by people in such communities,” he explained. These were complex, multi-faceted issues, like eating in beloved parents’ non-kosher homes, Jewish status, halachic status of various situations, like kohanim marrying divorcees or the role of women in shul.
Rabbi Riskin explained that to better help him learn the practice of psak halacha (to render Jewish law decisions) to most effectively help his congregants, his teacher Rabbi Soloveitchik sent him to Rav Feinstein for three hours every week for an entire year, to sit with him and go through his decisioning processes, so that Rabbi Riskin could learn to confidently pasken for his community.
“The Talmud is pluralistic; there are multiple, sometimes divergent views presented. ‘These and those are the words of the living God,’ the Gemara says. The truth is complex, and the Talmud contains both views, or all three views, and there are certain views that are right for certain times and certain for others,” he said.
“I think that’s the story of Jewish thought; it’s not one-dimensional. Rabbi Soloveitchik sent me to Rav Feinstein because he was the true expert in psak halacha. So from 9:30 to 12:30 every Friday, I watched as people came constantly to his home to ask questions. I saw how he dealt with them and got good insight into how he made decisions.
“I can say with much certainty, for Rav Feinstein the most important issue was human compassion. That God is good.
The primary concern in psak halacha is goodness and kindness. You have to understand that at this time Rav Feinstein’s books were being burned in the streets of Williamsburg and Brooklyn. They were calling him and threatening his wife because of one of his rulings.”
That ruling was the allowance for women to have artificial insemination, that if a woman was not able to get pregnant from her husband’s sperm, she would be able to use a donor. Rav Feinstein ruled that this was not sexual contact, and that allowing for artificial insemination would allow otherwise barren women to become mothers with Jewish families and homes.
“He was maligned because of this. They said it was one step away from adultery.”
Rabbi Riskin explained that the pressure became so great that, on one Thursday afternoon as he was visiting the Rav as he prepared for his journey home to Brookline for Shabbat, Rabbi Riskin heard Rabbi Soloveitchik receive a phone call from Rebbetzin Feinstein. She tearfully begged Rabbi Soloveitchik to impress upon Rav Feinstein to withdraw his psak. “She said she could not go out, that they were calling her in the middle of the night. That’s when I coined a new term: Torah-rism,” he said ruefully.
Rabbi Soloveitchik agreed to speak with Rav Feinstein, but later told Rabbi Riskin to observe Rav Feinstein’s moves the next day, confident that Rav Feinstein’s decision would stand.
Rav Feinstein’s answer? Of course the Rav was right. “He didn’t go into the gemara. Instead, he said, ‘Do you know how many women who were barren and I gave the opportunity for them to have children? It’s equivalent to saving lives. Saving lives like in the verse from Rachel Imeinu.’” (“Give me children or else I am dead,” she said just this past week in Parshat Vayeitzei.)
Rabbi Riskin repeated the point that, he believed, guided all of Rav Feinstein’s decisions: that the Rambam, Mishneh Torah and the task of Torah Shebaal Peh is that “it is central that our halacha is loving and compassionate.”
Applicability to Today’s Issues
The history of modern halachic decisioning is certainly gripping, but how has it guided Rabbi Riskin along his own journey into this new century, as he has built his own yeshivot, seminaries, rabbinical schools, his own version of the Rebbe’s famous shlichut program, and even Darkaynu, a post-high school learning program for students with special needs?
One of the things Rabbi Riskin feels most strongly about, that differentiates his views from many American Orthodox rabbis, is that he holds that women can be trained as halachic decisors. He feels that all of his teachers advocated that women can learn Torah Shebaal Peh on the highest levels. So, at his yeshivot and seminaries he provides women and men the same opportunities for learning, meaning he confers the same degree of semicha—morot hora’ah—to both men and women. He does not call women rabbis; some take the title of rabbanit, or they take other academic titles as befit their work.
The differentiation he makes is serara, the talmudic word for mastery, which indicates that women may not lead or represent communities in prayer, with aliyot or in other official capacities. “Because a woman is not obligated in public prayer she cannot lead chazzanus,” he said.
Earlier in his career, he did, however, innovate what he called a “kollelet” comprising well-prepared, devout women at Lincoln Square Synagogue who asked him if they could hold hakafot for women on Simchat Torah, something he pondered intently and then paskened was acceptable at the time and place where he was. (After the incident, which Rabbi Riskin was asked about and paskened on during Yom Tov, he received personal support for his specific situation from both the Rav and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, though the Lubavitcher Rebbe later recanted his position in writing to Rabbi Riskin.)
He considers serara a “small difference” he holds distinct from the graduates of Rabbi Avi Weiss’s Yeshivat Maharat, or the more traditional, harder-lined Orthodox Union viewpoints, which until recently did not officially have women serving as high-level teachers and still do not traditionally place women in roles as halachic decisors. (Though it could be said that yoatzot, family purity advisors, which Rabbi Riskin supports but did not innovate, are becoming somewhat more accepted in such Orthodox Union-styled communities. His innovation of the toanot rabbaniyot, a female halachic representative, a sort of lawyer, for those with cases being adjudicated in rabbinic courts, is a role that is now filled by women in Israel, with much success and is generally accepted.)
That is not to say that he does not have great respect for his rabbinic colleagues from all walks of life and sects, including Rabbi Weiss. “We were in jail together,” he reminisced, bringing to mind their collaboration and ardent activism on behalf of Soviet Jewry in the 1980s.
Rabbi Riskin admitted that some of his innovations, including likely the most controversial of all, his rabbanit program and certain specific decisions releasing divorcees in order to marry kohanim, have caused controversy within the more charedi communities Israel, including with former Chief Rabbi of Israel Mordechai Eliyahu.
“But this doesn’t mean innovation is a bad thing; these are decisions that we make in certain cases at certain times. At a certain time, I went through my case with the chief rabbi and talked with him about it, and he said, ‘You are the head of your community. You have your own beit din. Good, go with my bracha.’”
Today, as he sheps nachas at his family and the many accomplishments of Ohr Torah Stone and embraces his “emeritus” role, Rabbi Riskin is hard at work on two new books, including one due out next year called “Judaism: A Love Story,” which seeks to discourage polarization among the various sects and explores the Zionistic, theological and humanistic sides of Judaism, through the lens of v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha (love your neighbor as yourself).