“A Rabbi’s Sorrow”

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin really thought that it would be different. That those in the seat of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate would be righteous and more tolerant — toward women, converts and even Conservative Jews. Instead, they accuse him of straying from the halakha.

by Zvika Klein

Makor Rishon 4/08/2017

Scan of Makor Rishon Weekend Magazine cover. (Cover photo by Nati Shochat – Flash 90)

“If I could ask God one thing, I would ask him, ‘How it is that the Talmud is the most pluralistic piece of literature, but those who study it more than anyone else are the most narrow-minded?'” says Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. “That is a shame, and it destroys and distorts the halacha. If we aren’t faithful to the halacha, we won’t be able to survive, but in my opinion the most praiseworthy thing about the halacha is that is not monochromatic. Halacha is pluralistic. The chief rabbis in the past also understood this. Rabbis Yitzhak Herzog and Shlomo Goren took bold steps when they were needed. That is how the halacha has always been, and that is what we teach our students.

“I can’t look an aguna in the eye and say, ‘I have no solution for you, all of your life you will not have a husband and no possibility of marrying.’ How could anyone do such a thing? Is that fulfilling ‘For Torah will go out from Zion’? The rabbis that behave this way put a stain on the Torah. It is a desecration of God and of the halacha.”

Rabbi Riskin (77), the rabbi of Efrat and one of Religious Zionism’s senior rabbis met me at Ohr Torah Stone’s Midreshet Lindenbaum College in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood. When I enter his office in the building’s basement, I find him in a suit, as he normally wears, and a tie with the flags of Israel and the US. “I was invited to an official event at the Consulate in Jerusalem,” explaining the nonconventional tie. “They told my secretary that someone from the White House insisted that I come, but they wouldn’t tell me who it was.”

Riskin, who made aliya in 1983, still has a heavy American accent. He is known as an entertaining and good-natured person, but according to him, he has been saddened lately by the situation in Israel. In the background is the recent clash between the religious establishment in Israel and Diaspora Jewry—the crisis surrounding the Western Wall and the cancellation of the plan that was meant to provide a solution for Reform and Conservative Jews; the controversy surrounding the conversion law and the absolute monopoly that it provided to the Chief Rabbinate, which is considered to have a more stringent approach than the local rabbis; and even the “blacklist” of senior rabbis in the Diaspora, who have been marked by the Chief Rabbinate in Israel as not having any authority in matters of Judaism and personal status.

“You are opening a Pandora’s Box,” says Rabbi Riskin when I ask him whether, in his opinion, this series of events proves that religion and state should be separate. “I’ll say this in the clearest way possible: when there is a monochromatic Chief Rabbinate which is not ready to accept courts that rule in a certain way within the framework of halacha – that is a problem. I would certainly not want to see conversions that are not according to halacha. The goal is for any Jew in Israel to be able to marry any other and to that end we need to support conversion initiatives. We don’t want a society in which there are Jews by halacha and Israelis that are not Jews by halacha. But unfortunately that is what will happen if the possibilities of conversion are restricted. And that is a real shame. So I think that it is preferable to have separation. And I say that with sadness.”

If the Rabbinate approaches the halacha from only one viewpoint, perhaps even an ultra-Orthodox one, then there is a need to separate religion and state?

“I say it with tears in my eyes, but yes.”

Did you think that when you made Aliya?

“Of course not. I came to Israel in order to realize my dream and my vision. What they are doing – that is halacha which distorts the halacha. When you are very stringent, especially with zera Yisrael [literally, embodying the ‘seed of Israel,’ though not Jewish according to halacha], where is ‘And you will love the stranger’?”

On the other hand, you can certainly understand the reservations regarding private courts for conversion, since there will be no uniformity in rulings and no control over the gate of entry to the Jewish People.

“But there never was uniformity or control. In the past, it was understood that there is a need for both Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai, and that both are words of the living God. If other Orthodox rabbis have a solid halachic source, can you dare to say that they are not Orthodox?

“One of most important things I am currently involved in is the “Giyyur KaHalacha” framework under the leadership of Rabbi Nahum Eliezer Rabinovitch. We had about 400 conversions this year. That is our current task. We see a huge need among immigrants from the FSU who are not considered Jews by halacha. There are also references in halacha to what is called the ‘seed of Israel’ – if that person has a Jewish father, he has Jewish genes. And indeed, Rabbi Ben Zion Uziel, a former chief rabbi, has ruled that for such a person, a bet din needs to convert him only as a formality.”

In the Conservative movement, there are rabbis calling for recognition that Judaism should “descend” also through the father and not just the mother.

“I don’t know about that. I respect the people in the Conservative movement and I also think that the way in which the Chief Rabbinate referred to them was very unfortunate. On the other hand, many of them do not see themselves as obligated by the Talmud and the Shulhan Aruch. I also think it’s legitimate that the rabbinate of the establishment here in Israel be Orthodox.”

He himself is critical of the conversions carried out by the ultra-Orthodox courts: “How can it be that the children of converts will not serve in the IDF? There are two elements in conversion: ‘your people is my people’ and ‘your god is my god’. By us, ‘your people is my people’ is fulfilled. I ask about it during the process. In many things, I am more stringent than the ultra-Orthodox, but in contrast to them I do not reject a conversion done by others. If you are an Orthodox rabbi, your conversion should be accepted. There doesn’t need to be a ‘blacklist’. Many of the rabbis on the list that was published are my good friends. I know they are very fine. If there are rabbis that you know are not fine, there should be a standard criteria for examining the matter and dealing with it, and perhaps even a hearing. But not simply to nullify a conversion because we heard something.”

Scan of article title page (Photo credit: Hadas Parush – Flash 90)

A 100 PERCENT CHANGE

Rabbi Riskin has always looked young for his age, but lately the years are starting to leave their marks. His hair is graying; he is walking slower than before and also talking at a slower pace. But even now he declares that he has a powerful urge to bring about change, to influence and to blaze new trails where they are needed.

He is a native of Brooklyn, studied at Yeshiva University and received rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. In 1964, he was appointed rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue, near Lincoln Center in Manhattan, and turned it into one of the leading synagogues in the US. At the same time, he was active in the fight to free Jews behind the Iron Curtain and in 1970, as a result of a request from the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Nehemia Levanon, the head of Nativ, he flew to the Soviet Union to create underground yeshivas and ulpans for the teaching of Hebrew. In 1983, he made aliya with many other families from the Lincoln Square community and together they established the settlement of Efrat in Gush Etzion. In Israel, he established Ohr Torah Stone institutions, which today include Midreshet Lindenbaum, the Straus-Amiel program training rabbis for the Diaspora, the non-profit Yad L’isha organization which assists agunot and women being refused a divorce, the hesder yeshiva Ohr Torah Machanaim, a school for training women advocates, six high schools, and more.

He received his certification to become a municipal rabbi from Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Rabbi Avraham Shapira, Rabbi Shalom Mashash, Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli and Rabbi Yitzhak Kolitz. Two years ago, as he arrived at the official age of retirement, he asked to extend his term as rabbi of Efrat – a common request among municipal rabbis. However, the Council of the Chief Rabbinate tried to prevent him from staying in his position, due to his liberal views. Finally, the legal advisor to the Rabbinate ruled that only health reasons can be cited to prevent the extension of a term as a municipal rabbi, and Rabbi Riskin continued to sit in the seat of the rabbinate.

What does the Chief Rabbinate have against you?

“You need to ask them,” Riskin laughs. “You know very well that it has become completely political. They want a monopoly and wherever there is a monopoly, there is corruption.”

So there is corruption in the Chief Rabbinate?

“Look, I have not been witness to it myself, but there are a lot of problematic stories coming out now regarding kashrut (a negative report by the State Comptroller that was recently published revealed employee-employer relations in the kashrut system, duplication in inspectors, lack of uniform kashrut guidelines, etc. – Z.K.). One of the chief rabbis even said that there are five cities in Israel where you can’t eat because of the kashrut situation.

“There is a former chief rabbi who is in prison for taking bribes, where most of the money was bribery for conversions. I have never taken a single dollar, a single shekel, for a conversion. Of course one has to pay for using the mikve, but the judges in Giyyur KaHalacha are not paid by the converts. This is a great mitzva. The Rambam holds that if money is paid for a conversion, then it is nullified.”

Then the conversions performed by Rabbi Yonah Metzger should be nullified?

“I don’t want to relate to specific cases. I am only saying that there is a serious problem here.”

Is the Chief Rabbinate different now than when it was established or during the early years of the State of Israel?

“It is 100 percent different. In the past, they understood that humane solutions had to be found for difficult problems. Today, they are the ones making the problems because they want absolute control.”

If you were offered the position of Chief Rabbi, would you take it?

“If you ask me, it’s no great honor.”

That is an extreme statement.

Riskin thinks for a few moments before answering: “It is a true statement. I want to cry when I think about what is happening today. The halacha is so beautiful and good, accepting and loving. The Chief Rabbinate has a rich history and I hope they will change their ways.”

What changes do they need to make?

They need to retract statements they have made. I would be very happy if the chief rabbis would serve all of the Jewish People, all over the world.”

Is there a chance of this happening?

“I can tell you this for sure: it hasn’t happened yet.”

According to Rabbi Riskin, one of the outcomes of this is the freeze on the plan for the Western Wall, 18 months after the government approved it. “We are now in the period of Tisha B’Av. The reason for the destruction of the Temple was not that people did not follow every precept in the Shulhan Aruch, but rather it was because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza – baseless hatred. I don’t want to talk against specific people, but the establishment made a major mistake on the issue of the Western Wall. Do they only want religious Jews at the Western Wall?

“The Three Weeks are days in which one should thank God. We are living in a period of miracles, of the realization of promises. And the biggest miracle of all is that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish People, to the whole Jewish People, no matter where they are. I have no problem that the establishment is Orthodox, but it must embrace those who aren’t.”

THE RELIGIOUS MEMBERS OF KNESSET PREFER POLITICS

Although Rabbi Riskin tries not to point an accusing finger at specific individuals, every so often during the conversation it happens. “Rabbi Lau once said something like ‘Rabbi Riskin and Stav will convert anyone who asks.’ I spoke to him and explained that I have never converted anyone unless they accept the obligation of the mitzvot, and he apologized. But he does not understand the situation of American Jewry.”

Is there really a crisis with American Jewry on the issue of the plan for the Western Wall and the modified conversion law, or is it just media spin that has been blown out of proportion?

“There is indeed a serious crisis,” Riskin answers without thinking twice. “I am not sure that it can be resolved.”

The solution that was originally achieved with regard to the Western Wall, i.e. the establishment of an egalitarian plaza in the southern section, near the Robinson Arch, is in Riskin’s opinion an “excellent option.” Rabbi Riskin is even happy about the demand of the Reform and Conservatives that one entrance will lead to the three plazas – for men, for women and mixed. “They wanted a common entrance for all of the Jewish People. That is an excellent idea. That’s exactly what I would like. Where is your ‘love of Israel’?”

He recounts that when he began serving as the rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue, the prayers there had mixed seating – men and women together. “At that time, it was a small minyan, in which no one even knew the Hebrew alphabet. As long as the seating was mixed, I didn’t pray with them. I would pray beforehand at home. I also didn’t take any money. I wanted to show them that from my point of view this kind of prayer is problematic.” Over time, the members were convinced and seating was made separate. “This was the beginning of one of the greatest synagogues in the world,” says Rabbi Riskin proudly.

How distant is the left wing of Orthodoxy from the right wing of Conservatism? Even in Efrat there are synagogues that are similar to other denominations and which, for example, allow women to read the haftara.

“First of all, we in Efrat maintain a mechitza separation between men and women, which is a big difference, and we maintain the halachot of prayer as they appear in the Shulhan Aruch. I am against Conservatism and I don’t accept their ‘halachot’. But for God’s sake, I have to love them and respect them. I also refer to them as my partners. We have a lot to do together, particularly in the war against anti-Semitism. It needs to be understood that Conservatives reach people that an Orthodox rabbi—even a Chabadnik— will never reach. They try to attract those individuals in their own way. Even the Reform are my partners. I don’t accept their synagogues, which use electricity on Shabbat, but even if we don’t agree – there is one mission for us all.

“I don’t understand how the rabbinic establishment calls them ‘goyim‘ or ‘apikorsim.’ That is not right. That can’t be the face of halacha, and I will not accept that as my establishment. They are part of the Jewish People and they do not, for example, say that the Orthodox are ‘not religious’.”

The positive approach to the Reform and Conservatives, according to Rabbi Riskin, can also produce benefit for Orthodoxy. “Many of those who attended their schools and summer camps come to us in the end. Before they took part in Conservative activities, they were not ready to come to me. When Naftali Bennett visited a Conservative school in New York, one of the chief rabbis said that he should not have done so (it was Rabbi Lau – Z.K). Why not? I accept any invitation from a Conservative institution. I speak to them about halacha, Torah. What can happen? Thank God, many times they started to pray in my synagogue as a result of my visits. There was even a well-known Reform rabbi who started to visit his mother, who prayed in my synagogue. He would come to us on every second day of the holiday (for the Diaspora) and as a result, he decided to become Orthodox.”

You mention what Naftali Bennett did, but it is reasonable to assume that senior members of the Mafdal [National Religious Party] in the past would not have visited the schools of non-Orthodox denominations.

“I don’t agree. I knew Yosef Burg z”l very well and I think that he was very open to such things. Also Rav Kook.”

Rav Kook would have gone to a Reform synagogue?

“He went to the Shomer Hatzair and danced with them. My Judaism is that of Rav Kook.”

Can it be said that there is a difference between a secular movement and a liberal religious one?

“Are you going to tell me that secularism is preferable over Judaism that is halfway there? That is backwards thinking.”

Are there politicians that consult with you and view you as their rav?

“No. There are politicians that I am close to, such as Elazar Stern and Aliza Lavie.”

Both of them belong to Yesh Atid – not exactly a mainstream party for the religious public.

“The truth is that I asked for a meeting or telephone conversation with Naftali Bennett concerning the recent events. To my regret, they didn’t get back to me.”

What did you want to tell him?

“What I have said to you. That I want to cry.”

At that point, Riskin recounted how in the past the Chairman of the Bayit HaYehudi [Jewish Home] party came to his defense. “When the chief rabbis did not want to extend my term, they spoke about a ‘hearing’ that they would have for me. Bennett said that he would come with me to the hearing, if indeed it were to take place.”

Perhaps Bennett thinks exactly like you, but his party thinks otherwise.

“Exactly,” says Riskin emphatically. “The marriage between Judaism and politics destroys religion and destroys politics. It is a major problem. The religious members of Knesset must have values that are above politics, above the voting, and that is not what is happening.”

I DON’T WANT TO BE MAINSTREAM

On a different issue, Rabbi Riskin found himself among a group that is under attack. Rabbi Riskin, the rabbis of Tzohar, Beit Hillel and the RCA (the umbrella organization of Modern Orthodoxy in North America) have been severely criticized for their support of prenuptial agreements, which are meant to prevent future aginut. “I think that what is happening on this issue is scandalous,” says Riskin. “There is a serious problem of women who are refused a get. It is written in the Torah, ‘And write her a bill of divorce,’ and based on this, the husband unilaterally gives the get. I believe with all my soul in a divine Torah. About 4,000 years ago, God gave the Torah to Moses. Then, there was no situation in which a woman would want a get; she had no social or economic standing and therefore the man would give the get. But our women are not prisoners of their husbands. We must find a solution to a situation in which a husband can refuse to divorce his wife, and there are many such solutions. I wrote a whole book on it. There is also disagreement in the Gemara if this is a precept from the Torah or from the rabbis. During the time of the Talmud, there was a solution of ‘hitting him until he cooperates,’ but that is impossible to implement today.”

Would you be in favor of hitting the husband, if it was legal?

“If there were no other way – and in reality, there is another way – I would support it. What can be done? The court can obligate a get, and if the husband does not comply – he can be put in jail, and his professional license can be revoked if he is a doctor or some other licensed professional. And the idea of prenuptial agreements also exists, although in most cases the rabbis are not prepared to use it. The prenup essentially says that someone who does not want to give or receive a get will have to pay a large amount each month, until he cooperates. I wrote about this in my book ‘Yad L’isha’ and it received the approval of Rabbi Yaakov Bezalel Zolty, who was the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. And now the rabbis say that it creates a ‘get me’useh‘ (a ‘coerced divorce,’ which is not based on the wishes of the husband and therefore is not kosher – Z.K.) and should not be used. But in fact the Rambam himself, based on the Gemara, used the get me’useh when he ruled on the halacha of ‘hitting him until he cooperates.’  The reasoning for that is, ‘Our wives are not like prisoners of their husbands.’ Furthermore, the Rambam writes on the verse ‘good and righteous laws’ that our halacha must be good and righteous. That, for the Rambam, was the core of the Oral Law.

“The problem is that there are rabbis who say that someone who signs a prenuptial agreement or has someone sign one is not Orthodox,” says Riskin, and he points to the letter signed by ultra-Orthodox rabbis, as well as some from the National Religious sector, such as Rabbi Tzvi Tau and Rabbi Dov Lior. “Don’t misunderstand me, I am friendly with many ultra-Orthodox rabbis, but not when they are monochromatic. They don’t want to accept prenuptial agreements? Ok, but don’t reject someone who does.”

Despite how he feels about things, Riskin has not lost his sense of humor. “During the Three Weeks, I don’t shave,” he says, “and then I say to the people in Efrat: at least for three weeks during the year I look like a rabbi.”

Did you ever have problems because you don’t have a beard?

“Of course. They didn’t want to test me for certification as a municipal rabbi. Rabbi Avraham Shapira tried to help me. In the end, they agreed to accept me because he banged on the table. He said in my presence, ‘You don’t have to pass him but you do have to test him.’ They asked me a lot of questions, and with the help of God I answered well. When they asked me why I don’t have a beard, I said ‘Shlom Bayit‘ [maintaining peace within the home], which is the truth. They accepted that.”

Perhaps because of your image as an “American rabbi”, including the accent, you will always remain an outsider?

“I don’t feel like an outsider. I am very active in the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization and I was also active in Beit Hillel. Rabbi Haim Druckman and others were always close to me and Rabbi Eliezer Melamed is a true friend. I am currently working with Rabbi David Stav as a full partner (Rabbi Stav was appointed as Co-Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone institutions – Z.K.). Look, I am not on good terms with the establishment, but until now I have endured throughout all of the confrontations, thank God. I have established many successful yeshivot. At Ohr Torah Stone, we send more rabbis on shlichut than anyone else except Chabad. We have more than 350 families worldwide. I have 3,000 pupils in all of the institutions and in Efrat there are 10,000 residents.”

Are you in the mainstream or on the margins?

“I don’t even want to be in the mainstream today; I hope to be in the mainstream in another ten years. I think that I have had some influence on several issues, especially with respect to Orthodox women in the army. The first program to combine military service and Torah study for women was our initiative. We were also the first to train female rabbinical court advocates. When I arrived in Israel, a woman could not serve as an advocate in the courts, because it was assumed that she couldn’t learn halacha and could not speak halacha. We at Ohr Torah Stone changed that. We went to the Supreme Court and we won. Today, there are female rabbinical court advocates all over Israel. In addition, in our hesder yeshiva students study university studies, which is also something that didn’t exist when I arrived in Israel.”

About his connection with Rabbi Stav: “I am now seeking continuity. I sought a partner who is younger than I am and it was also important that he would be Israeli. I think that is a plus. Someone from Israel can pass things through which I cannot.”

So even though you aren’t an outsider, an Israeli will encounter fewer barriers.

I think that Israeli students feel a closer connection with a rabbi who is Israeli. That is important. But I don’t feel that I am not accepted because of my accent, on the contrary.”

You are still considered to be the rabbi of the English-speaking community.

“That’s also true, but Efrat is 65 percent Israelis. We have 28 synagogues in Efrat and I pray on Shabbatot according to where there is a simcha, and I really enjoy the prayers of the Sephardic community.”

What do you like about it?

“That they say each and every word out loud. I also like their tunes and slichot. The problem is that the prayers start too early for me. We also have a Yemenite synagogue that I like to pray in.”

On the one hand, you are identified with the religious left and with liberalism but on the other hand you have made right wing statements regarding Judea and Samaria. Is there a contradiction here?

“Absolutely not,” he responds with a smile. “I think that I have the full right to be where I am. Every inch of Efrat was checked ahead of time and there have been no Arab claims here. I always say: God promised Hebron to Abraham our Father and nonetheless Abraham paid 400 shekels, because God’s promise will be fulfilled, but not necessarily right away and in the meantime, we must not steal anything.

“I want peace and I believe in all the possible compromises, but not with a people that does not accept us as a Jewish state. I think that it would be crazy for us to encourage the creation of a state that does not recognize us. With respect to liberalism, I try to rule on every issue as I understand it from a halachic perspective. I don’t think that’s connected to my American side or my Israeli side. I am a halachic person according to my understanding of the halacha.”

THE HOLINESS OF NAOMI SHEMER

Rabbi Riskin’s four children have followed in his footsteps. “My oldest daughter is studying toward Morat Hora’ah [certification providing license to rule on matters of Jewish law] ,” he says. “There are at least four heads of yeshivas in Israel which certify women.”

What is the difference between the morot hora’ah and ‘maharat,’ the female Orthodox rabbis being certified in the US?

“I think that the difference is in the intensity and scope of the learning. In our program we ensure that the women learn in accordance with the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria for men who are studying to be certified by the rabbinate. They are taught by Rabbi Shuki Reich, my close friend and my first chavruta here in Israel.”

And these women rule on halachic matters?

“Of course. They are involved in halachic rulings and two of them have even written a book of responsa.”

Rabbi Riskin mentions another reservation about the maharat: “Some of them call themselves Rabbi or Rabba. This is not prohibited, but I don’t think that a woman can be parallel to a man as the ‘baalat habayit‘ of a synagogue.  After all, the main function of a synagogue is public prayer and the reading of the Torah, and a woman cannot be motzi a man [to relieve him of his obligation], because she herself is not obligated in this.”

Can she lead the congregation in Kabbalat Shabbat?

“I don’t see any halachic problem, considering that even a minor can lead Kabbalat Shabbat, but from an educational point of view I wouldn’t recommend that a woman do so. If you start with Kabbalat Shabbat, this might lead to the evening service as well – and that is problematic since a woman cannot be motzi the congregation on devarim shebekedusha [prayers for which a quorum of ten men are required].”

What about the prohibition of hearing a woman sing?

“I know there are some Zionist rabbis, perhaps a bit Chardal [nationalist-ultra-Orthodox], who say that hearing a women sing is a matter of yehareg ve’al ya’avor [the requirement to sacrifice one’s life rather than transgress a law]. But the Sde Hemed brings an opinion that in matters of holy texts there is no prohibition on hearing a woman sing. This is based on the Gemara in the tractate of Arachin, which says that a woman can be motzi a man in the reading of Megillat Esther. Also Hachaham Ovadia [Yosef] ruled that way. I personally include the songs of Naomi Shemer as songs with holiness, with all my heart. There are exemptions – one needs to examine the situation.”

Apart from Rabbi Benny Lau’s Ramban congregation in Jerusalem, I don’t know of many other synagogues in Israel that have decided to introduce a maharat or morat hora’ah.

“In Efrat, there is a female spiritual leader who works alongside me and under my direction, and who is doing great things. There is also one in Ra’anana. It is happening and it will happen even more, I am sure of it. If women have already reached the role of prime minister or president of the Supreme Court, there is no reason that a woman cannot be a spiritual leader.”

Lately the issue of the halachic attitude toward homosexuals has come up again and again – both in the public domain and in the religious communities. What is your position on the issue?

“We cannot permit what the Torah prohibits. At the same time, ‘oness rachmana patrei‘ [‘one who is compelled is not held culpable]; the Torah exempts one who has been compelled from the punishments emanating from his actions. I want to suggest something: in the verses relating to homosexuality the word toeva [abomination] is written and in this context the Gemara defines it as ‘to’eh ata ba‘ (‘you deviate through this,’ based upon a play on words). In the days of Socrates and Plato, many of the Greeks were bisexual; the philosophers actually preached homosexuality because it eliminated the complexity of children. They didn’t believe in procreation at all. It seems to me that’s what the Torah was talking about: someone who could be heterosexual yet chose to be homosexual. It is about him that it’s said, ‘you deviate through this.’ ‘Oness rachmana patrei‘ relates only to those who cannot attain fulfillment in any other way.

“My approach dictates that we must love each Jew, wherever on the religious spectrum he may be. We must let homosexuals be called up to the Torah and so forth. I do not ask them what they do in private; that is not my business. Judgement belongs to God.”

Would you marry them?

“A wedding is not the right way, but a partnership contract is possible. It is better in my opinion that they live together than for them to have to meet in public places. That for sure is not a good solution.”

To sum up, I ask Rabbi Riskin if he has had any regrets during his public career and as a rabbi. “Looking back, I thank God with all my heart, primarily because for me the realization of my dreams is much greater than the original dreams,” he answers. “It started in Lincoln Square Synagogue, which met in a small apartment and continued with the creation of Ohr Torah Stone and Efrat. When on Shabbat I walk between synagogues, I see the beauty of the settlement and I can’t believe it. Many people I meet on the way ask me for a blessing for their children, because I am a Kohen. I really believe that, with the help of God, my decisions were the right ones.”

What was the best decision you ever made?

“Making aliya. When I first made aliya, I was angry at the Orthodox Jews who weren’t coming. After all, it is a positive mitzva, so how can you not be in the Land of Israel? Now, I only pity them. We have the privilege of seeing the realization of the greatest dream there is – the return to our land from the exile, and I believe that we are already in the time of the coming of the Messiah. To see the Torah learning we have today, even the Torah learning for women – this is part of the great miracle of the State of Israel. I am only very concerned when I see baseless hatred instead of baseless love. I hope this won’t endure, particularly among the rabbinic establishment. It should love every Jew wherever he is.”

Are you optimistic about the Rabbinate?

“If it separates itself from politics, I will be more optimistic. At the moment, we need to do more in frameworks that are parallel to it – the courts, kashrut – and perhaps in the end we will even be able to work together nonetheless.”

***

Following is the response of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to what was said by Rabbi Riskin:

“It is unfortunate that a rabbi in Israel—who took on a commitment when he was appointed to behave and act according to the instructions of the Chief Rabbinic Council for Israel and also the obligation to the traditions of Judaism, that same tradition that has preserved the Jewish People for generations—said last month that ‘I view the Reform and Conservatives as my partners’ and that ‘in America everyone is free to pray and worship God as he wishes.’ Such statements speak for themselves and there is nothing to add.”

Translated and published with the kind permission of Makor Rishon
Read the original interview in Hebrew