On the Rabbi Riskin Saga: Don’t Disqualify the Torah Scroll

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is a man who raised himself from poverty to dedicate his life to Torah and more - differences in philosophical or even halakhic approaches should not be used to disqualify one rabbi or another.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed,

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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 terminate his tenure. This is an opportunity to speak in praise of Rabbi Riskin and his piety, wisdom, and leadership, which are to his great credit.

Rabbi Riskin was born into an impoverished non-observant 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 there. Going there would have secured his professional and financial future, as all doors are open to graduates of Harvard. This was an indescribable opportunity. Few would have been able to withstand this temptation. Yet, Rav Shlomo gave up the scholarship and went to study at Yeshiva University. YU also recognized his immense talents and gave 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 inspire and raise the spirits of his listeners and draw them closer to Torah and mitzvot, Rabbi Riskin was very well established and respected in the United States. Highly successful and intelligent people found his Torah teachings meaningful and were privileged to draw closer to Jewish tradition thanks to him. He spoke the truth of Torah, and he helped many return to their roots. Yet before turning forty, out of a pure belief in God and Torah, he gave it all up, 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 excelled in America. He learned to speak well in Hebrew too, but in English he is truly one of the greatest speakers.

                                  

Thanks to his vision, talents, and leadership, he was able to bring many members of his community to Israel and to establish a city whose spiritual life centers around Torah study and mitzva observance. Its residents are notable for their contributions to Israel’s economy, society, and scientific community and for living a high quality of life. His Aliya influenced thousands of people to follow in his footsteps, people 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 able to found schools and educational institutions in Gush Etzion and in Jerusalem for boys and girls. He has done this with boundless 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 the West

We do not always remember this, but the vast majority of olim in this day and age arrived from lands where unfortunately Jews suffered from poverty and oppression. In contrast, aliya from the West, especially from the United States, is perhaps the aliya with the purest motivations. Most olim from the US could have done very well for themselves financially and socially had they remained in America, the economic, scientific, and cultural center of the world. Yet, they decided to give all this up in order to make aliya, to establish settlements and communities, to send their children to the army, and to look for work, while dealing 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, MK Naftali Bennett is one of the blessed products of this aliya.

Would we have withstood the challenge?

Sometimes students who have come from the United States to study in yeshiva in Israel for the year visit Har Bracha. They generally 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. However, I add, if completing their professional training in the United States would be greatly to their advantage, or if it would conflict with the deference they owe their parents, they may delay aliya until they complete their studies.  However, 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 sometimes the challenge is enormous and the excuses legion. 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.

Different Approaches

True, there are a variety of approaches to numerous halakhic issues. This has always been the case, and disagreement was prevalent among the Tanna’im, Amora’im and Ge’onim as well as medieval and modern sages. Sometimes these disagreements result from different temperaments, as is the case with Hillel and Shammai. Other times, the disagreements are the result of different backgrounds or ways of thinking. Regarding these our Sages say:

The phrase Masters of Gathering (ba’alei asufot) refers to Torah scholars, who gather together and study Torah. These render impure while those render pure; these forbid while those permit; these disqualify while those validate. One 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 for yourself an understanding 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)

American Judaism

Rabbi Riskin’s American background is very discernable in his work. Jews living in the US and American olim are on the frontlines of Jewish engagement with Western culture and its values – liberalism and egalitarianism, including feminism. Rabbi Riskin and his colleagues are charting a course for addressing these critically important questions while maintaining unwavering loyalty to Torah. There are, of course, different approaches among American rabbis regarding how to relate to general culture –how open to be, where to draw red lines, and which outside elements should be incorporated or rejected.

Sometimes, other rabbis, and I among them, favor solutions different from those of Rabbi Riskin. Sometimes this preference is rooted in practices to which we are committed, and sometimes we simply believe that a different way is better. These differences of opinion and practice generally concern educational and sociological questions, not strict halakha. Only with hindsight will we be able to properly evaluate the pros and cons of each approach. In any case, we must not invalidate Rabbi Riskin’s approach, which is one of the most important ways in which the Torah is being revealed to our generation.

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. Impairing Rabbi Riskin’s stature as a rabbi is the equivalent of ripping out entire sections of the Torah.

I can only surmise that the Chief Rabbinate 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 reverence for God, his wisdom, and his piety, 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 bit. His status within his community and his institutions will only grow, and his influence will increase. However, the status of the Chief Rabbinate as the flag bearer of Torah for the people of Israel will weaken, as many will know that the Torah scroll it represents is lacking and thus invalid.

The Chief Rabbinate’s policy

Some maintain that the Chief Rabbinate is authorized to establish guidelines to which all rabbis must adhere, and Rabbi Riskin has flaunted these guidelines on matters such as conversion.

Indeed, the Rabbinate should take positions on contemporary communal issues. However, to do so it must engage in profound, serious analysis of each issue. The discussion must involve Gemara, Rishonim, and Acharonim, and contemporary conditions must be analyzed in all their complexity. In order to promote the discussions, the rabbis addressing these issues must study articles and books on the relevant issues. Even after this groundwork is laid, the issue must be deliberated over the course of several days at the very least. To our dismay, there are no serious discussions taking place today about any significant issues, neither in the Chief Rabbinate nor any other rabbinic body. For example, Rabbi Haim Amsalem wrote a very serious book dealing with conversion, which deserves to be discussed. Although my conclusions differ from his, most who disagree with him offer frivolous objections that are often backed up with violence.

I must add that despite the value of establishing an official position on every issue, this position must not negate the right of individual rabbis to exercise discretion. Even when the Sanhedrin sat in its chamber on the Temple Mount, local courts still retained a certain amount of autonomy. A principled position need not be a narrow line—it can be a broad field that encompasses various practices and approaches, by virtue of which the Oral Torah is enriched and blessed. This is even truer today, when we have no Sanhedrin ordained in an unbroken chain from the time of our teacher Moshe. The Chief Rabbinate may not demarcate a sharp line that leaves important halakhic positions outside the pale. When the status and authority of the Chief Rabbinate is weak, it must take even more care to take into account a variety of opinions when it formulates its positions. This is longstanding rabbinic practice.

“You shall have one law”

Leaving aside all of the above, there must be one standard that applies to all. When the Chief Rabbinate Council exercises restraint in the face of serious affronts to its honor and positions on the part of Charedi rabbis who refuse to trust its kosher certifications and who demean the Chief Rabbis as well as city and community rabbis, it must also show tolerance and love towards rabbis like Rabbi Riskin, who despite their respect for the Chief Rabbinate sometimes adopt dissenting positions.

Today, the Chief Rabbinate does not attempt to immediately fire rabbis who, contrary to halakhic norms, invalidate conversions performed by the Chief Rabbinate’s representatives. It continues to recognize the kosher certifications, marriages, and conversions of “rabbis” who dare to publicly uproot the Torah’s commandments, like the mitzva to settle the land of Israel and to protect the people of Israel through military service, deny God’s goodness in establishing the State of Israel, or 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 that of those Charedi “rabbis” whose honor they guard overzealously.

Responses: ravmel@gmail.com

Questions and Answers with Rabbi Eliezer Melamed can be found on the website: www.yeshiva.org.il




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