It’s only fitting that Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who was honored here last week by some 400 colleagues, students and supporters for more than a half century of worldwide religious and educational leadership, is writing a major work entitled “Judaism: A Love Story.”
In an interview with The Jewish Week on the eve of the event, the rabbi said his book is grounded in the concept that “Creation was an act of love by God” for mankind, and that “Shabbat and the other mitzvot showed God’s love for Israel and the Jewish people,” who are called on “to love every human being.”
Judaism’s message to the world, he said, is to promote “compassion, righteousness and justice.” That worldview has suffused his life’s work, though sometimes stirring controversy.
The once baby-faced rabbi with the beatific smile, approaching his 80th birthday next spring, was celebrated at the Museum of Jewish Heritage on Dec. 3, and praised for transforming his outsized dreams into reality — from his early involvement in the eventually successful Soviet Jewry movement and charismatic leadership of Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side in the 1960s (he was its founding rabbi); to his aliyah in 1983 and role in founding Efrat, the burgeoning Jewish community in the West Bank where he is chief rabbi; to his launching and overseeing of Ohr Torah Stone, an international educational network of 27 schools and programs that train future leaders and impact Torah study around the world.
Rabbi Riskin was described as “a living Sefer Torah” during the Ohr Torah Stone-sponsored festivities, which were marked by celebratory dancing and the completion and dedication of a Torah in his honor.
Efrat’s mayor, Oded Revivi, called Rabbi Riskin “a wild dreamer” with his head in the sky and his legs firmly on the ground — a creative thinker who brings his ideas to fruition. The mayor noted that Efrat now has 16,000 residents and plans to almost double that number in the near future. Among the others paying tribute: a young American woman expressing gratitude for the conversion curriculum Rabbi Riskin created that led to her Orthodox wedding several years ago; an IDF soldier who completed a popular Torah study program for women in the army; and a former gap-year student at Ohr Torah who said he learned from Rabbi Riskin that “you can change the world when you engage the world.”
The rabbi’s teachings and emphasis on compassion and inclusion are widely admired by many in the Modern Orthodox community. But some of his pioneering efforts are regarded as outside of halacha, or Jewish law, by critics within the movement. Examples: his call for leniency in conversions and tolerance towards gays; programs providing legal services on behalf of agunot (wives denied a religious divorce by their husbands); and expansion of women’s roles in ritual life — including ordination to serve as decisors of halacha, or Jewish law.
The rabbi has been challenged at times by the Chief Rabbinate in Israel for his policies on women and conversion, but he has stood his ground, quietly continuing to perform conversions and ordain women. In 2015, the Chief Rabbinate sought to have Rabbi Riskin retired from his position as chief rabbi of Efrat, citing his age, but they backed off after facing strong criticism.
“I get no pushback” from the Chief Rabbinate currently, “only in the U.S.,” he said in the interview. Some Modern Orthodox synagogues here have disinvited him from speaking because of his views, which are perceived as having become more liberal in recent years, at a time when Orthodoxy has moved rightward.
Emphasis On Compassion
Rabbi Kenneth Brander, who left his post as vice president of Yeshiva University in 2018 to succeed Rabbi Riskin as president and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, praised the rabbi at the dinner as a man of “greatness, charisma and modesty.” Citing Rabbi Riskin’s personal support — and dismissal of critics — he recalled a lesson he learned from his mentor many years ago, when Rabbi Brander was a 30-year-old pulpit rabbi in South Florida. He said he had bucked the Orthodox establishment in a matter involving kosher supervision and, as a result, was put in cherem — a severe form of religious censure — by some of his colleagues.
Rabbi Brander said he received a call from Rabbi Riskin in Israel expressing admiration. “Cherem at 30? You beat me,” the rabbi said. “I was 45 when I was first put in cherem. You must be doing amazing things.”
In our interview, Rabbi Riskin said that, based on his close relationships with leading rabbis of his generation like Joseph Soloveichik, Moshe Feinstein and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, he is a firm believer in solving disputes based on compassion. That is why, he said, he is an advocate for conversions, especially for the large population of Russian-speakers in Israel; for gay Jews, in part through his association with Eshel, a New York-based nonprofit seeking to create acceptance for LGBT Jews in the Orthodox community; and for agunot, which he called “the No. 1 issue crying out for solutions.”
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“We have to be creative with halacha,” he said. “Whenever there is a human involved, we must find compassion.”
The rabbi is passionate about his political views on the Palestinian issue in Israel and presidential politics in America, both of which run counter to those of the majority of American Jews, many of whom, he said, “don’t know the facts” about the realities of Israeli history and life today. He is an advocate for a one-state solution that would have Israel provide autonomy for Palestinians “wherever they live within the Jewish state.”
“We in Efrat have an excellent relationship with our Palestinian neighbors,” he said, blaming the increase in violence in recent years to Hamas becoming more powerful in the area. He said the Palestinian leaders of nearby communities, with whom he has long held close ties, have warned him not to visit because they feel they can no longer protect him. “Hamas doesn’t want coexistence,” he explained, “but our Palestinian friends need us.”
The rabbi said he is optimistic there will be peace in the long run, given the Torah’s promise of the land to the Jewish people.
As for the U.S., Rabbi Riskin spoke of Donald Trump as “a wonderful president,” not only for supporting Israel but for improving the economy, adding that as a longtime Democrat, he observes “with great sadness and alarm” what he calls a drift by the party away from Israel toward the Palestinian cause.
Politics was not discussed at the Ohr Torah dinner, though, and the evening’s most poignant moments came at its end, when Rabbi Riskin addressed the admiring audience, expressing gratitude to God, to his wife, Vicki, to his successor, Rabbi Brander, and to colleagues, students and supporters.
“If I’ve touched your lives, you’ve touched mine,” he said, confiding that “my dream of redemption and tikkun olam, which I believe is God’s dream for the Jewish people to carry out, never gave me rest…and I felt that the way to achieve that dream was through teaching Torah.” He closed by calling on all Jews to come to Israel and “teach God’s love to all human beings.”