In a petulant fashion not befitting their duties, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is weighing a decision whether or not end Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s position as the Chief Rabbi of Efrat. Since Rabbi Riskin is turning seventy-five this week, the official age of retirement for chief rabbis, he could theoretically step down after a life of dedicated service. But, as is frequently done, most rabbis continue their career and the Rabbinate extends their tenure by another five years until the age of eighty as a courtesy. In the case of Rabbi Riskin, however, the Chief Rabbinate, in their stead, are myopically seeking to rebuke his years of service over political—not spiritual—matters.
Rabbi Riskin is a leading light in Israel and for the Jewish people, having established a strong educational system, brought many Jews home to Israel from the diaspora, advocated for Israel and Torah around the world, and having created a unique and powerful model of a new community which he deserves much credit for building and cultivating since 1983 when he founded the modern community of Efrat. But even more, he means a lot to me personally, as a mentor, teacher, and close confidante who I studied closely with for years. He is someone I can look up to as a model for Torah insight, piety, and ethical forthrightness. Without him, I don’t know where I would be today in my Jewish learning and leadership.
This is what makes the whole situation petty and, frankly, sad and desperate on the part of the Chief Rabbinate. Rabbi Riskin is no mere bureaucrat, but a leader who makes decisions contrary to the whims of a non-elected rabbinical authority. In essence, this whole affair likely boils down to the issue of conversions, but looking deeper, this is a matter about dictatorial control over local community autonomy. Rabbi Riskin has been outspoken about the need for greater transparency in Israeli conversion policy, which has been rigidly regulated by the Chief Rabbinate. In contravention of this autocratic definition of power, Rabbi Riskin wants greater flexibility for local rabbis, who are much closer in proximity and need to their constituencies, to act on behalf of people who need care the most. Rabbi Riskin is not pulling left; the Rabbinate continues to pull to the right. Further, the Rabbinate seems to act antagonistically to the new liberal Orthodox rabbinical group Tzohar and one of its leaders, Rav Stav, who was recently appointed as Rabbi Riskin’s successor.
As can been seen quite starkly, this is a politically motivated move. For reasons that are picayune and shameful, this ultra-orthodox body ostensibly wants to punish Rabbi Riskin for holding and acting upon Modern Orthodox positions that do not gel perfectly with their singular view of halakhah. These positions include making conversion more inclusive (but not less weighty), empowering women’s learning and leadership in the religious academy (expanding Torah), and forthrightly advocating for more halakhic protections for psychologically tortured Agunot (fulfilling a mandate of our sages).
Thankfully, and despite pressure to the contrary, leading lights have come to Rabbi Riskin’s defense. One voice, Rabbi Yuval Sherlo, suggested that he would work for the dismantlement of the Chief Rabbinate should Rabbi Riskin be removed from office. Indeed, Tzohar, a group of liberal Orthodox rabbis in Israel, responsibly wrote:
Rabbi Riskin, who has led the community of Efrat with love and dedication and is beloved by so many, is a true symbol of spiritual leadership,” the statement said. “And instead of exalting his accomplishments, figures in the Rabbinate are choosing to force the rabbi into early retirement because of their political considerations or apparently so that they can appoint insiders in his place.
A Judaism where everyone agrees on absolutely every issue runs counter to the ethos of intellectual integrity and Jewish debate, of pilpul, that has sustained our people for millennia. It is harmful and wrong on all levels. This is systematic of the ingathering of like-minded partisans, rather than an honest convention of holy individuals. If the Chief Rabbinate abuses its power once again, it will have sadly demonstrated that it is not merely irrelevant, but a destructive force, one that alienates countless Jews from Torah and a Jewish life.
The community of Efrat, and Jews across the globe, stand in solidarity with Rabbi Riskin—our teacher—and, in any event, will be sure to learn from him, to support him, and to celebrate him if the Chief Rabbinate makes another ill-advised decision in the pursuit of ideological purity.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of seven books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”