A recent detailed interview with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin appeared in the original Hebrew in Makor Rishon earlier this month, with select paragraphs translated into English below.
“If I could ask God one thing, I would ask: How is it possible that the Talmud is the most pluralistic piece of literature, but those who study it are the most narrow minded?” says Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. “It’s a shame, and it destroys and distorts the halakhah. Without adhering to halakhah [the Jewish people] cannot hold out, but in my opinion the greatest praise [due to] the Torah is that it is not singular. Our halakhah is pluralistic. The Chief Rabbis of the past understood this as well. Chief Rabbis Herzog and Goren did brave things when necessary. That’s how halakhah has always been, and that what we teach our students.”
“You’re opening a Pandora’s box,” says Rabbi Riskin when I ask him whether he believes that this chain of events proves that religion and the state must be separated. “I will say this in the clearest possible way: “When there is a Chief Rabbinate that is exclusivist, and it is not willing to accept rabbinical courts that rule such and such, within the framework of halachah, this is a problem. I certainly would not want to see conversions that are not halakhic. The aspiration is for every Jew in Israel to be able to marry any other Jew in the country, and for that purpose we must give [state recognized] power to conversion projects. We do not want a society in which there are Israelis who are ‘good Jews’ and Israelis who are not properly Jewish. Unfortunately this is what will happen if they [continue to] limit opportunities for conversion. And that would be a shame, a pity, a shame. So I think separation would be better. And I say this in tears.”
If the rabbinate recognizes Halakha in a singular, closed, or even [exclusively] ultra-Orthodox way, is it necessary to separate religion from state?
“I say it with tears, but yes.”
On the other hand, you can probably understand the concern regarding private courts for conversion. After all, there is no uniformity in case law, and there is no control over the entrance gate to the people of Israel.
“But there was never uniformity or control, and in the past they understood that there was a need for a House of Hillel and a House of Shammai, and ‘these and those are the words of the living God.’ If other Orthodox rabbis have halachic-based sources, how dare you say they are not Orthodox?”
In the Conservative movement, there are rabbis who call for recognizing Judaism as ‘passing’ from the father [to the child], and not only through the mother.
“I do not know about that. I respect the members of the Conservative movement, and I also think that the way the Chief Rabbinate expresses itself regarding them is very unfortunate. On the other hand, many of them do not see themselves as committed to the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch. I also think it’s legitimate that the establishment Rabbinate here in Israel is Orthodox.”
“… In many matters I am more stringent than the ultra-Orthodox, but unlike them, I do not invalidate the conversions of others. If you are an Orthodox rabbi, your conversion should be acceptable. There should not be a blacklist…”
“The great miracle of the Land of Israel is that it belongs to all the people of Israel: to the collective. Anyone that is there. I have no problem that the establishment be Orthodox, but it should include those who are not Orthodox.”
“Rabbi Lau once said something like ‘Rabbis Riskin and Stav will convert anyone who wants to convert.’ I spoke to him and explained that I’ve never converted anyone without his/her acceptance of the Jewish religious commandments, and he apologized, but he does not understand the reality of American Jewry.”
Is there indeed a crisis with American Jewry surrounding the Western Wall and the new conversion law, or is it an exaggerated media spin?
“There is a very big crisis,” he replies without thinking twice. “I’m not sure it will be possible to resolve this.”
The solution that was reached in the first place regarding the Western Wall – the establishment of an egalitarian plaza in the southern part, near Robinson’s Arch, is “an excellent option.” Rabbi Riskin was even pleased by the Reform and Conservative demand that one entrance lead to three sections – for men, women, and a mixed one. “They wanted joint entry for all the people of Israel together, and that’s exactly what I want. Where is your ‘love of Israel’?”
To what extent is the left wing of Orthodoxy far from the right side of the Conservative movement? In Efrat there are synagogues that are very reminiscent of other streams, allowing women to read the haftara, for example.
“First of all, we in Efrat perform prayers with a divider between women and men, which is the greatest difference; and we observe the laws of prayer as written in the Shulchan Aruch. I oppose Conservative Judaism, and I do not accept what they call their ‘halachot’. But, Lord of the Universe, I must love them, respect them. I also call them my partners. We have a lot to do together, especially in the war against anti-Semitism. You have to understand that conservative Jews reach people that an Orthodox rabbi, even a Chabadnik, will never reach. They try to bring them closer in their own way. I also call Reform Jews my partners. I do not accept their synagogues, which use electrical appliances during Shababt, but even if we disagree – [our] task is the same.”
“I do not understand how the rabbinical establishment calls them ‘goyim’ or ‘apikorsim’. This is not okay. It cannot be a question of the face of halakhah, and I will not agree that this is my establishment. They are part of the Jewish people, and they, for example, do not declare that Orthodox Jews are ‘not religious’.”
The positive attitude towards Reform and Conservative Judaism, says Rabbi Riskin, can also benefit Orthodoxy. “Many graduates of their schools and camps eventually came to me. Before participating in those same Conservative activities, they were not ready to reach me. Minister Naftali Bennett visited a Conservative school in New York, one of the Chief Rabbis of Israel said that he should not have gone (Rabbi David Lau). Why not? I receive with open arms every invitation from a Conservative institution. I speak halacha and Torah to them. What could happen? Thank God, many times they started praying at my synagogue after such visits. There was also a well-known Reform rabbi who began visiting his mother, who prayed in my synagogue. He would come to us on every ‘Yom Tov Sheni’ holiday of the diaspora, and as a result he decided to become Orthodox.”
“The marriage covenant between Judaism and politics destroys religion and destroys politics. That’s the big problem. Religious MKs must have values that are above politics, above voting, but that is not what happens.”
On another issue, Rabbi Riskin found himself in the camp under attack. Criticisms were leveled against him and against the Rabbis of Tzohar, Beit Hillel, and the RCA (the umbrella organization of the Orthodox rabbis in North America) for supporting halakhic pre-nuptial agreements, which are supposed to prevent [women from becoming] agunot. “I think that what is happening in this regard is a scandal,” Rabbi Riskin explains the need for such agreements, “There is a serious problem regarding the refusal of divorce. It is written in the Torah, ‘And he wrote her a book of separation,’ and from this it follows that the husband gives [his wife] the gett [divorce document] in a unilateral manner. I believe with all my soul in Torah from heaven. Four thousand years ago, when God gave His Torah to Moses, there was no chance that a woman would want a divorce; She did not have social or economic status so the man would give the gett. But our wives are not captive to their husbands. We have to find a solution to this phenomenon of husbands who refuse to divorce their wives, and there are many solutions. I wrote an entire book about it. There is also disagreement in the Gemara as to whether this stems from the Torah or from rabbinic law. At the time of the Talmud, the solution was to ‘beat him until he says I want [to divorce her]’, but this is impossible to implement today.”
Would you support beating the husband if it was legal?
“If there was no other way – and the reality is that there is another way – I would advocate for it. What can we do? The rabbinical court may require a gett (divorce document), and if the husband refuses – he can be put in jail, and his license to practice his profession can be revoked, if he is a doctor, and so on. There is also the issue of a prenuptial contract, but the rabbis are not willing to use it for the most part. The prenuptial contract actually says that anyone who does not want to give or receive a gett must pay a high sum every month until (s)he cooperates. I wrote about this in the books of Yad L’Isha, which received the consent of Rabbi Yaakov Bezalel Zolty, who was the chief rabbi of Jerusalem. And now the rabbis say that this creates a “fake gett” (Which does not stem from the husband’s will, and is therefore not kosher) and should not be used. Maimonides himself, on the basis of the Gemara, used a mock gett when he ruled halachically: ‘Force him until he says, I want [to divorce her].’ The reason for this is that ‘our wives are not captives under their husbands’. Moreover, the Rambam writes about the verse, ‘good and righteous judgments,’ and explains that our halachah must be good and just, which, for Maimonides, is the essence of the Oral Torah.”
Rabbi Riskin notes another objection that he has from the Maharam: “Some [women rabbis] call themselves a rabbi or a rabba. This is not forbidden, but I do not think that a woman can be equal to a man like the ‘master’ of a synagogue. After all, the main function of the synagogue is to pray in public and to read from the Torah, and a woman cannot fulfill a man’s religious obligation because she herself is not obligated.”
Can she lead the ‘Kabbalat Shabbat’ service?
“I do not see this as a halakhic problem, since even a minor can conduct the Kabbalat Shabbat prayer, but from an educational point of view I would not recommend that a woman do it. If you begin with Kabbalat Shabbat, you may also get to the evening prayer service – and that’s problematic, because a woman cannot fulfill the religious duty of the community in matters of holy prayers.”
Recently, the issue of halakha’s attitude towards homosexuals has been raised again and again – both on the public level and within religious communities. What is your position on the subject?
“We can not allow what the Torah forbids. On the other hand, there is the principle of ‘God exempts in cases of coercion/force’.” [referring to the prevailing scientific view that homosexuality is an inherent orientation, not a choice]
“The Torah exempted the ‘forced one’ from the obligations stemming from what he did. I want to suggest something: In the verses that speak of homosexuality, the word ‘abomination’ is written, and in this context the Gemara defines it as ‘wrong with you.’ In the days of Socrates and Plato, many Greeks were bisexual, and the philosophers actually preached to be gay, because then there is no complexity of [having] children. They did not believe in childbirth at all. I think that’s what the Torah is talking about: Someone who could be heterosexual, and choses to be a homosexual, it is said ‘you are wronging God.’ The religious concept of ‘the forced one’ only relates to those who cannot be [sexually] satisfied any other way.”
“My approach is that every Jew should be loved, wherever he is. We must permit homosexuals to receive religious honors at the synagogue. I do not ask them what they do in their privacy; it’s not my business. Judgment is for God.”
Would you marry them?
“A wedding would not be correct [according to the Torah], but a contract of couplehood is possible. It is better in my eyes that they should live together than have to go around meeting in public places. That’s certainly not good.”