Rabbi Riskin’s Modern Orthodoxy

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by R. Gil Student

If you want to know why Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is apparently being forced into retirement by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, you have to read his recent book, The Living Tree: Studies in Modern Orthodoxy. I don’t claim any insight into the complex politics of Israel’s governmental organizations, of which the Chief Rabbinate is one. I don’t know enough to understand the power struggle that is occurring. However, in terms of ideology, I see why the Chief Rabbinate Council would express concern over R. Riskin. His book is more radical than many might expect. This is not the same Rabbi Riskin you may remember from the 60’s and 70’s.

The most surprising thing about the book is what is missing from it. On multiple occasions, R. Riskin wrote programmatic essays about what Modern Orthodoxy needs to do to succeed. These were essays full of passion, exhorting both faith in God and Torah as well as devoted observance of the commandments. While the book consists almost entirely of previously published articles, these programmatic essays were replaced with a new introduction titled “What is Modern Orthodoxy?” This introduction is a call for radical change in halakhic decision-making. For example (p. xiv):

The Modern Orthodox decisor must orchestrate the interplay between both of these directives, taking into account the guiding principles used by the sages of the Talmud in their religio-legal discussions, the meta-halakhic principles such as, “for the sake of the perfection of the world,” “in order to respect the integrity of the human being created in the divine image,” “for the sake of freeing a wife chained to an impossible marriage the sages found leniency,” “in order to provide spiritual satisfaction for women,” and “you must love the stranger and the proselyte.”

If you are familiar with rabbinic literature of the past century, you will immediately recognize that these are legitimate principles that can and have been (ab)used to overturn wide swaths of Jewish law. The essays in the book provide many examples of R. Riskin’s applications of these principles. There are two things going on here. First, R. Riskin is promoting his own fairly radical agenda, as would be expected. Second, he is setting the stage for future rabbis to make even more changes to Jewish practice according to their own understanding of what is needed, regardless of what traditional texts allow.

Another troubling trend I find in this book seems to be the result of an editorial oversight. Most of the essays were written over the course of decades, as R. Riskin’s experiences and outlook changed. While the essays were edited for consistency and maybe updated a little, the conclusions were largely left intact. Here we see a troubling difference in how R. Riskin reaches conclusions. Regarding changing the daily blessing “Who has not made me a woman,” R. Riskin writes: “I would not permit even so minor a change without the approval and approbation of several leading halakhic authorities” (p. 159). While R. Riskin advocates annulling marriages, he does not plan on doing so unilaterally. Rather, “this should be effectuated by a special Beit Din for agunot in Jerusalem with impeccable halakhic credentials who would render judgments, and rule on urgent issues of mesuravot get throughout the world” (p. 188). In his call for theological interfaith dialogue with Christians, R. Riskin repeatedly invokes Rav Soloveitchik, albeit in what I believe is a twisting of his words but at least as an appeal to an eminent authority.

However, in his essay on women halakhic scholars and judges, R. Riskin does not submit his proposal to leading authorities. The most he does is quote a responsum of Rav Eliyahu Bakshi Doron, who is alive and well and could be consulted. Instead, R. Riskin started a program for ordaining women on his own. (R. Riskin writes that his program’s first two graduates published a book of responsa that “has received much praise, and — at least to my knowledge — no negative reviews” (p. 132). We published a negative review by Rav Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer to which one of the authors responded.)

When it comes to women dancing with a Torah scroll on Simchas Torah–which I acknowledge lacks the gravity of some other issues under discussion–R. Riskin likewise does not mention consulting with other scholars. When discussing establishing a Hesder yeshiva for women–a matter of great communal importance–R. Riskin also omits discussion with great authorities.

What I see is a rabbi whose agenda has become increasingly radical. Realizing that he was engaging in activities for which he would not gain approval of his elders, he stopped asking. Instead, he moved forward on his own authority. A young R. Shlomo Riskin regularly consulted with Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Moshe Feinstein and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. When they passed away, he was no longer restrained.

In America, R. Riskin was a defender of Orthodoxy against the Conservative movement and a defender of Judaism against Christian missionaries. That is not the R. Riskin you will find in this book. Maybe in Israel he found himself in a different situation which has given him a new perspective. He now has Christian supporters in his role as a defender of modernity against Charedi Judaism. Maybe he simply underwent a personal evolution.

However, this is all speculation. Regardless of why, R. Riskin has taken some communally radical actions and created surprisingly unorthodox institutions entirely on his own initiative. Some people love him for it. We should not be surprised that others believe he has gone too far on too many issues. Whether that is cause for him to be forced into retirement I leave to his employers and constituents.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

17 comments

  1. I am personally not a fan of the Rabbanut, and believe it should be privatized altogether, but I also feel that if such an institution exists, it is important to have differing views such as those Rabbi Riskin espouses and not become monolithic.

  2. You contrast “early” and “late” positions – “early” ones come with mroe deference to authority than “late” ones. But his original psak about women dancing with a Torah is from 1972, as documented by the Frimers. He did that on Yom Tov, unable to send to Boston for a rabbinic response. See note 264 in the Frimers’ long paper. Which paper you know quite well, so it seems a bit disingenuous for you to complain that he didn’t cite rabbinic support for it – he didn’t have much, just grudging acceptance by RYBS and RMF What, would you rather he had lied like the Flatbush Eruv people, and turned that grudging non-prohibition into wholehearted approval?

    It upsets your observed “pattern”, from being a good boy 40 years ago to being a bad boy now, when really, he was pretty radical then and now, but wasn’t going to pretend rabbinic support when he didn’t have it, whether in the “early” days or the later.

    In the 70s, LSS was considered radical among the other Mod-O synagogues for, among other things, a big kiruv focus. The big older shuls were more concerned with survival, with keeping their own membership somewhat observant (particularly S&P), to worry about bringing in other people.

    • I don’t contrast “early” and “late” positions. I contrast essays that end with an appeal to higher authority and those that do not.

      However, as you point out, regarding women dancing with the Torah, R. Riskin actually did ask higher authorities but did not include that in his article. That, too, is troubling.

      Your characterization of my description of him as a “good boy” in the past and now a “bad boy” is silly. You are not willing to consider that he has changed over time, that perhaps had he published this book thirty years ago it would look very different?

      • Joseph Telushin’s recent biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe asserts that R. Riskin obtained the Rebbe’s acquiescence of his decision to permit women to dance with a sefer torah.

  3. The younger Rav Riskin appealed to authority. The older Rav Riskin is an authority.

  4. R David Stav and R Gigi, rosh yeshiva of Gush are speaking at the ordination ceremony of R Riskin’s female students. R. Herzl Hefter, who taught at Gruss Kollel is ordaining women along with R. sperber. Not that he needs it, but seems that R. Riskin has plenty of support from eminent rabbonim.

    • Of course R Stav is speaking. He is R Riskin’s successor and inherits this program among the rest. The question is how he handles it going forward. It will be a delicate balance for him.

      I’m surprised that R Gigi is speaking and would like to know more about his decision.

      • Well, I could be surprised that you are surprised. To those who followed this program for a while it makes sense. This just illustrates the big disconnect between even those relatively involved in the polemics on this subject in the US and the landscape in Israel.

      • So you’re making an excuse for R’ Stav because…you like him? And wishing R’ Gigi wasn’t there because…Gush can do no wrong so, in true Daas Torah fashion, you change the facts to suit your opinion?

        Lesson: Two different countries.

  5. A few points:

    It is generally acknowledged that this fight is over one thing only, and that is the politics of giyur and the right of local rabbis to convert, especially in light of the last election, and R’ Riskin is a convenient target.

    I have to say that if anything, it seems to me the actual radical things R’ Riskin proposes are those where he does cite support. The others? You admit that women carrying a Torah isn’t a huge deal. Women deciding halakha? Sociological issues aside- and I’m not dismissing them, but bear in mind that there’s no non-Orthodox “threat” in Israel- who says that’s assur? (Ordination is, of course, another matter.) As to hesder…well, I feel the same, but also see below.

    As to not consulting once his mentors had passed away: We may well ask, therefore, who exactly is he supposed to consult? He’s 75 and has been active for over fifty years. I ask honestly- when do you reach that point when you can pasken? Who is he supposed to ask? Is he actually supposed to consult with a charedi authority about IDF service? Of course, there are answers, and of course I can think of some names and think it would be better if he consulted them, but it should also be mentioned that he’s not a nobody himself.

  6. Note that Rav Baruch Gigi Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Har Etzion and a very well respected halakhic authority is involved in the “ordination” program. Rabbi Riskin is not a maverick with regard to his positions on advanced women’s torah education. He represents a broad consensus in the moderate RZ rabbinic community and there is every indication that these positions were shared by was shared by RAL z”l. Migdal Oz has a very similar program. With regard the question of women serving as dayanim in various capacities, this is not a practical issue at this point and he is entitled to his opinion.

  7. עשה לך רב demands different things at different points of life. In old age, it means consulting with one’s peers.

    Here’s an example. During the summer 2006 Lebanon war, Rav Willig told an audience at Morasha Kollel how a חיל contacted him with the following שאלה: If he is captured behind enemy lines, may he take his own life to avoid torture and interrogation? Rav Willig cried when he heard the question, but knew of a בית יוסף that looked to the example of שאול המלך as a precedent in such a situation. Nevertheless, Rav Willig said, “This kind of שאלה can’t be answered with one בית יוסף. This is a question for גדולי תורה. So, I called Rav [Herschel] Schachter . . . . ”

    Rav Willig is a פוסק par excellence. None would have second-guessed his decision to resolve the question by himself. But it was important for him consult with other Torah Giants on such a grave question. How much more so must other פוסקים in our community consult with their colleagues on matters of public importance.

  8. It is difficult for me to decide whether, and to what degree, I might agree with R. Student’s post, which alludes to R. Rivkin’s “radical agenda” without being specific and clear as to what, exactly, the agenda is. If it’s true that he has “taken some communally radical actions and created surprisingly unorthodox institutions entirely on his own initiative,” then it would be helpful to know precisely which actions and which institutions are being critiqued.

  9. It should be noted, that regarding the example that you mentioned women dancing with Torah scrolls on Simchas Torah – R. Riskin did in fact consult with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who although did not dismiss the idea right away when asked about it by R. Riskin in person, he quickly sent R. Riskin a letter strongly rejecting the whole idea.
    Here are some sections of the a Hebrew translation of the letter (I do not have the original English version):
    ומכאן, שהמסקנה למעשה חייבת להיות, שלא להוסיף מאומה על המנהג הקבוע, ובוודאי שאין לתת שום היתר לעריכת הקפות עם ספר-תורה.
    בכוונה נמענתי מלהשתמש במלה “הגבלות”, משום שכידוע, כל עניין בתורה – שנקראת “תורת-חסד” – אשר עשוי להיראות כ”הגבלה”, הוא בכלל לא כזה, אלא להיפך זה לטובתם המרבית של אלה שהדבר נוגע להם. בוודאי אין צורך להרחיב עבורך על זה!
    על מנת שתנוח דעתי שאדע שלא ינבע שום דבר בלתי ראוי במעשה בפועל מן הדעה שהבעתי מבלי לחקור את כל ההיבטים של הנושא הנידון, הייתי מעריך זאת אם אקבל ממך אישור על קבלת מכתב זה, אם באמצעות הטלפון או בכתב…
    אולם, בעניין של שמחת-תורה והקפות, בשום מקום לא היה שום תקדים להשתתפותן בפועל של נשים, אף-על-פי שדווקא בקשר לשמחת-תורה נעשו הקלות מסוימות, כפי שמובא באחרונים לסימן תרס”ט. אבל עתה אני מבין שהסיבה לכך פשוטה, והיא, זו שצוטטה למעלה, אלא שמאחר שהיא לא מובאת בקשר להלכות שמחת-תורה, עלולים בקלות לא לשים לב אליה. זהו מצב שבו ניתן באמת ליישם את אמירת חז”ל: “כשם שמקבלים שכר על הדרישה, כן מקבלים שכר על הפרישה”.
    למותר לומר שאין לי שום התנגדות לכך שתצטט אותי בקשר למכתב זה, כלומר, שזוהי חרטה על העמדה הקודמת, משום שהדבר העיקרי הוא שהמנהג בפועל יהיה בהתאמה מדוייקת אל ההלכה.

    • I find it interesting that the Lubavitcher Rebbe is explicitly retracting an earlier psak, evidently because he wants to conform to the Halacha.אין לי שום התנגדות לכך שתצטט אותי בקשר למכתב זה, כלומר, שזוהי חרטה על העמדה הקודמת, משום שהדבר העיקרי הוא שהמנהג בפועל יהיה בהתאמה מדוייקת אל ההלכה.

  10. “His book is more radical than many might expect. This is not the same Rabbi Riskin you may remember from the 60’s and 70’s.”

    I am not sure that he has changed that much-in the very early 70s I was visiting the UWS and heard R Riskin speak Shabbos morning advocating women Rabbis. I spoke to him later about the question and asked how could a women do certain things which require a man-he responded with a whole laundry list of things that a women could do and stated why not give them the title Rabbi. This is decades before Maharat etc.
    Certainly parading a sefer Torah through the womens section on the way from the aron to the Bimah is not traditional.
    Just a couple of examples of R Riskin from the 60s and 70s.

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