Agenda and Spin – these words most aptly describe much of the op-ed media’s efforts regarding the matter of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.
Since my recent essay on the issue was attacked in The Jerusalem Post by Isi Leibler, who cast the discussion in terms of Charedi versus Modern Orthodox, corruption versus integrity, and fairness versus prejudice, in an op-ed loaded with negative and charged hyperbole, I would like to respond with some more objective facts, rather than the innuendo and disparagement that has come from those who evade the issues and instead sling mud when they do not like the data that is presented. As will be seen, Mr. Leibler’s assertions and insights here are quite off-target, and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate is conducting itself understandably and reasonably given the circumstances.
Mr. Leibler mounts his journalistic assault on the Chief Rabbinate and those who respect the Chief Rabbinate’s right to deliberate about whether or not to extend Rabbi Riskin’s tenure as Chief Rabbi of Efrat by alleging comprehensive corruption of the Chief Rabbinate and painting it as the embodiment of ultra-Orthodoxy, while depicting Rabbi Riskin as representative of the Modern Orthodox, moderate and sensible position. Aside from the fact that Mr. Leibler fails to demonstrate his allegations of corruption of the Chief Rabbinate as an institution (he notes one previous Chief Rabbi who was dismissed and convicted, and nothing further of substance), the truth is that the discomfort which the Chief Rabbinate likely harbors regarding Rabbi Riskin’s extended tenure is shared by the mainstream Modern Orthodox rabbinate as well. Let’s look at a few examples, in addition to those already presented in my previous essay. (The examples there, such as the rabbinic ordination of women, praising Jesus as “a great Orthodox rabbi”, extolling Christian teachings about salvation, and women leading public prayer for men, are frowned upon by most Orthodox rabbis and laypeople across the spectrum, be they “ultra-Orthodox” or Modern Orthodox.)
Rabbi Riskin has sought to apply a more lenient set of conversion standards – standards that do not require a prospective convert to fully accept to observe all of the Commandments. This approach is not consistent with halachic consensus. Mainstream conversion standards, as required by preeminent sages such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and the vast majority of contemporary halachic authorities across the spectrum (including Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist rabbinic scholars), indeed require a prospective convert to fully accept to observe all of the Commandments. This is the standard of the Chief Rabbinate, of the Rabbinical Council of America, of virtually all rabbinic courts in the world, and it is the standard that I was taught at Yeshiva University by Rabbi Soloveitchik’s closest disciples and in his name.
Rabbi Riskin has established a broad Jewish-Christian interfaith program, the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC), at his Ohr Torah Stone institution, engaging in the type of interfaith religious study and discourse that rabbinic sages from across the spectrum have censured. (Please see here for halachic rulings on such interfaith activity.) On the CJCUC home page, Rabbi Riskin writes:
But sometime in the second century CE – perhaps because in our pride we forgot that it was the Torah’s superiority, and not our own, which had brought us such success – we became unable, or unworthy, of sustaining the momentum.
We stopped “hearing” God’s voice, were forced to leave history, and virtually forgot the mission of the third covenant.
Remarkably, the Christians in many ways continued where we left off. Maimonides, in the unexpurgated versions of the Mishneh Torah, records: “God’s ways are too wondrous to comprehend. All those matters relating to Jesus of Nazareth and the Ishmaelite who came after him are only serving to clear the way for King Messiah, to prepare the whole world ‘…to worship God with one accord’ (Zephaniah 3:9). Thus the messianic hope, the Torah and the commandments have become familiar topics… among the inhabitants of the far-flung islands at the ends of the globe…”
…Now that we as a people and a nation have returned to history, and the Christian world is beginning to recognize the continuing legitimacy of its elder brother’s covenant, grafting itself onto us as a branch is grafted to the roots, we must each complete our return to God, join hands and bring a religion of love, morality, pluralism and peace to a desperate, thirsting world.
Aside from taking the words of Maimonides totally out of context so as to change their intent (readers are advised to see the original and judge for themselves), Rabbi Riskin shockingly affirms a form of Replacement Theology, and he further maintains that Christianity has grafted itself onto Judaism to form a new universal joint religion. This notion has been rejected by Orthodox (and non-Orthodox) rabbis across the spectrum and has nothing to do with Charedi versus Modern Orthodox views, or with an allegedly corrupt Chief Rabbinate. (CJCUC has received funding in part by two Christian ministries, Zion’s Gate International and John Hagee Ministries. This is a very important point.)
The issue of the Chief Rabbinate and Rabbi Riskin has nothing to do with Charedi versus Modern Orthodox approaches. It has to do with the propriety of a rabbi’s maverick positions, while the rabbi is a paid representative of a rabbinate whose positions he does not represent in numerous ways. Orthodox rabbis across the spectrum are quite uncomfortable with many of Rabbi Riskin’s approaches, and in fact, his own rabbinic colleagues from Yeshiva University and Religious Zionist circles are among his most outspoken critics.
Let’s please stick with the facts and discuss this issue on its merits.