On Rabbi Riskin and Leadership – Who is the Rabbinate Supposed to Serve?

This Sunday, Lincoln Square Synagogue will host a gathering to celebrate the legacy of the late Yaakov Birnbaum, the founder of the Soviet Jewry Movement.  We will be welcoming Nathan Sharansky, a hero of our times, an inspiration, a person who can, without question  be called as the organizers of the event have called it ‘A man who changed the world”.

We are also welcoming another guest. Our founding rabbi, my teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.

And without a shadow of a doubt Rabbi Riskin is also a man who changed the world.

He changed the religious face of American Jewry, turned Modern Orthodoxy then an abstract, almost elitist movement by creating this Shul and everything it stands for. He has revolutionized the Jewish world by showing more and more possibilities, expanded horizons for Orthodox Judaism in ways too many to count, here and more importantly in Israel.

And it is that Rabbi Riskin – our Rabbi Riskin – who now finds himself, in the in the most undignified, belittling way wondering if the Chief Rabbinate of Israel will find him good enough to serve as a Chief rabbi of Efrat – the community which he has served since day one, a community in which he is beloved.

Friends to understand our times, the aching limits or the grand possibilities of different models of rabbinic leadership, lets look at our parsha.

Moshe is exhausted – the complaints, the demands of the people are suddenly too much for him

לֹא-אוּכַל אָנֹכִי לְבַדִּי, לָשֵׂאת אֶת-כָּל-הָעָם הַזֶּה:  כִּי כָבֵד, מִמֶּנִּי.

“I am not able to carry this people alone, they are too heavy for me”

This is a serious crisis. And Hashem offers Moshe a solution. And the solution is – as it so often is in life – is Rabbis!

Hashem tells Moshe to gather 70 men of good reputation, and He will endow them with a Divine Spirit.  Why 70? Because there are 70 faces to Torah, 70 languages, 70 nations. Many, many different ways of learning and understanding the Torah. Nachmanides explains that the number 70 includes ‘all opinions, all potentials.’

The number 70 represents a profusion of possibilities!  This new body , the Sanhedrin, the first Rabbinate, will be strong – strong enough to cope with the many many demands of the people, because not only is it large, it will be diverse – 70 different minds, 70 opinions, 70 approaches – literally, something for everyone, a path for everyone to relate to in their own spiritual lives.

And Moshe does what Hashem asks. He gathers 70 men and they become prophets.

And then we are told  that two men – Eldad and Meidad, not apparently part of the original group, have also had the Divine Spirit rest on them, and they have become Prophets too.

And Yehoshua says to Moshe – we can’t have this

אֲדֹנִי מֹשֶׁה, כְּלָאֵם.

Stop them.

Because we cannot allow non authorized prophets.

And Moshe replied, in what must be one of the most stirring verses of the Bible

הַמְקַנֵּא אַתָּה לִי; וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל-עַם יְהוָה, נְבִיאִים–כִּי-יִתֵּן יְהוָה אֶת-רוּחוֹ, עֲלֵיהֶם

You are  jealous for me? Let all the people be prophets, if only Hashem’s ruach would be on everyone!

And here we see the depth – even in his exhaustion – of Moshe’s understanding of G-ds vision for all of us.

Joshua thought that in choosing 70 leaders, his plan was to create a Rabbinate – to endow 70 people into office, to make Moshe;s life easier.

But Moshe understood that the Rabbinate was not an end it itself. Was not there so that 70 people could call themselves “Rabbi”.

It was there to inspire the whole people.

Let everyone have the Ruach Hashem. The Rabbinate is not there to serve itself. Its there to inspire the people.

And if that is the apparent meaning of our parsha, it is certainly the intention behind the creation of the Rabbinate we are discussing  today.

The Israeli Chief Rabbinate was founded by none other than Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook

And in a letter he wrote, he described the vision behind the new institution that he was building.

If we as a people are to rebuild our land, are to revive our nation, and to leave the confines of exile and live and breathe again as a free people, we need a Rabbinate that is capable of spiritually rejuvenating the jewish people.

And Rav Kook laid down plans for a Rabbinate, a Chief Rabbinate, that would belong to, not one party, one section of Israel, but the entire nation.

Whose raison d’etre was to inspire, to bring about “emunat ruach vahavat emet” – a spirit of faith and love of truth, that would be incorruptible.

That would never ever cease trying to draw near to the hearts of the people – religious or secular, and bring a “ruach shel shalom”, a spirit of peace to the entire nation, – through demonstrating , making possible – “Rigshut Hakodesh” – inspiring feelings of sanctity amongst the whole nation.

That is what the Chief Rabbinate of Israel was supposed to be. Lovers of truth, peace, incorruptible and inspiring.

I have to say, sadly that’s not completely true of the Chief Rabbinate of today. Today the Rabbinate is too often about politics. It is in the hands of political parties and factions. I hope that it is only a coincidence that the two Chief Rabbis today are both the sons of previous incumbents. Because Rav Kook wrote that the Chief Rabbinate is to be nobody’s property to pass down father to son.

Friends, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel contains many fine individuals, many hard working faithful rabbis. But it is an organization far, far from the ideal that Rav Kook tried to create. It is political, divisive. It is distant, irrelevant to the nation, it neither inspires nor speaks to the vast majority of Israelis. It unfortunately represents, not the 70 faces of Torah – different approaches, many alternatives within Halacha – instead it represents increasingly, just one approach more and more hard line increasingly out of touch.

One former Chief Rabbi is awaiting trial for gross corruption, on a charge of having  “allegedly received, over the years, illegal sums worth millions of shekels in exchange for performing activities and making decisions in various areas related to his role as Chief rabbi – donations, conversions, rabbinic appointments, corrupt ties to tycoons and more.”

I hope he is innocent.

But after scandal after scandal, and there have been so many – what is the Chief Rabbinate trying to do? Are they holding urgent conferences, soul searchingly  trying to answer the question “how could this ever have happened?” Are they consulting with the leaders and the people of secular Israel , working  together to create a more spiritual Israel?

Sadly they are not.

Instead, they are going after Rabbi Riskin. The rule in Israel is that a rabbi is officially retired at 75, unless an extension is given. An extension is always given, it’s a formality.

But the Rabbinate have decided that for Rabbi Riskin there will be no exceptions. He will be forced out. Because his views – on modernity, modern orthodoxy, conversion, for new models of leadership for women in judaism – all of this does not fit with the narrow, ideological, irrelevant Chief Rabbinate of today.

Instead of going in pilgrimage to Rabbi Riskin and saying to him – “Rav Riskin in your twenties and thirties you revived orthodox Judaism in America. For the last thirty years you have been building institutions that are making Torah and Halacha speak to the masses, relevant and possible like never before – please teach us, share with us – give us some of your ruach.”

Instead they are saying, like Joshua, Adoni Moshe, kilayem – stop him – before he can inspire more people.

And that cannot be, you do not have to agree with every one of Rabbi Riskin’s positions, to agree that in seeking his dismissal the Rabbinate has moved not closer, but much much further from the people and its mission.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said  “A Rabbinate which doesn’t have room for Rabbi Riskin doesn’t have room for creativity”.

Last year we were privileged to welcome the current Chief Rabbi, David Lau to our Shul. And over lunch at our house, to over 30 teenagers who were present, I proudly told them – “There is only one Jewish Country in the world, and this is it’s Chief Rabbi – this is a real honor for all of us to meet him.”

I want, desperately, always to be able to say, always to be proud of the Chief Rabbinate.

And so friends when Rabbi Riskin comes here tomorrow, we will greet him, like we will Natan Sharansky and the memory of Yaakov Birnbaum as being among the heroic jews of our age, who have brought the ruach, the Divine Spirit back to our people, and we will campaign without rest not just for his reinstatement, but for a better, holier, purer Chief Rabbinate in Israel.

About the Author
Born in Glasgow, Scotland. Holds a BA in Economics and an MBA. Former Rabbi of Cambridge University and Barnet Synagogue in London. Appointed Senior Rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan in 2005.