Aaron Kalman
Working for Israel and the Jewish People

Then they came for Riskin – and rabbis spoke out

A well known and often-quoted poem by Pastor Martin Niemöller described the horrors of the Holocaust as happening because no one spoke out until they were the victim, and by then it was too late.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

There are no grounds to compare those deeds or times to the actions of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. Yet, these words were the first that came to my mind when I saw the Modern Orthodox reactions to the Rabbinate’s decision to summon Rabbi Shlomo Riskin to a hearing before dismissal for no apparent reason other than his views.

Years of attacks against non-Orthodox denominations; the public shaming of Orthodox rabbis who support women participation in religious life; the hassle of thousands of converts; immoral treatment of Agunot who were waiting for divorces to be issued; or the horrific treatment of immigrants from the former Soviet union and Ethiopia – non of these brought hundreds of Modern Orthodox rabbis to the front row in the battle against the disgraceful Rabbinate.

Be sure – the lack of cries was not a lack of action. Numerous moderate rabbis, many of whom are my friends and teachers, tried to change the system from within. Less than two years ago Rav David Stav ran for position of Chief Rabbi, in what might have been the greatest and most invested attempt by Israel’s Modern-Orthodox establishment to challenge the ultra-Orthodox hegemony in the Rabbinate.

They tried to, in the words of Rav Stav, “reclaim the Rabbinate” as an “inclusive” one that was “welcoming” to all Jews within the state – within the boundaries of Orthodox Halacha (Jewish Law). This bid failed, and both elected Chief Rabbis were – once again – from the ultra-Orthodox world.

Shortly after, the Rabbinate started to actively target rabbis who represent change and liberal thinking within the Orthodox world. The controversy and public shaming of respected American Rabbi Avi Weiss over his “questionable commitment to Jewish law” is but one example. (It was solved only after then-Diasporra Affairs minister Naftali Bennet, and Jewish Agency head Nathan Sharansky forced the Rabbinate to u-turn.) Also then, only a few rabbis openly challenged the Rabbinate.

When news emerged this week that the Rabbinate was thinking of ending Rav Riskin’s tenure because of his liberal views, things started to change. The fact that Rav Riskin was being targeted for his rather main-stream opinions caused other rabbis to speak up. Loudly.

In fact, it looks as though this story has finally caused some of Israel’s more prominent rabbis to start speaking openly about the possibility of disengaging from (and openly fighting) the Rabbinate.

Rav Stav – who heads Tzohar with its thousands of rabbis – threatened to call upon diaspora Jews to stop backing the Rabbinate.

Rav Yuval Sherlo, one of the most dominant rabbis in Israel’s Modern-Orthodox discourse, made it clear: if Rav Riskin were to be removed, he said, he would not only quit his roles within the Rabbinate, but actively fight for its disbandment.

The unrestrained remarks weren’t coming only from fellow rabbis, but also from Modern Orthodox politicians and community leaders. Oded Ravivi, the mayor of Efrat – Rav Riskin’s home town and community – issued a statement “reminding” the Rabbinate that his municipality has an equal say in the matter as they do. And, as though this wasn’t a strong enough hint, Ravivi added that Riskin would retain his job, “Regardless of what the Chief Rabbinate of Israel says.”

It appears that Israel’s main-stream Modern Orthodoxy is the latest victim of the Rabbinate’s policies and approach. Will this turn of events cause the liberal, open-minded Modern Orthodox rabbis to step up their fight against the disgraceful Rabbinate?

About the Author
Aaron Kalman is a Program Officer at the Ruderman Family Foundation, working to strengthen the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community. Formerly an advisor to Israel's Minister of Diaspora Affairs and a Jewish Agency emissary to Sydney, Australia, Aaron has an M.A. in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and a B.Ed. from Herzog College.