Rabbi Riskin under fire

Rabbi Riskin under fire

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin is a well-respected and accomplished modern Orthodox rabbi. In the 1960s and ’70s he was among the leading voices in the Soviet Jewry movement and led the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a hub for the area’s young modern Orthodox population. He made aliya in 1983 and became the chief rabbi of Efrat, a large settlement outside Jerusalem that he helped found. His municipal chief rabbi position is a government job, under the jurisdiction of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.

Riskin has been an influence in a brand of Orthodox Judaism that, while conservative by outside standards, is progressive in the Orthodox world — particularly in the areas of women’s rights and conversion. He has taken positions on issues that are at odds with those of the Chief Rabbinate’s haredi leadership. And now, the Chief Rabbinate appears to be trying to silence him.

Riskin recently turned 75. Under a little-used rule, any extension of a municipal chief rabbi’s position beyond that age requires the Chief Rabbinate’s formal approval. Riskin has been summoned to a hearing on June 29 to discuss his reappointment.

The Chief Rabbinate has been the subject of much discussion in the Diaspora and in Israel over its control of personal-status issues for Israelis in such areas as marriage, divorce and conversion. It is also charged with the supervision of Israel’s holy sites. Over the last several years, it has been accused of intolerance toward pluralism, of de-legitimization of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism and of injecting politics into religion.

In a similar vein, critics accuse the Chief Rabbinate’s treatment of Riskin as driven by purely political concerns and part of a larger effort to address dissention in their own ranks as well as the growing influence of leftwing expressions of Judaism in Israeli society.

If there are legitimate reasons to question Riskin’s capacity to continue to serve in the municipal chief rabbi position he has held for more than three decades, those concerns should be fully considered. But if the invocation of the obscure rule of procedure is part of an effort by the Chief Rabbinate to silence debate over its controversial haredi-led policies, the effort to remove a lion of the modern Orthodox movement for something as petty as his age will likely be a major misstep.