Dispute With Israel's Rabbinate May Lead to Efrat Rabbi Shlomo Riskin's Ouster

Officially, the Rabbinate says the problem is technical, but it's known that American-born Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, holds liberal attitudes on conversion and women's rights that have irked the ruling rabbinical body.

A dispute between the Chief Rabbinate and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin could lead to the latter’s ouster as chief rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Efrat.

On Monday, the Chief Rabbinate Council, headed by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, refused to extend Riskin’s tenure in the post and demanded that he present himself at the council’s next meeting to discuss the issue. The American-born Riskin has been Efrat’s chief rabbi since the settlement was founded.

According to the Chief Rabbinate, the problem is strictly technical: Whereas younger rabbis’ appointments are usually renewed automatically, Riskin is over 75, and all rabbis over 75 are required to submit a written request for reappointment and then appear before the council. Riskin neither submitted a written request nor attended Monday’s council meeting, and therefore, his appointment couldn’t be renewed, it said.

But Riskin’s liberal attitudes on both conversion and women’s issues have led to conflicts with the Chief Rabbinate before, and according to sources present at the meeting – which isn’t open to the press – some of those conflicts arose Monday.

For instance, council member Avraham Yosef, the chief rabbi of Holon and brother of Sephardi Chief Rabbi YitzhakYosef, told the meeting that Riskin’s reappointment should be conditioned on a hearing at which the council would have to be “persuaded” of his fitness for the post. In particular, Yosef said, Riskin should be questioned about his positions on conversion and other issues to see whether these matched the rabbinate’s positions.

A few months ago, Riskin appointed Jennie Rosenfeld as Efrat’s manhiga ruchanit, or spiritual adviser. This is the first time an Israeli Orthodox community has appointed a woman as a communal religious leader.

Riskin has also criticized the Chief Rabbinate and the rabbinical courts on various issues, including its policies on marriage, divorce and conversion. Just two weeks ago, for instance, he criticized a provision of the new coalition agreement with Shas – the party founded by Avraham Yosef’s late father, Ovadia Yosef – that transferred responsibility for the rabbinical courts from the Justice Ministry to the Religious Services Ministry.

“Among the veteran dayanim there aren’t enough with an approach that attaches sufficient importance to women’s distress, including that of women imprisoned in an unwanted marriage,” Riskin said, referring to rabbinical court judges. “When the time comes to appoint new dayanim, the main issue that the [appointments] committee should have in mind is women’s status as people with equal rights. Transferring the committee to appoint dayanim from the Justice Ministry to the Religious Services Ministry is liable to severely harm this important issue.”

Riskin also strongly supported a reform approved by the last government that would have let municipal rabbis set up their own conversion courts. That reform is slated to be revoked under the coalition agreements with Shas and United Torah Judaism.

The liberal Orthodox group Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah said the very fact that the council is considering ousting Riskin highlights the main flaw in the rabbinical appointment process. The choice of municipal rabbis, it said, “should be entrusted to the residents, not to national bodies chosen in a political, unrepresentative fashion.”

Riskin responded it was “undignified to discuss procedural issues in the pages of a newspaper when I myself haven’t received any formal notification. I assume the request for an extension entails purely procedural formalities. Now, I hear from the press that the Chief Rabbinate Council wants to summon me, and I, with great respect, will go to them to answer any questions. I’m now awaiting official information, and until then, I will refrain from commenting.”