Shlomo Riskin Is the Rabbi Israelis Want, but Politics Are Getting in the Way

The Rabbinate should set their political interests aside and let Israelis elect their own leaders.

One of my rabbis is under attack. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is being summoned by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau to “discuss” extending his tenure as chief rabbi of Efrat. This follows a decision made at a meeting of the Chief Rabbinate Council on Monday not to extend Riskin’s tenure, over what appears to be his positions on conversion and other issues that do not match those of the Rabbinate.

As the Chief Rabbinate calls into question Riskin’s “fitness” for his post, now is the time for us, the  citizens of Israel, to question the autocracy of the Chief Rabbinate in our democratic state – and its power to elect our rabbinical leaders. This, by no means, is a questioning of religious authority; it is a question of political power. That the Chief Rabbinate appears to be inappropriately exercising its authority to stamp out dissenting opinions on matters of legitimate debate is both frightening and petty, not worthy of rabbinic leadership.

The Rabbinate, for its part, claims its decision not to extend Riskin's tenure is simply a technicality; rabbis aged over 75 are required to submit a written request for reappointment and appear before the council, which, the Rabbinate says, Riskin has not done. Lest anyone think that 75 is an appropriate age to retire, I suggest they watch Riskin swim his morning laps in the pool or listen to his carefully constructed annual Shabbat Hagadol and Shabbat Tshuva lectures at Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue.

I worked for Rabbi Riskin from 2008 to 2011. I traveled with him as he visited communities across North America. I have been a guest in his home and he a guest in mine. When I reflect on all of my encounters with this great leader, it is two qualities that stand out beyond his outstanding intellect and scholarship: his passion and his compassion. His passion drives him to create, to build, and to do what is right. His compassion drives him to be there, to be present, at all times, for others. Indeed Riskin is often quoted referring to G-d’s definitional qualities of compassionate righteousness.

There are too many instances to count of Riskin getting off one plane just to board another to celebrate a joyous occasion, be there for a sick friend, or provide comfort to a congregant after a tragedy. His frequent flying has earned him the tongue-in-cheek nickname among his aficionados of “Avinu Sh’ba’shamayim,” our father, in heaven.

Support for Riskin has been widespread across Israel and North America. As Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, Modern Orthodox thinker and scholar, noted: "Rabbi Riskin has taught thousands of rabbis and educators, as well as tens of thousands of lay leaders in the Diaspora. Any disrespect shown him would also be an attack on the bonds of love and responsibility between Israel and Diaspora Jewry."

It is precicely this bond – between Israel and Diaspora Jewry – that the Chief Rabbinate has put under threat by threatening Riskin's position, and why Rabbi David Stav, head of the Tzohar organization of liberal Orthodox rabbis in Israel, was right to call on American Jews to boycott Israel's chief rabbis if they carry out their threat to oust him.

The attack on Riskin must not be viewed in a vacuum; it is part of a trend of coercion by the Chief Rabbinate – whether it be in protecting their monopoly on kosher certification in Israel, not accepting the conversion of a respected American Orthodox rabbi or in attempting to decertify more liberal Orthodox rabbis from performing marriage ceremonies in Israel – all in an effort to wield political power.

Riskin has declared that he will remain chief rabbi of Efrat, even against the Rabbinate's wishes, "for as long as the people of Efrat want me to be their rabbi." Indeed the Efrat city council unanimously affirmed that it would like Riskin to continue as its rabbi. Support for the rabbi must not stop there. The residents of Efrat must insist on having the right – as has long been a tradition of the Jewish people – to choose their own chief rabbi. And communities throughout Israel must echo that call. The system needs to change. It is not for the Rabbinate to choose who our leaders are.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations. The opinions expressed are personal and not representative of any organization with which he is associated.