March 26, 1998
Los Angeles 5758Making the Tough Sell
Israel's Rabbi Shlomo Riskin advocatesa Judaism that emphasizes tradition, mutual respect anddialogue
There was noquestion: Of the three rabbis sitting up on the dais at UCLA Hillel,Rabbi Shlomo Riskin had the toughest sell. After all, audiences whocome to hear panels on pluralism usually bristle at Orthodoxy'sseeming exclusivity.
But, true to self, Riskin didn't let theanticipation of a hostile reaction stop him. After his colleaguesfinished their presentations, Riskin took the mike out of its holder,stood up and positioned himself to win the audience over with apassion that animated each of his stories, jokes, and subtle yetpowerful points.
But, as those familiar with his accomplishmentsknow, Riskin is used to the tough sell -- and used to winning. He isa master builder, and, usually, before anyone can blink at hissometimes controversial notions, he has created yet anotherinstitution in which his philosophy can become a living, breathingJudaism.
On a recent trip to Los Angeles from Efrat, theWest Bank city just outside of Jerusalem that he helped found and nowleads, Riskin sat down to talk about his latest ideas, squeezing aquick interview into a packed schedule of speaking engagements andprivate fund-raising meetings.
At the top of his list is the first women's hesderyeshiva -- a joint program of army duty and Torah study, parallel tomen's programs. Fifty women have already signed on, demonstrating tothe "Israeli public at large that Torah-committed people are ready toaccept every challenge that the State of Israel has to offer," saysRiskin, 57.
The hesder program at the new $8 million campus inthe Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem is one of several cutting-edgeprograms of Ohr Torah Stone, Riskin's 2,000-student educationalempire that includes a women's division with an accrediteduniversity, a program for foreign students and advanced Torahscholarship, plus a men's division with yeshivot and rabbinicprograms.
Over the past seven years, Midreshet Lindenbaum,the women's division, has trained more than 50 women to be advocatesin rabbinic courts, a presence aimed at alleviating some of theantagonism women often face in a court, or beit din, where alldivorces in Israel are adjudicated.
The advocates are especially useful for cases ofagunah, where a husband denies his wife a Jewish divorce contract oruses it as a tool of extortion.
Riskin, an engaging speaker and convincingspokesman, has also developed a legal center and hot line, staffed bythe advocates, and has helped in establishing a beit din to dealexclusively with agunah cases.
Riskin says the advocates are a good example ofhow a quiet revolution is changing the halachic community. When theprogram began, rabbinic support seemed a long way off.
"But the rabbis made a complete turnabout," saysRiskin, his round face breaking into a smile. "Chief Rabbi Lau cameto our graduation last June. We have close to 50 graduates who areaccepted by every religious court in the country."
Riskin is hoping that the same gradual acceptancewill come to the poskot, or female halachic authorities, he is nowtraining at Midreshet Lindenbaum.
The women will issue halachic responses aboutShabbat, kashrut and, most importantly, issues of family ritualpurity.
"In the interest of modesty, having women beingthe first one to make the decision on intimate women questions is, Ithink, a most important advance," says Riskin, who is married and hasfour children.
While many see his policies, especially on women,putting him on the leftmost wing of Orthodoxy, Riskin says he feelsunique but not unrepresentative.
"I think the Judaism I am talking about -- whichis uncompromising halachic Judaism, but within halacha gives a greatdeal of room for women to express themselves religiously, for dignityof human rights -- my sense is that this is very much indemand."
He points out that his past innovations are nowmainstream, such as teaching women advanced Talmud, which hepioneered in the late 1960s at Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York(which he founded and led for more than 20 years).
Still, he often hears, "If only more Orthodoxrabbis were like you." Following his plea for dialogue and mutualrespect, that is what he heard from University of Judaism ProvostRabbi Elliot Dorff, who accompanied Riskin and Rabbi Richard Levy,president of the Reform movement's Central Conference of AmericanRabbis, on the UCLA Hillel panel, which discussed pluralism andIsrael's conversion.
The rabbis offered different interpretations ofhow far Israel had come in accepting the recommendations of theNeeman Commission, which proposed establishing learning centers whererabbis from all the major denominations would teach potentialconverts, but where Orthodox rabbis would perform the actualritual.
While Levy and Dorff both seemed pessimistic,since the chief rabbinate had not endorsed the institution, Riskinfinds significance in the fact that the rabbinate did not dismiss theinstitution and has even said it would accept the converts.
Riskin says the idea is "brilliant" because itshows the movements can learn and teach together while stillmaintaining one standard of who is a Jew.
"We can disagree about certain details about theShabbat and festivals and rituals, you can be Orthodox, Conservative,Reform, Reconstructionist or secular, but my child can still marryyours."
That is no small detail, Riskin told the raptaudience in a deliberately hushed tone. "That expresses the fact thatwhat unites us is far more significant than that which dividesus."