I do not know my third cousin, Ruby Rivlin, very well. We corresponded 14 years ago when the “Who is a Jew” issue came before the Knesset. He was an advocate for a change in the law that, had it passed, would have defined for purposes of aliyah under the Law of Return that a Jew is someone born of a Jewish mother or who converts “k’fi ha-halacha” (according to traditional Jewish law as interpreted by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate) which would exclude conversions conducted by many American Orthodox rabbis, and all Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal Rabbis.
Ruby’s response to me was warm and familial, but direct. As an elected member of the Knesset he was obligated to preserve the integrity of the Jewish people. He believed that this law would accomplish that goal.
The bill did not pass due to the international outrage expressed by Diaspora Jewish leadership.
I knew Ruby’s beloved mother, Rae Rivlin, better than I knew Ruby. I spent a number of Shabbatot in her Rehavia Jerusalem home when I was a first-year rabbinic student at the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem in 1973 to 1974. She was an extraordinary woman, deemed the grand hostess of Jerusalem in “O Jerusalem.” Family and guests were there every Shabbat for dinner, and I was included. Ruby was a regular. I learned that between 5 PM and 6 PM daily never to visit or call because Rae was watching Peyton Place, a huge American TV soap opera.
I never met Ruby’s father, the late and beloved Professor of Islamic Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Dr. Yosef Rivlin, who died in 1968 just after the Six- Days War. Yosef translated the Koran and the Arabic classic A Thousand and One Nights into Hebrew. The latter is a series of volumes of which I am a proud owner of a signed first-edition printing.
Ruby’s family came to Israel in the early 19th century. His father’s namesake – also Yosef Rivlin (a street in downtown Jerusalem near Hillel Street is named for him) was the first Jew to move out of the Old City of Jerusalem and establish the neighborhood of Mea Shearim, now a hareidi stronghold, only steps from the Old City walls. The elder Yosef was a brave man, as Mark Twain described the land in those years being plagued by bandits and marauders. He moved out of the Old City because there was a dearth of habitable apartment space available for increasing numbers of Jews making aliyah before the modern Zionist movement really took hold.
At the time that I knew Ruby, he was a young politician close to the leader of Herut, Menachem Begin, before Likud came to power in 1977. Ruby was (and still is) broad shouldered, bullish, but kind. Indeed, people love him personally. He is part of Likud’s old guard, a hard-liner when it comes to the unity of Jerusalem and the two-state solution. He was among those who supported Gush Emunim after the 1967 War that came to be known as Yisrael Shleima (i.e. the Greater Israel movement).
Ruby does not believe in a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian Conflict. He also believes that Reform Judaism is tantamount to idolatry. I expect that he will modify his public denunciation of the American and Israeli Reform movements now that he is President of the State, but I doubt that he will modify his beliefs that there can be a Palestinian state alongside Israel and west of the Jordan River and in Gaza.
When Ari Shavit spoke in Los Angeles last week, in a small conversation with a few of my colleagues and me, he worried (and he repeated this in a subsequent Haaretz column) that a President Rivlin will go far beyond the traditional non-political role that Presidents of the State traditionally have taken, and that specifically he will be an adversary to an eventual two-state solution to the conflict.
That being said, within the context of Israel, Ruby believes in equal civil rights for Israeli Arabs. For that reason, so many in the Arab-Israeli community also love him personally.
Ruby has a big heart and he has served the state of Israel with love, integrity and honesty his entire life.
Yet, his views on both the 2-state solution and religious pluralism run counter to the vast majority of Israelis and Diaspora Jewry. As President, he must expand his thinking and represent all the Jewish people in the state, not the segmented extremist fringe, and by extension be inclusive of the Jewish people around the world who regard with love and loyalty the state of Israel as the homeland of all the Jewish people.
Though politically, I hold very different views from Ruby, I wish him mazal tov and prayers for long-life and distinguished service to the state and the Jewish people.