Efrat’s Rabbi Riskin pushes back as rabbinate mulls sacking him

Prominent US-born spiritual leader tells officials to ‘climb down from their tree’ amid disagreements over conversions

Efrat Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (courtesy office of Rabbi Riskin)
Efrat Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (courtesy office of Rabbi Riskin)

Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin chided the Chief Rabbinate Tuesday, accusing the state body of pandering to ultra-Orthodox streams of Judaism amid reports that rabbinic officials will mull terminating his office.

Riskin’s tenure came up for review as he turned 75 this week — the age at which a city rabbi’s term officially ends, although five-year extensions are regularly granted. However, a majority of the rabbis on the Chief Rabbinate panel said Monday that they opposed extending Riskin’s term, apparently on account of his relatively liberal views on issues such as conversion, which run counter to the official policies of the rabbinate.

The rabbis also took issue with Riskin’s participation in a joint prayer session in Jerusalem with Christian Evangelists on Israel’s Independence Day earlier in May, the news site Kikar Hashabbat reported.

The rabbinate was set to terminate Riskin’s tenure already on Monday, but ultimately agreed to allow him to come before the panel for a hearing before a decision is made in his case. The deferral was due to the insistence of Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Aryeh Stern, Israel National News reported.

“I do not want to believe that because of such a pronounced halachic [Jewish law] matter as that of conversion, which is a very important issue today in Israel, they want to terminate my service at the rabbinate,” Riskin told Galey Israel radio.

“I support… the rabbinate — I think it is important, but it has to be a chief rabbinate that speaks to all of Israel… and is prepared to accept halachic perspectives that may not exactly align with Haredi views,” he said.

“I hope they climb down from their tree. I really do not understand them,” he said.

According to Israeli law, municipal rabbis who assumed their positions between 1974 and 2007 must retire at 75. However, the Chief Rabbinical Council can vote to extend a rabbi’s term until his 80th birthday.

Given the rarity of forcing out an acting community rabbi for holding opinions in disagreement with the Chief Rabbinate, supporters of Riskin signaled they would pursue the case in the Supreme Court if the rabbinate decides to terminate his contract.

The rabbinical group Tzohar, which seeks to provide a liberal alternative to the rabbinate in the Orthodox community, denounced the impending decision on Riskin’s fate, calling it an ad hominem “revenge” campaign.

“Above any effort to depose Rabbi Riskin flies a clear red flag of revenge directed against his positions and halachic decisions,” the group said in a statement. “Instead of exalting his accomplishments, figures in the rabbinate are choosing to force the rabbi into early retirement because of their political considerations.”

Riskin is an outspoken proponent of legislation that would empower municipal rabbis to form ad hoc conversion courts, a move that is opposed by the country’s two chief rabbis. He has also worked to elevate the status of women within the Orthodox rabbinical establishment, drawing frequent criticism from more conservative rabbis.

Riskin co-founded Efrat in 1982 after moving to Israel from New York City, where he garnered acclaim as the rabbi of the Lincoln Square Synagogue. He has been the official rabbi of the city ever since. He is also the founder of Ohr Torah Stone, a network of yeshivas, headquartered in the city.

“I respect the Chief Rabbinate,” Riskin told Galey Yisrael. “I think the Chief Rabbinate should be a rabbinate that also accepts [other] opinions … pluralism in Jewish law — given of course this is within the halachic consensus. I have not done anything outside that halachic consensus to open up the gates of conversion. But I guess we’ll have to wait and see.”

Gedalyah Reback contributed to this report.

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