My first encounter with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin took place many years ago, on his first visit to Australia. He had a dramatic impact on the entire Jewish community, and since then I have been an enthusiastic admirer and supporter.
Rabbi Riskin has just launched a new book, Listening to God; Inspirational Stories for my Grandchildren, which I recommend. Comprising far more than vignettes for grandchildren, it embodies the world outlook and faith of one of Modern Orthodoxy’s most articulate and effective spiritual leaders. It also touches on the profound contribution of this remarkable man to contemporary Judaism, the State of Israel and klal Yisrael.
Riskin was brought up in Brooklyn in a warm but nonobservant family. Through association with his religious grandparents he found his way to becoming observant.
While studying for his rabbinical ordination at Yeshiva University, he was privileged to become one of the favorite students of the renowned Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik – a charismatic Orthodox giant of the 20th century who clearly had a formidable impact on his world outlook. He subsequently completed a PhD at New York University.
His wife Vicky, also from a nonobservant family, proved to be an ideal partner and tower of strength in all his endeavors.
Presumably, the firsthand experiences the Riskins underwent in the course of their evolution toward observance laid the foundations for their subsequent outreach initiatives.
HIS FIRST triumph, which catapulted him into the public limelight, was his extraordinary achievement at the Lincoln Square Synagogue. In 1964, at 23 and with the approval of Soloveitchik, Riskin became rabbi of what was then a Conservative synagogue without a mehitza.
But within a year he had transformed it into one of the most dynamic, fully Orthodox centers in the world, attracting an overflow audience every Shabbat.
Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, it was even recognized as one of the most popular meeting grounds for New York Jewish singles. His success in Lincoln Square, and the outreach and popular adult education programs he and his wife established became synonymous with the triumphant revival of Orthodoxy in the US.
Riskin’s impact on religious life was like a bolt of electricity. Yet his openness, sophistication and extraordinarily tolerant response to all, including those alienated from Judaism, made him the wunderkind of American Jewry. The media dubbed him “Stevie Wonder.”
He also encouraged his congregants to follow his example and engage in many laudable activities benefiting klal Yisrael, such as the movement to liberate Soviet Jews, which had not yet become the cause célèbre for American Jews.
And then in 1983 at the very peak of his career, and still a young man, he stunned the Jewish world when he made aliya and persuaded scores of families from his community to join him. He settled in Efrat, where he continues to serve as chief rabbi.
One cannot visualize a better role model for religious Zionism than a rabbi who not only forfeits a prestigious and lucrative position, but even succeeds in persuading congregants to follow him to Israel.
And of course that was only the beginning.
IN ISRAEL, appreciating the crucial need for a balanced religious education to ensure Jewish continuity, and despite his already overburdened pastoral, educational and public activities, he invested enormous personal energy in fund-raising, travelling continuously to the US and other Jewish communities. With the charisma that no other fund-raiser could emulate, he persuaded generous Diaspora Jews to contribute the funds to establish a network of religious educational institutions – schools, colleges, graduate programs, seminaries and rabbinical schools – which today caters to thousands of pupils. He also pioneered top-quality religious education for girls from high school through midrasha.
His projects have had a major impact on the spiritual life of Israelis, and created new generations of rabbis and laymen capable of resisting the extremist trends emerging from sectors of Orthodoxy.
Most rabbis here have no university education, and many have not even graduated from high school. Riskin promotes Torah im derech eretz and a combination of modern worldly knowledge with religious values, encouraging his rabbinical students to obtain university degrees. He prides himself in seeking to follow the golden path of moderation exemplified by Maimonides. And besides that, his halachic approach is steeped in compassion, as evidenced in his attitude and innovationvenessin dealing with the status of women, marriage, divorce, conversions and, above all, the championing of agunot.
It is therefore not surprising that he is continuously assailed, and his religious bona fides challenged, by the zealous extremists on the far Right of the rabbinical establishment, who rejoice in devising ever-greater halachic stringencies and seeking to impose their lifestyle on the entire community. To his credit, he meets their outrageously offensive insults with dignity and restraint.
Riskin represents a moderate religious Zionist voice in the Israeli political discourse where, despite occasional naiveté, his courageous stance frequently contributes to bridge building and overcoming polarization between Jewish and non- Jewish communities.
Riskin’s book covers many of these areas. It also recounts many of the religious and political controversies in which he was engaged, and does so with sensitivity and occasionally even humor. We read of his fascinating experiences and encounters, ranging from childhood memories, his years as a student and teacher at Yeshiva University, his pulpit at Lincoln Square Synagogue, the battle for Soviet Jewry, his aliya, his arrest while leading an anti-Oslo demonstration, encounters with prominent Israelis, Arabs and interfaith activity.
Riskin recently celebrated his 70th birthday. Long may he continue to present the voice of religious moderation and authentic religious Zionism.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post