The Manufactured Controversy Between the Chief Rabbinate and Rabbi Riskin

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Another summer in Israel, another war. This war is playing out in the pages of the Jewish media, and this time we’re our own worst enemy. Intramural fighting between passionate commentators and rabbis has a place in our culture. In the Talmud it is called the milchamta shel Torah. But sometimes, zealots for our cause can creates a war that should have been settled patiently by cooler heads.

We are being told there is a battle between the Chief Rabbinate and Rabbi Riskin. I am not so convinced, but some things are abundantly clear. Supporters of the Chief Rabbinate and their brand of more conservative Orthodox Judaism are concerned about more liberal Orthodoxy. Supporters of more liberal Orthodoxy are uncomfortable with the de facto institutionalized rabbinic authority given to the Rabbinate. These are legitimate differences of philosophy that are not particularly new, nor very likely to be solved by the current controversy.

If we scratch beneath the surface, something disturbing emerges. It seems that the entire controversy has been manufactured by supporters of both sides with little concern for fact checking or measured reaction.

Haaretz reports: “On Monday, the Chief Rabbinate Council, headed by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, refused to extend Riskin’s tenure in the post and demanded that he present himself at the council’s next meeting to discuss the issue. […]

“According to the Chief Rabbinate, the problem is strictly technical: Whereas younger rabbis’ appointments are usually renewed automatically, Riskin is over 75, and all rabbis over 75 are required to submit a written request for reappointment and then appear before the council. Riskin neither submitted a written request nor attended Monday’s council meeting, and therefore, his appointment couldn’t be renewed, it said.”

The second paragraph explains the first paragraph. The Chief Rabbinate is following its own protocols and thus they did not “refuse” to extend Rabbi Riskin’s tenure, nor did they “demand” he present himself for a meeting. This is what they are supposed to do under the circumstances.7526-toysoldiers-06

Still, the request was seen as an admonishment and personal attack on Rabbi Riskin. After all, Rabbi Riskin holds many opinions that are far more liberal than the Rabbinate, so everyone just assumes this is a religiously motivated political attack.

The line in the sand was drawn and shots were fired from both sides of this controversy. Some lined up behind Rabbi Riskin to defend him against “inappropriate” treatment. Others defended the decision of Chief Rabbinate by pointing out how far Rabbi Riskin has veered from the traditional positions of Orthodox Judaism.

All of this based on virtually nothing! Put your weapons down everyone. There’s nothing to see here, yet.

It wasn’t until Rabbi Seth Farber from ITIM researched the issue that we got any evidence based data. Rabbi Farber’s research discovered that rabbis are generally rubber stamped even if they are older than 75. Citing public record, Rabbi Farber argues that this is the first time the Rabbinate has made such a request. Thus, the assumption that the Rabbinate was snubbing Rabbi Riskin for ideological reasons was correct.

Fight on!

The Chief Rabbinate responded that all the previous cases were before the tenure of the new chief rabbis, and the new policy is to hold hearings for renewal of older rabbis. Further, the Chief Rabbinate claims that they also gave notice to the chief rabbi of Jerusalem that fitness hearings would be standard operating procedure in the new regime.

Oh, maybe not.

I have a general rule. When presented with a choice about how to explain something that bothers us, and one of the choices is a legitimate justification for the behavior and the other is assigns negative motivations and harmful intent to the behavior, choose the one that sees the act favorably. In other words, we can choose to be hurt by ambiguous behavior or we can choose to rationalize ambiguous behavior. Unless the only reasonable option is that the behavior was done to harm us, we have to choose the benevolent option. That doesn’t excuse ambiguous behavior that hurts us, but it does soften the sting of hateful intentions.

In this story, the Chief Rabbinate’s behavior is plausible and well within reasonable norms. Rabbis in their employ should be of fit mind and health. That’s a good policy. It’s true that creatively connecting the dots, reinterpreting their actions, adding unspoken motivations, and calling them liars will build a story that is insulting and unsettling, but that requires a lot of subjective interpretation and some conspiracy theory. On the other hand, if the hearing is pro-forma and Rabbi Riskin is being treated the same way the Chief Rabbinate will treat everyone else, the story is not disturbing at all. If they want to get rid of Rabbi Riskin, why do it in a profoundly offensive translucent manner? If this is their play to remove Rabbi Riskin, it’s pretty stupid. Since when is the Chief Rabbinate afraid to “own” offensive positions?

Our loud reaction to this story, by supporters on both sides, tells us more about ourselves than about the Chief Rabbinate and Rabbi Riskin. Too many people among the ranks of both sides are little bit too trigger happy. Perhaps it’s some form of religious warfare PTSD and the slightest noise sets us over the edge. It’s as if there are two armies, battle weapons drawn, just waiting for someone to fire, even if it’s inadvertent. We need to settle down. Rest our war machines. Talk to each other. Maybe share a Coke, or something. That always seems to work.

We will all have our answer in a month. The hearing is scheduled for the end of June, so all this hyperventilating seems a bit premature as well. However, even if the Chief Rabbinate discriminates against Rabbi Riskin and rules against him, that only determines whether Rabbi Riskin draws a government salary. That’s all. He can still be the rabbi. He can still be Orthodox. It sends a strong message of intolerance, but we already know the Chief Rabbinate and Rabbi Riskin are on opposite sides of a spectrum where tolerance is tenuous.

Personally, I strongly support Rabbi Riskin’s right to an opinion. I hate the idea that the Chief Rabbinate can effectively play the role of de facto Sanhedrin and establish universal standards of Orthodox Judaism. That is not acceptable to me. I am very hopeful that this will all have been wild speculation by soldiers of the Almighty suffering from PTSD and not the rare occasion where conspiracy theorists can say “just because I am paranoid, doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”

UPDATE: Rabbi Riskin Won’t Be Fired

A bunch of people asked me what I thought about the Rabbi Riskin controversy. Here’s what I think:Short answer: It’s not actually a controversy.Long answer: Click.

Posted by Eliyahu Fink on Monday, June 1, 2015

  • The loser will be the middle ground. Such controversies — natural or manufactured — tend to polarize the positions. I’m not comfortable with either side of this, and it’s likely that if things don’t just fizzle out withint the week, there will be fewer “religious homes” in Israel for people like me.

    • Indeed. That would be a net loss.

      • Not 100% What you write there is about the ease of fundamentalism. I am not saying that being open to the alternative necessarily makes
        you more likely to find the nuanced middle, and your earlier post
        appears to. My comment of an hour ago was about the ease of overemphasizing either side of the dialectic in favor of the other.

        How do I know I balance them more correctly? We all think we have the right balance, between the insane fanatics and the heretics. I’m not claiming anything different.

        But this dispute will pull Tzohar and the DL community as a whole toward the left, making a population gap for positions between that and the chardalim.

  • Benny Hutman

    “I have a general rule. When presented with a choice about how to explain something that bothers us, and one of the choices is a legitimate justification for the behavior and the other is assigns negative motivations and harmful intent to the behavior, choose the one that sees the act favorably.”

    Especially while in the process of עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב it is important to remember וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת

    • There is also Hanlon’s Razor, which isn’t quite as positive as dan lekaf zekhus, but still often true:
      Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

  • Javier

    Shalom Honorable Excellency’s ,
    after doing research and investigation about the possible location the Ark of the Covenant is hidden , I am sure for 100% that the location is Mount Sinai also the real location to rebuild the Jewish temple architecturally described and prophesied in the Book Of Ezekiel.

    Exodus Chapter 3 :12 And He said: ‘Certainly I will be with thee; and this shall be the token unto thee, that I have sent thee: when thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain.

    ‘ Ezekiel Chapter 20:40 For in My holy mountain, in the mountain of the height of Israel, saith the Lord GOD, there shall all the house of Israel, all of them, serve Me in the land; there will I accept them, and there will I require your heave-offerings, and the first of your gifts, with all your holy things.41 With your sweet savour will I accept you, when I bring you out from the peoples, and gather you out of the countries wherein ye have been scattered; and I will be sanctified in you in the sight of the nations.42 And ye shall know that I am the LORD, when I shall bring you into the land of Israel, into the country which I lifted up My hand to give unto your fathers.43 And there shall ye remember your ways, and all your doings, wherein ye have polluted yourselves; and ye shall loathe yourselves in your own sight for all your evils that ye have committed.44 And ye shall know that I am the LORD, when I have wrought with you for My name’s sake, not according to your evil ways, nor according to your corrupt doings, O ye house of Israel, saith the Lord GOD.’

    God of gods and Lord of lords mighty and awful Hashem The heaven is Thy throne , and the earth is Thy footstool Give us now faith,hope, love, wisdom and knowledge and make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah and put Your law in our inward parts, write it in our hearts forgive our iniquity, and our sin; and be our God LORD of hosts God of gods Lord of lords mighty and awful Hashem .

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