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.
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.
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
The Manufactured Controversy Between the Chief Rabbinate and Rabbi Riskin http://t.co/lPlcoKEeyA
— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) June 1, 2015