Leftwing writer Judy Maltz on Wednesday offered a living illustration of the popular adage “give them a finger, and they’ll take the whole hand.” Reporting for Ha’aretz on Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, spiritual leader of Efrat in Gush Etzion (Rabbi Riskin’s Unwelcome Message to Fans of Jewish Pluralism), who this week told the Jewish Agency Board of Governors that he objects to their idea of an alternative conversion court, Maltz noted that she and other advocates of the Reform movement in Israel were disappointed. After all, Riskin has been “a driving force in promoting greater roles for women in Orthodox communities in recent years, and has also advocated for greater acceptance of the LGBT community in Orthodox congregations.”
And so, employing the logic of “you gave me your finger, why not the whole hand,” Maltz wrote: “By breaking with traditional Orthodox views about women and homosexuals, Riskin and his cohorts were seen as natural allies for the Reform and Conservative movements in their struggle for greater religious pluralism in Israel – especially after daring to challenge the Chief Rabbinate not only on conversions, but also on marriage laws. Hence, the disappointment following Sunday night’s gathering.”
If ever there were clear proof to the danger of a slippery slope in the tolerance of non-halakhic Jewish movements by Orthodox Jews — Judy Maltz has just provided it. Mostly because she fails to perceive Rabbi Riskin as a halakhic person, preferring instead to view him as someone for whom—like herself—his politics is his faith.
Halakhic Jews, whether they are black-clad Haredim or Liberal Orthodox in running spandex, live their daily lives through their commitment to the yoke of the sages. Our standards may differ on absolutely everything, but we all base all our decisions on our interpretation of Jewish law, whether independently or by consulting our halakhic authority. Which is why when Liberal Orthodox rabbis support a more egalitarian approach to women in the synagogue, or embrace LGBTs, they anchor their decisions in Jewish law as they interpret it — not their personal preferences. Of course, their interpretation of halakha would certainly be influenced by their personal biases, everyone’s does, but in the end they follow the law. This is also why Haredim who object to yeshiva students’ military service anchor their opposition in their interpretation of Jewish law.
Maltz does not get it. She makes the argument that since ultra-Orthodox Jews already view the modern Orthodox as Reform Jews in disguise, the question is not whether or not they are inclined to defy Jewish law, but rather “how far are liberal Orthodox Jews willing to push the envelope,” as she puts it.
In other words, since Rabbi Riskin has already said that Reform Jews should be allowed to have their section of the Kotel, for instance, why won’t he recognize the legitimacy of Reform conversions?
A year ago, Rabbi Riskin responded to a report in Haaretz, that a Beit Din conversion panel was asking converts only to declare a general obligation to Judaism, without declaring that they would observe the commandments and live according to Jewish law, as prescribed by the Rabbis. Riskin was mentioned as favoring this approach, and he responded urgently that he is ” all for observance of the commandments and the genuine and meaningful process that leads to it.” He added that “construing my position in any other way is misleading and a simplistic interpretation that ignores the many layers and nuances of the issue.”
There are three fundamental requirements of a male convert, two of a female, according to Maimonides: acceptance of the yoke of the sages through the observance of the commandments, circumcision, and immersion in a ritual bath (Hilkhot isurei Bi’ah 14:5). No matter how loving and accepting of Reform Jews Rabbi Riskin may be, expecting him to violate these clear rules and to side with a Reform conversion that denies the rule of halakha is an insult. And it should be a lesson to Liberal Orthodox Jews who fail to make a distinction between embracing the other and embracing the other’s subversive ideology.
Maltz cites Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, who expressed his disappointment that Riskin was not inclined to use his influence and stature to promote greater acceptance of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel. “He is doing great things for pluralism in Israel, but only from within Orthodoxy,” he said.
Rabbi Riskin tried to put a leash on this cat and take it on a walkie when he told Maltz he would accept Reform conversions should the Reform agree to the requirements of “immersion in the mikvah, circumcision, and basic knowledge and practice of Judaism.”
In other words, just as soon as hell freezes over…David Israel