Rabbi Shlomo Riskin believes that Judaism has a message for the world. “In its essence, halakha (Jewish law) is compassion,” he says.
This he learned from his pious grandmother, with whom he spent every Shabbat (Sabbath) from age ten until age twenty.
“My grandmother was a very special woman,” he explains. Rabbi Riskin’s grandmother was the oldest child of a hasidic rabbinical judge, who taught his daughter Torah and Talmud. Rabbi Riskin watched his grandmother’s daily interactions with others, and learned the meaning of compassion.
After spending a year in Israel and meeting his future wife, Rabbi Riskin decided that Israel is the place he would one day call home. “I saw that the miracle was happening, and wanted to live in the midst of the miracle,” he explains.
But first he wanted to obtain his smicha (rabbinical certification) with his rav, Rabbi Soloveitchik, in New York. While teaching at Yeshiva University, he was asked to fill the role of rabbi in a Conservative synagogue which met for only three days a year, on the High Holidays.
“I spoke with Rav Soloveitchik and with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Both told me to do it but not to take money for the job, as there was no segregation between men and women (mechitza).” At the same time, Rabbi Riskin encouraged the congregants to meet weekly for the Sabbath prayers, and also taught classes in Torah and Jewish philosophy.
The congregation expanded quickly. Very soon, the Orthodox Lincoln Square Synagogue was born. Rabbi Riskin served as the rabbi for nineteen years, before fulfilling his dream of making aliyah (immigrating to Israel).
In the name of the late mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff, Rabbi Riskin was told that in the pioneer State of Israel, the way to become the leader of a town is to build the town. At the behest of former Prime Minister Golda Meir, Rabbi Riskin founded the town of Efrat in the hills south of Jerusalem. Now a sprawling community with 12,000 residents, Efrat is the realization of a dream.
“Dream big,” Rabbi Riskin advises. “Not all your dreams will come true, but I had the very rare privilege of having my reality exceed all my dreams.”
Rabbi Riskin never shies away from controversial issues. “Conservative Jews sometimes saw me as too observant, while the ultra orthodox claimed I was not traditional enough.” But Rabbi Riskin’s views on Modern Orthodoxy, on women’s role in Judaism, and on conversion to Judaism are firmly based in halakha.
Tune in to meet a rabbi whose philosophy of life is entirely encouraging. “The whole trick in life is for a person to truly love his life’s work,” Rabbi Riskin says. “Then life is magnificent.”