Tactics of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin treading on dangerous ground

Friday, August 11, 1995 | by

Leonard Fein



Here is a little quiz:

1. What distinguished American rabbi, in the Passover Haggadah he published in 1983, wrote these words: "Despite the fact that there is tension between particularism and universalism, between chauvinism and cosmopolitanism, both are part of the Jew's lifecycle. That they can be reconciled is an important motif of the Kiddush. By making reference in this blessing to both the creation of the world and the Exodus from Egypt, we affirm that there is no conflict between the two."

And also: "We remember that our cup of celebration cannot be full to the brim if our redemption was brought about as a result of the destruction of human beings."

2. What distinguished American rabbi, who later made aliyah and now lives in Israel, said this in 1984: "I don't say it with pride, I don't say it with joy, I don't say it with happiness, [but] if you're fighting for fundamental survival, there's very little emotional energy left for anything else… If I am a Jew living in a foreign host country, I don't have that much responsibility. The truth is, I can walk down Broadway and I can see a bag lady, and I can see a drunk, and it's not correct but it's normal and human, and I'm not justifying it, but I can say to myself, `It's not my bag lady, it's not my drunk,' and to a certain extent, I can evade responsibility for those people."

No one contributed more to the rekindling of Jewish enthusiasms in the 1970s than the author of both these statements, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, then of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York. And Riskin, given his views on the limitations built into living in "a foreign host country," had the intellectual grace to pick himself up and move to Israel—where, presumably, he would not feel the conflict he acknowledged feeling here. He could be Rabbi Riskin of the God universal rather than Rabbi Riskin of the inevitably constricted diaspora condition.

Well, not quite. As those who follow the unfolding story of settler civil disobedience in Israel know, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has become one of the noisier chauvinist protesters. In his early years as rabbi of Efrat, a village between Bethlehem and Hebron—meaning, of course, a village in the West Bank—Riskin saw himself as a moderate, reaching out in kindness to Efrat's Arab neighbors. But now that there's momentum to the prospect of a "redeployment" of Israel's troops, and the area where Efrat is situated seems likely to be included in a Palestinian state, it's no more Mr. Nice Guy for Riskin.

I haven't spoken to Riskin in some years. I imagine, were I to refer him to his own Passover Haggadah language, he'd focus on the "life-cycle" to which he alludes, and assert that this is a time for chauvinism. And perhaps, notwithstanding his emphatic view that Prime Minister Rabin is a "radical," he'd assert that with regret, just as he seemed to regret his inability to regard the bag ladies just outside his New York synagogue as "his" bag ladies.

But lest we be seduced by the evidence of Riskin's internal conflict, concluding that he's surely no wild-eyed extremist, that he is a settler with soul, we should bear in mind that the issue here (as Riskin himself would surely agree) is not the soulfulness of the actor but the wisdom of the action. The "but he's such a nice person, so sensitive" argument is relevant only to the sorrow with which the observer must view the rabbi's actions.

The rabbi's civil disobedience is not the issue, not at all. It's jarring to encounter civil disobedience in Israel. But all of us who celebrate a free society, all of us who applauded civil disobedience when it happened here on behalf of civil rights, must not only accept that "it can happen there," but that the fact of its happening is a healthy development.

No, it's not Riskin's civil disobedience that saddens, and angers. It is, instead, the absolutism that informs it. Extremism in defense of virtue may not be a vice, but it is not a virtue to prefer land to peace, and that is what the Riskin position—shared, alas, by many others—comes down to.

Riskin is fond of calling attention to the vacuity of Israel's secular culture, and he's not entirely wrong in so doing, even though his exaggerations are, at best, unbecoming. The alternative he proposes is not vacuous; it is ominous. For when he says, as he does in the August issue of Moment, that the 1947 United Nations decision in favor of an independent Jewish state is essentially irrelevant, that the Jewish claim to Israel comes from "our Bible and history," he treads on exceedingly dangerous ground. In the context of international affairs, that is an extremist's claim; if the issue between Israel and its neighbors comes down to one people's bible against another's, then the end is inevitably about which people has the power to enforce its bible.

Riskin says, and means, that Israel's destiny is not to be a nation like all other nations, a "normal" nation, but to be a light unto the nations, a "holy" nation. The tension between normalcy and holiness is a healthy tension, but whatever we may mean by "holiness," it is entirely an internal affair; it is not to be dragged into our relations with others. To drag it in, to act on the conviction that we are holier than they, means to will for a Bosnian denouement. And, in any case, it is not holding on to Hebron—or Efrat—that will make us holy. Holiness is, among other things, about peacemaking; it is not, not ever, about acreage.