Reviewed by David Olivestone
When I moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the early 1970s, during the heyday of Lincoln Square Synagogue and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s tenure there, I was quite unprepared for the impact he would have on me. He had already been featured in Time magazine for his extraordinary success in reaching and touching Jews of all affiliations—and of none—but I somehow doubted that the shul was for me, an FFB firmly entrenched in the observances and traditions of my family. I thought I would daven there once or twice to see what the excitement was all about, but would no doubt find myself a more mainstream shul to attend regularly.
And then Rabbi Riskin spoke. And the more I listened, the more I felt that he was speaking to me personally. (Of course, I soon came to understand that each one of the other four or five hundred people in the room felt exactly the same way.) He made me think, he made me wonder, he inspired me and he made me want to make this rabbi my rabbi.
The word charismatic may be overused, but Rabbi Riskin can certainly lay claim to it. His dynamic and creative mind, personal warmth and unbounded energy, coupled with his originality of thought and extraordinary clarity of expression, make him a riveting speaker. I don’t think I have ever heard Rabbi Riskin—unlike so many other popular speakers—begin a sentence for which he did not have the ending firmly framed in his mind. When you add his infectious emunah and uncompromising commitment to halachah to these talents and qualities, you have a teacher whom people instinctively want to learn from, and a leader whom they want to emulate.
And then there is his charm as a storyteller.
No derashah, shiur or lecture at LSS was complete without him recounting some incident that had happened to him that week, or without some personal reminiscence of his rebbeim and teachers at Yeshiva University—first and foremost Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Above all, however, we looked forward to hearing him tell about his maternal grandmother who first taught him about Yiddishkeit and whom everyone in the shul felt he or she knew intimately.
Listening to God, the highly engaging and inspiring collection of Rabbi Riskin’s stories, goes a long way toward giving those who do not know him personally an understanding of his unusual appeal. Beginning with the weekly Shabbat meals he shared with his grandmother as a young boy, the stories take us through each stage of the rabbi’s life, essentially comprising an autobiography.
Like every autobiographer, he faces a dilemma; namely how to convey the extent of his achievements without appearing overly prideful or boastful. Understandably, Rabbi Riskin often errs on the side of modesty, certainly with regard to his tenure at LSS, expecting the reader to infer the extent of his popularity from the stories which only subtly reflect his growing influence. But perhaps if he had told us what it felt like to be at the center of that huge circle of people crowded into every seat, aisle and step of LSS at his famous Wednesday night lectures, it might have helped those who were not there taste the magic of those evenings and understand why they attracted so many.
He is more forthcoming when it comes to relating the extent of his achievements in Israel, starting with the building of Efrat, the then brand-new city to which he and his wife, Vicky, moved when they made aliyah in 1983. Through the stories, we hear of his run-ups against the rabbinic establishment and how he led the efforts that changed the landscape for women’s learning and representation in Israel’s rabbinic courts.
As a storyteller, Rabbi Riskin loves to show the human side of revered personalities such as the Rav, the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, each of whom recognized his abilities and gave him enormous encouragement in whatever he set out to do. But it is even more touching when he highlights the extraordinary wisdom and courage that he finds in the simple people he meets or who come to him for advice.
Several of the stories involve conflicts—often of a very sensitive nature—in the shul or between two individuals. There is the “Tale of the Two Sandaks,” two grandfathers of a new baby boy who each had very specific, but opposing, ideas as to who should serve as sandak at the baby’s brit. Another involved who should have the honor of leading the congregation in the Nei’lah service at the close of Yom Kippur. And we read that Rabbi Riskin’s talents as negotiator were even sought out on some of his airplane journeys, including the sad, yet hilarious, story of the man who became too terrified of flying to allow the plane to take off with him on board, and how Rabbi Riskin tried (unsuccessfully) to calm him down. What makes all these stories so fascinating is that Rabbi Riskin reveals to us his thought processes in how he tried to resolve each case, and tells us what he learned from each one.
It’s not very often that you find an autobiography in which the author starts out by telling you that it doesn’t matter if what he writes is true or not. But you soon come to realize that what Rabbi Riskin is really interested in are the messages that these stories convey. The title, Listening to God, and the subtitle, Inspirational Stories for My Grandchildren, make it very clear what Rabbi Riskin wants the reader to take away from this book.
It’s also very clear what he has put into it. At every stage of his life, through every astonishing, funny, inspirational or moving tale that he tells, you come to recognize how he himself lives his life listening to God, moving forward with ever-greater confidence to play a unique leadership role in the Jewish world.
David Olivestone, the former senior communications officer of the Orthodox Union, lives in Jerusalem.