Reuven Rivlin was born in Jerusalem during the Mandate era to the Rivlin family, which has lived in Jerusalem since 1809. He is a descendant of students of the Vilna Gaon. His parents were Rachel "Ray" Rivlin and Yosef Yoel Rivlin, who created the first Hebrew edition of the Koran and who was a candidate for third President of Israel.
He is married to Nechama Rivlin, and has four children. Rivlin has been a vegetarian since the late 1960s. Rivlin has been a supporter of the Beitar Jerusalem football club since the age of seven, when he attended his first game.
He was first elected to the 12th Knesset in 1988, and served as Likud chairman from 1988 to 1993. He lost his seat in the 1992 elections, but returned to the Knesset following the 1996 elections. Re-elected in 1999, he was appointed Minister of Communications in March 2001, serving until February 2003, when he was elected Knesset Speaker following the 2003 elections. During his term as Speaker, he was criticized for breaking the tradition of political neutrality of the post; he was one of Ariel Sharon's harshest critics regarding the disengagement plan, and had a public confrontation with Aharon Barak, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, concerning the court's authority to declare legislation illegal.
Although not Orthodox himself, Rivlin has been critical of non-Orthodox movements in Judaism. In 1989, Rivlin referred to Reform Jews as "idol worshippers", and refused to call Reform Jewish rabbis by their title. Prior to becoming President, he opposed granting equal status to Reform or Conservative Judaism. In 2014, Rivlin said that if non-Orthodox conversion standards were adopted, Jewish status would be based on "a civic definition rather than a religious definition", echoing a Knesset speech he gave in 2006 when he declared: "I have no doubt, and my positions are known, that the status of Judaism according to halachah (Jewish law) is what has kept us going for 3,800 years."
Since 1999, Rivlin has employed Rivka Ravitz, a Haredi woman, first as his bureau chief and campaign advisor, and, upon his election to President, as his chief of staff. Ravitz is credited with managing Rivlin's successful campaigns for Knesset Speaker and President of Israel, and often accompanies him on his local appearances, as well as visits to foreign heads of state.
In 2000, Rivlin supported legislation that would make it illegal for women to wear prayer shawls. The law was not passed, but Rivlin's position on the issue led to estrangement with his American-Israeli feminist cousin, Lilly Rivlin. In 2008, the Knesset choir sang the "Hatikva" at a welcoming ceremony without the female members of the choir. Rivlin admitted that as Knesset speaker, he was careful not to invite women to sing so as not to create a conflict with Orthodox Jews.
Rivlin was re-elected in 2006 and 2009. He ran in the 2007 election for President as the Likud candidate. He withdrew after the first round of voting when it became clear that Kadima MK Shimon Peres had sufficiently broad support to inevitably win in a run-off.
On 30 March 2009, the Knesset elected Rivlin as Speaker with a majority of 90 votes out of 120.
Rivlin once campaigned for Israel to recognize the Armenian Genocide. In 2012, he said, "It is our moral duty to remember and remind of the tragedy that befell the Armenian people, who lost more than a million of its sons during the First World War, and we must not make this a political issue. I am aware of the sensitivity of this issue. But let us be clear: This is not an accusation of Turkey today or of the current Turkish government." As President, he has been less vocal on this issue. Concerned about the negative reaction of Turkey if the President signed the petition, unnamed officials of the Foreign Ministry welcomed what they called Rivlin's "statesmanship".
When asked about conditions for African refugees in Israel Rivlin stated, "As a democrat and a Jew, I have a hard time with concentration camps, where people are warehoused." In 2013, Rivlin slammed Beitar fans who chanted anti-Arab slogans when two Arab players were added to the team. Rivlin told a gathering of academics: "Israeli society is sick, and it is our duty to treat this disease."
In November 2014, however Rivlin welcomed at his residence over 50 Reform Leaders on the Board of Governors of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and told them, "We are one family and the connection between all Jews, all over the world, is very important to the State of Israel." In 2015, he did not allow a Conservative rabbi to officiate at a bar mitzvah Service at his residence for disabled children who attended a program run by the Conservative movement, but later hosted representatives of the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jewish communities for a joint study session at the President's Residence.
In July 2015, following Rivlin's condemnation of the firebombing of a Palestinian home by suspected Jewish extremists that resulted in the death of a Palestinian toddler, Rivlin received death threats. Rivlin labelled those who committed the violence as "terrorists", lamenting that his own people had "chosen the path of terror", and that Israel was lax in confronting Jewish religious terrorism and Jewish extremists.