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Op-Ed: The Rabbi Avi Weiss Issue:Defending the Chief Rabbinate

Rabbi Weiss may be qualified to attest to Jewish status, but one must also appreciate the justified apprehension of the Rabbinate regarding Open Orthodoxy’s fidelity to Orthodox norms and positions relating to more complex issues of halakhic lineage.
Published: Tuesday, January 07, 2014 10:00 PM


The Chief Rabbinate is currently under attack by the supporters of Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, NY, as a result of the Chief Rabbinate’s rejection of a letter from Rabbi Weiss attesting to the Jewish and single status of a couple from his community who sought to wed in Medinat Yisrael. The Rabbanut explained that concerns pertaining to positions of Rabbi Weiss that are inconsistent with normative Orthodox Judaism were the cause of its negative decision.

Along with caustic attacks on the Chief Rabbinate on the part of his rabbinical organization (International Rabbinic Fellowship [IRF]), his yeshiva (Yeshivat Chovevei Torah [YCT]), and Rabbi Weiss' students and other allies, entities that do not consider themselves Orthodox and really have no relationship to this issue or to Halacha, such as American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, are now chiming in as well with their condemnation.

While I personally would not assume Rabbi Weiss to be invalid to provide attestation of Jewish status, I feel that the Chief Rabbinate is being unfairly and unacceptably maligned and disrespected. In fact, the recent disparagement of the Chief Rabbinate by those closest to Rabbi Weiss, reminiscent of Rabbi Weiss' own many disparaging statements about the Chief Rabbinate, deserves a strong response.

When evaluating the fitness of a person to offer testimony and to have his rabbinic credentials accepted, one must look to that person's Torah observance and his rabbinic conduct. While I cannot imagine anyone alleging that Rabbi Weiss is not scrupulous in his personal mitzvah observance, nor is it fathomable to state that Rabbi Weiss is not a dynamic rabbi who cares greatly about the Jewish People and who will do anything for his nation's defense and betterment, there is more that must be considered.

The Open Orthodox movement, headed by Rabbi Weiss, has become known for its ordination of women at Yeshivat Maharat, founded by Rabbi Weiss. Rabbi Weiss signs the ordination certificates of the women ordained at Yeshivat Maharat, and the certificates contain the traditional "Semicha" phraseology found in rabbinic ordination documents issued to males. Rabbi Weiss' congregation, Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, has a "Rabba" (female rabbi) on staff, and has feted a female chazzan for Kabbalat Shabbat services. Other Open Orthodox congregations, led by students of Rabbi Weiss, have hired female rabbinic staff ordained by Rabbi Weiss and enacted similar feminist rites, modifying services to reflect feminization to the greatest extent possible. These actions, which contravene the rulings of the greatest of halakhic authorities, have understandably brought the issue of fidelity to normative Orthodoxy into question.

Open Orthodox leadership, all trained by Rabbi Weiss, has been at the forefront of support of gay marriage. (See, for example, this, this, and this.) Open Orthodox leadership, including Rabbi Weiss, has pushed way beyond accepted Orthodox norms vis a vis interfaith relations - norms that were established by the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and have been more or less the well-accepted standard for Orthodox interfaith engagement. (See, for example, this, this, and this.) 

Open Orthodox leadership has broadly tolerated and defended heretical views in its ranks, and until very recently, an Open Orthodox rabbi who denies that Moses received the Torah at Sinai, and who also denies the existence of prophecy and the historical existence of the Biblical Patriarchs, Matriarchs and the Exodus from Egypt, served as the coordinator for the IRF Vaad Ha-Giyur, the Open Orthodox conversion authority.

To top it off, Rabbi Avi Weiss recently called for the performance and potential acceptance of non-halachic conversions in the State of Israel and for the Israeli Chief Rabbinate to be stripped of its authority over conversions. (Readers can consult this article for more details about unOrthodox actions on the part of Open Orthodoxy. Readers are also urged to read this new article about Rabbi Soloveitchik and rabbinic consensus and dissent.) 

It is obvious that the Rabbanut had good reason to question normative Orthodox rabbinic credentials in the case at hand. Had the Rabbanut failed to investigate and express concern about normative Orthodox conduct and views, it would have been negligent of its responsibility to God, the Torah and the nation.   

It is very important to note that in the larger halakhic area of Jewish lineage, there is more than ample reason to question some Open Orthodox rabbis' bona fides. In several well-known cases that occurred in the New York/New Jersey area, YCT halachic leadership used creative halakhic arguments to permit Kohanim to marry converts. These cases were first brought before eminent Orthodox halakhic authorities affiliated with Yeshiva University, who stated that as Kohanim, the prospective grooms could not marry converts, as per Torah law; these rabbis later commented that the halakhic gymnastics applied by the YCT rabbis to permit these marriages violated halakhic precedent and were illegitimate. Nonetheless, the prospective grooms from Kohanic families became actual grooms to their convert wives in marriage ceremonies subsequently performed by YCT leadership.

Similarly, the Open Orthodox conversion authority is comprised of several quite controversial figures, including a rabbi who heads a non-Orthodox rabbinical school in Canada run by Conservative rabbis, a rabbi who maintains that conversion does not require a commitment to Torah observance, and rabbis who ordain women.

While one may quite justifiably feel that Rabbi Weiss is qualified to attest to Jewish status, one must also appreciate the justified apprehension of the Rabbanut regarding Open Orthodoxy’s fidelity to Orthodox norms, and Open Orthodoxy’s positions relating to more complex issues of halakhic lineage.

Open Orthodox leadership, rather than blame the Rabbanut for expressing its concern, should look inward and realize that its own unOrthodox actions have invited the scrutiny. When a movement’s actions raise very serious questions about commitment to accepted Orthodox standards, such a movement should not be surprised that others are disturbed and unsettled. A movement whose actions have created great unease on the part of rabbis throughout the Orthodox spectrum, including spokesmen for major American Orthodox organizations and journals, should consider that its own actions are the source of everyone’s concern and should not blame others for such feelings.

The majority masses of Orthodox Jews worldwide would not be comfortable with a Chief Rabbinate that did not investigate and experience anxiety with a movement that has challenged Orthodox norms for the past decade and has expanded the plane of its breaches of traditional Orthodox conduct. We are blessed to have a Chief Rabbinate that takes its responsibility with utmost seriousness and caution. Although there is always room to argue about specific decisions, those who do so are expected to come from a position of fidelity to Orthodox standards rather than from a position of reform and breech thereof.

Rabbi Gordimer is a member of the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, as well as the New York Bar. The opinions in the above article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the opinions of any other individuals or entities.