Daily Israel Report

Op-Ed: Rabbi Avi Weiss in the NYTimes: Who is the Real Victim?

Why would an Orthodox rabbi avoid respected and accepted halakhic forums to settle his differences with the Orthodox Rabbinate and, instead, post them in the New York Times?
Published: Friday, January 31, 2014 11:53 AM


Rabbi Avi Weiss, in his ongoing quest to strip the Israeli Chief Rabbinate of its mandate on issues of personal Jewish status in the Jewish State, has taken his case to the New York Times, attempting to draw world attention to his efforts by way of a newspaper known for its anti-Israel bias, as he maligns the Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA - the American Mainstream Orthodox rabbinical association) before tens of millions of secular and non-Jewish readers.

Let’s first briefly review the background.

In October, the Chief Rabbinate rejected a letter from Rabbi Weiss attesting to the Jewish and single status of a man and woman who sought to wed in an Israeli ceremony. A spokesman for the Rabbinate later explained that this rejection was due to concerns about the apparently unOrthodox practices of Rabbi Weiss and his Open Orthodox affiliates.

What do these include?

The Open Orthodox movement, headed by Rabbi Weiss, grants ordination to women at Yeshivat Maharat, founded by Rabbi Weiss, who signs their ordination certificates, containing the traditional "Semicha" phraseology found in rabbinic ordination documents.

Rabbi Weiss' congregation, Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, has a "Rabba" (female rabbi) on staff, and has feted a female chazzan (cantor) 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 changes, modifying services to reflect au courant feminization.

These  marked changes have not been brought up for halakhic discussion in accepted rabbinic decisor forums, as is Orthodox practice.

Open Orthodox leadership, trained by Rabbi Weiss, has been at the forefront of support of gay marriage, a breach of accepted Orthodoxy. See, for example, this, this, and this.  Rabbi Weiss has also pushed way beyond accepted Orthodox norms and the well-accepted standards established by the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University, vis a vis interfaith relations . See, for example, this, this, and this. In the United States, Rabbi Weiss’ annual bringing of a church choir into his synagogue has caused  a real stir; please see this video.

The Rabbinate's decision set Rabbi Weiss off on a campaign to discredit the Israeli Rabbinate and the RCA and to call for an end to the Rabbinate's control over marriage and conversion. Rabbi Weiss published articles in half a dozen papers advocating the stripping of power from the Rabbinate in several areas, as well as calling for the right and potential recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions in the Jewish State.

Rabbi Weiss and his allies also applied political pressure from all sides in an effort to compel the Rabbinate to accept his letters of attestation of Jewish status and discredit the Rabbinate's policies. This included a letter by a close student of Rabbi Weiss to US Ambassador Daniel B. Shapiro, in which a wedge between the Israeli government and Americans was recklessly suggested. Rabbi Weiss also enlisted the efforts of his congressman, Elliot Engel, as well as famed law professor Alan Dershowitz, to contact the Israeli Prime Minister and President to intervene with the Chief Rabbinate on Rabbi Weiss’ behalf.  He did not turn to, and did not receive, backing from great names in the Orthodox Torah world for his changes in tradition.

Rabbi Weiss, in his New York Times opinion piece, also reveals that he was going to go so far as to sue the Rabbinate in the Israeli Supreme Court, pursuant to his retention of attorney Assaf Benmelech, who commenced the case with legal letters to the Rabbinate in recent months. The American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League added to the wholly non-rabbinic approach regarding what should have been treated as an internal rabbinical issue solved at the halakhic decisors' table.

Rabbi Weiss repeats the mantra that the RCA “ceded its autonomy and capitulated rather than stand up for all of its members in the field”, when actually,  in 2008, the RCA entered into an agreement with the Rabbinate that only specific batei din (rabbinical courts), whose procedures were verified to meet the halakhic standards of the Rabbinate and the RCA’s halakhic authorities, would be granted automatic RCA endorsement and acceptance for their conversions.

The reason that this agreement was needed was that there was a lack of uniform conversion standards; conversion was like the Wild West, as a friend of mine has commented. The new system would serve to assure the prospective convert that he or she would be indisputably recognized and registered by the Chief Rabbinate as Jewish, avoiding the tragedies of which we have read all too often of people converting and later being told that their conversions were of inadequate standards. This new system served to protect prospective converts and at the same time, readily assured  the integrity of Jewish status in a uniform and undisputed fashion.

Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabbi Marc Angel penned articles in order to discredit the new system, and founded a new rabbinical organization, International Rabbinic Fellowship, which they claimed would respect the choice and judgment of individual member rabbis rather than defer to a centralized rabbinical authority.

This perpetuates the Wild West of conversions and is an incredible disservice to prospective converts, who could thereby continue to undergo conversion by rabbis applying their own standards, and find out that their conversions did not meet the standards of those they wish to marry later or those of the Rabbinate.

No one is forcing Rabbi Weiss to change his standards; Rabbi Weiss and his colleagues are free to convert and conduct an autonomous rabbinate as they see fit. However, if Rabbi Weiss and his colleagues wish for people whom they recommend for conversion to be automatically accepted as Jews by the Chief Rabbinate in Medinat Yisrael, or they seek for their constituencies to be granted other recognition by the Rabbinate, there are procedures that must be followed, and there are standards that must be met.

Rather than opt to comply with the system, or to not buy into it and remain on the outside, Rabbi Weiss has launched an all-out war to discredit and dismantle the system, using lawyers, politicians, and now, the non-Jewish international press to exert pressure on the Chief Rabbinate.

Aside from being the wrong way - especially for a rabbi - to address a rabbinical issue, Rabbi Weiss, assumedly unintentionally, is sending a message that there really are no objective halakhic standards, or that halakhic standards play second fiddle to the will of the people, a completely skewed definition of Torah-true Judaism. He writes:

“For a time, the Chief Rabbinate was perceived to serve all the Jewish people. Today it is largely seen and experienced by many Jews in Israel and abroad as an intrusive and coercive religious body. Not only does it impose Orthodox religious law on all Jews, but it also demands ultra-strict standards in most areas it oversees.”

“In a democratic Jewish state, options must be available. For example, an Orthodox group in Israel, Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, has proposed that communities elect their own religious leadership and receive state funding. In matters like marriage and conversion, communal standards would be taken into consideration instead of dictates imposed from above.”

Let’s take a look at what Ne’emanei Torah Va-Avodah,  considered an extreme liberal (and by some, borderline Conservative) Orthodox movement in Israel, actually suggested:

If a neighborhood democratically voted in a non-Orthodox rabbi, then they too will be an intrinsic part of the decision-making of the local and national, religious leadership.”

Taking into account the fact that Rabbis Avi Weiss and Marc Angel sit on the Board of Governors of  Ne’emanei Torah Va-Avodah, we can better understand Rabbi Weiss’ plea for the dismantling of the Rabbinate – for in truth, a State of Israel which has no halakhic requirements for conversion is within the vision of Rabbi Weiss, who stated explicitly:

“For this reason, Israel as a state should give equal opportunities to Conservative and Reform communities. Their rabbis should be able to conduct weddings and conversions.

“For that matter, civil weddings should also be recognized by the state.

“I am not advocating that the Orthodox rabbinate accept these conversions or weddings as halachically valid. No rabbi should be called upon to give up his halachic principles.

"At the same time, however, the State of Israel is the nationstate for the entirety of the Jewish people. As the state accepts non-Orthodox definitions of Jewishness for aliya and Israeli citizenship, so, too, the state should move to accept non-Orthodox conversions and weddings done in Israel as a matter of Israeli law.”

How can an Orthodox rabbi can be ready to abrogate halakhic standards and thereby engender the breakdown of the halakhically Jewish status of a nation?

Despite Rabbi Weiss’ claim in the New York Times that, “Recently, I was a victim of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate”, let us think about who is victimizing whom. Retaining attorneys to pressure politicians, threatening the Rabbinate with a lawsuit, publicly disparaging the Rabbinate and the RCA in the gentile press, and other coercion tactics do not mark the actions of a victim – nor are they, along with calls for the performance of non-halakhic conversions and the ability to have non-Orthodox rabbis in the Rabbinate, what we expect of Orthodox rabbis.

Rabbi Weiss has consistently thrived on being viewed as a martyr; this time, we must deny him this role.

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.