Rabbi Avi Weiss has for years been on the periphery of Orthodoxy. His ordination of women for rabbinic roles, his bringing church choirs into his synagogue and his dancing with priests in his yeshiva, and his serving as the founder of the Open Orthodox movement, with all of its religious innovations and out-of-bounds ideologies, including radical feminization of prayer and female chazzanim (cantors), with Rabbi Weiss’ blessings, as well as his countless other activities typically associated with the non-Orthodox movements, have clearly placed him on the edge.
Rabbi Weiss, in the latest of his series of articles arguing to strip the Chief Rabbinate of its authority over conversion standards (“End the Chief Rabbinate’s Monopoly”, Jerusalem Post, Nov. 6, 2013), writes:
"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 halakhically valid. No rabbi should be called upon to give up his halakhic 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."
This puts Rabbi Weiss squarely at odds not only with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and its Chief Rabbinic Council, but with the thousands of Orthodox rabbis in Israel's yeshivas, cities and towns.
How can Rabbi Weiss, as an Orthodox rabbi, in good conscience promote the performance and potential recognition of non-halakhic conversions? While I and many others will agree with Rabbi Weiss that non-Orthodox Jews are not likely to accept Halakha if it is “thrust down their throats”, and people who are not halakhically committed are more likely to become committed to Halakha if they can experience Torah observance at their own will and pace, that is not the issue when it comes to conversions.
There is an overriding factor at play here: the Jewishness of millions of people. Rabbi Weiss’ plea for the rights and recognition of non-Orthodox conversions means that the thousands upon thousands of non-Jews who each year undergo non-halakhic, invalid conversions would now be recognized as Jews in Israeli society, such that they will inevitably marry Israelis who are halakhically Jewish (and if they are non-observant, they will not be aware of the problem), eventually resulting in myriads or even millions of Israeli “non-Jewish Jews” and a massive intermarriage epidemic in the State of Israel, as we have here in America.
The Israeli Chief Rabbinate clearly states that the need for Orthodox conversion to be the only recognized conversion in Israel is to prevent that debacle and to prevent Jewish families from demanding verified family trees from one another before dating - as well as to allow Israeli "baalei teshuva" to be integrated into observant society. Israel is not an ordinary country, it is the Jewish state, and the Religious Zionist vision for that state includes a Rabbinate that protects the basic halakhic status of the Jewish People.
Yes, Rabbi Weiss calls for an “Open Orthodoxy”, but does this openness come at the expense of an entire nation’s Jewish status?
Rabbi Weiss’ argument goes far beyond an argument about centralization versus decentralization of rabbinic services. On the contrary, his sweeping plea for the authorization to perform invalid conversions and for these invalid conversions to be subject to recognition by those who so desire is a radical approach that contravenes fealty to the binding nature of Halakha, and is shocking to read as being promoted by Rabbi Weiss, as he invokes his Orthodox rabbinical authority.
Rabbi Weiss has no one but himself to blame for the Israeli Rabbinate’s rejection of his letter attesting to the Jewishness and single status of an American couple that went to the State of Israel for marriage – the event that caused Rabbi Weiss to openly challenge the Chief Rabbinate and call for its disempowerment in many areas.
Rabbi Weiss’ own well-established pattern of unOrthodox actions and associations have cast aspersions on his Orthodox rabbinic bona fides. It is Rabbi Weiss and not the Rabbinate that has created the problem for the young couple.
Although not perfect, the current Israeli Rabbinate system, which maintains strict standards for Jewish identity and personal status, has maintained and preserved the halakhic integrity of Israeli Jewry and much of Jewry in the Diaspora. Innumerable cases of mamzeirus (children born of forbidden unions) and intermarriage (due to lack of verified halakhic single and Jewish status) have been prevented.
Without Orthodox rabbis whose services must conform to one halakhic standard in areas of Jewish and personal status in charge, the halakhic integrity of Jewish and personal status of Israeli citizenry and much of Jewry in the Diaspora will suffer. Rabbi Weiss’ plan, which argues against any required halakhic standards, would result in untold and mass tragedy regarding Jewish and personal status.
There is certainly an element of kefiyah (compulsion) involved here; submitting Israeli society to halakhic marriage, divorce and conversion requirements is obviously not something that everyone embraces, although surveys have shown that most Israelis recognize the need for it, but would like the services themselves to be more user-friendly. Yet, the positive yield of this system, which is the preservation of yuchsin (the integrity of Jewish lineage), is unquestionably worth the price of the imposition. The current system, despite its inadequacies, has undeniably served us well and has protected and secured the legitimacy of our yuchsin; in fact, the system is a no-compromise must, without which the Jewish People cannot endure and perpetuate.
Rabbi Weiss, prior to the year 2000, had earned himself a reputation for successful kiruv (outreach) and passionate activism on behalf of world Jewry. It is my wish and the wish of much of the larger Orthodox community that Rabbi Weiss reconsider his current trajectory and return to using his dynamism and creative talents to spread authentic Torah and defend our people, rather than promulgate a movement of deviation and divisiveness in the name of Orthodoxy.