The Rabbinate and Rabbi Weiss:Not Just a Power Struggle
The Rabbinate and Rabbi Weiss:Not Just a Power Struggle

ne cannot proclaim oneself a fearless innovator without regard for what others say, and ask for recognition at the same time as a perfectly mainstream figure.
Believe whatever you want about the Israeli Rabbinate’s rejection of Rabbi Avi Weiss’ testimonial letters, the principle behind the invalidation is sound and important. It applies – and is in fact used – against people on the right in the very same manner. What may be the most important function of the Rabbanut (Israeli Chief Rabbinate) – the protection of yuchsin (halakhic Jewish lineage) – is stronger because of it.

A major power struggle rages on before us.

On the one hand, the Rabbinate came clean and acknowledged that they had indeed spurned Rabbi Weiss’ declarations of the Jewishness of people known to him, on the basis of what other US rabbis told them about his halakhic innovations.

On the other are Rabbi Weiss’ natural allies on the left – Open Orthodoxy, the International Rabbinic Fellowship, and YCT in the US, and Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, Maale Gilboa and (surprisingly, at least to me,) Tzohar in Israel. Many of them would like to topple the Rabbinate altogether, seeing it as too right-wing, and replace it with a more user-friendly (sounds good) and halakhically liberal (sounds fraught) rabbinate.

Some of the charges are contradictory. Rabbi Weiss’ supporters claim that it is hareidim who are out to get him, and that this episode is a hareidi hatchet job aimed at the entire Modern Orthodox world. But they go on to criticize members of the non-hareidi RCA for taking part in a campaign to impugn Rabbi Weiss’ reputation. So which camp is out to get him?

Some of the charges are actually understated. Rabbi Weiss’ supporters revealed a few days ago that the Rabbinate had blackballed not only Rabbi Weiss, but eleven US rabbis. I would be very surprised if the real number was that modest. We have known for years that the Rabbanut kept a list of those it considered reliable and those it didn’t. My understanding was that the list of those that the Rabbanut will not rely upon is extensive. This list is blind to affiliation. It has lots of members with long beards and frocks. It is certainly not a list of “modern” rabbis.

Here’s why. The Rabbanut must make all kinds of determinations about personal status, passing judgment upon conversions, marriages, divorces. There are all kinds of rabbis. Appearances tell you very little. There are charlatans, ignoramuses, and con-artists. There are would-be poskim (halakhic decisors) who shoot from the hip, and people who are just plain sloppy. I’ve met many of them; I have friends and acquaintances whose gittin (halakhic divorce decrees) I would not rely upon to act as a mesader kiddushin (one who performs marriages) for the remarriage of the divorced woman. They are found all over the world, including Bnei Brak.

After the Rabbanut encounters the blunders of certain people a few times, it simply refuses to deal with them. This, I believe, is to their credit. The price paid in inconvenience is a pittance compared to the consequences of accepting gittin or geirus (conversions) that are challenged down the line.

You would think that the case at hand is different. Rabbi Weiss was simply testifying to the Jewishness of a congregant. Virtually anyone who nominally adheres to halakha should be suitable for that, you would think.

Think again. Here is a slice of life from an American beis din. A person asks the court for certification that he is Jewish, and allowed to marry according to halakha. As evidence, he submits letters from two people in the community who attest to his Jewishness. (Neither of them are even remotely connected to Open Orthodoxy.) The Av Beis Din looks at the application, and notices that the names of the candidate’s parents are distinctly non-Jewish. Both of them. In contemporary times, such a finding is not dispositive, but cause for concern. He asks the candidate for more paperwork. The candidate responds by filing an application for conversion!

What happened here? There are several possible explanations. Here is one that is instructive, even if it was not the actual reason behind two people attesting to someone’s Jewishness when they had no right to. It illustrates the problem with accepting the testimony of the halakhically unsophisticated.

For many years, British royal births had to be witnessed by members of the court. No one wanted to take any chances with someone placing the wrong baby in the line of succession. halakha doesn’t demand this kind of evidence. But it does require some sort of demonstration of Jewishness. Not everyone comes into beis din (rabbinic court) with a Jewish mother. And how would the beis din know that the woman is actually the mother – or that she is Jewish?

There are sugyos (Talmudic sources) that deal with these issues. And there are disputes, as well as decisions. Sometimes, a bit of knowledge is more dangerous than ignorance. My guess is that the two gentlemen who signed the testimonials once heard a shiur (Torah lecture) in which someone spoke of a Tosafos in Yevamos (Talmudic commentator) that states that there is a presumption that whoever calls himself Jewish is in fact Jewish. Presto – no need for any more evidence.

Like any other presumption, it has to be delimited. Responsible decisors use this chazakah (halakhically accepted precedent), but understand that there are offsets to it, like coming from a country in which there were few or no Jews, or presenting names of parents that are very un-Jewish. When that happens, more sleuthing is necessary. People who don’t know that will simply report that someone claims to be Jewish and has davened in the neighborhood for a month, and can now be accepted as Jewish.

That would amount to a mistake born of ignorance. There are other mistakes, however, that are results of ideology. Some people are critical of batei din that insist on too much checking. They are correct – but their solution is just as bad as the problem. They insist on using Tosafos as a halakhic “solution” to the “problem” of the harshness of halakhic process. They use it as a way of sticking their heads in the sand, of creating a Jewish “don’t ask-don’t tell” standard. Anyone who declares himself or herself as Jewish – is! This is a savaging of halakhic process, born most often of either ignorance, or a lack of seriousness about halakha, or both.

The Rabbanut has every right and duty to be suspicious. It should only accept testimony that is reliable, i.e. not tainted by the suspicion of agendized manipulation of halakhic process, or a host of other grounds for dismissal. (A good example of reason to suspect ideological manipulation is a beis din announcing in advance that it will be able to cure 99% of all agunah cases, as a newly-formed beis din announced recently.)

It may be so that Rabbi Weiss can be relied upon. I am not here to judge that. But it is certainly the case that the Rabbanut has reason to be cautious, given the many times that Rabbi Weiss has overstepped accepted boundaries. One cannot proclaim oneself a fearless innovator without regard for what others say, and ask for recognition at the same time as a perfectly mainstream figure.

Ironically, the people taking much of the heat in this battle are the ones with a modus vivendi that could work. Much of the problem is created by geographical distance. From afar, the Rabbanut has to err on the side of caution. Before Rabbi Weiss’ supporters decided to turn the incident into a war against the Rabbanut (enlisting even Alan Dershowitz, a musmach of the famed Harvard Law School Yeshiva), the RCA was involved in negotiations with the Rabbanut. It proposed that the RCA would be able to better examine the bona fides of its own members.

People in the RCA are working to develop fixed protocols to be followed, so that even rabbis who are not so strong in their textual background can be relied upon.

The Rabbanut is not and should not be free from criticism. However, that criticism should be directed at their missteps. When they follow standard protocols to help individuals gain mainstream acceptance, they must not be accused of political agendas. The Rabbanut should not be used as a tool for personal rabbinic acceptance and political legitimation. Indeed, doing so bespeaks a mistaken notion of the role of the Rabbanut in unifying Klal Yisrael by maintaining a professional and unbiased process.

Also appears in Cross Currents