Riverdale—After remaining silent for more than two months, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) issued a statement last Sunday unequivocally rejecting the statement of the Chief Rabbinate’s legal advisor and denying any part in the rejection of Rabbi Avi Weiss’ testimony that affirmed the Jewishness of two of his former congregants who made Aliyah and wished to marry in Israel. The statement said that the RCA had not advised Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to reject the testimony of its member, Rabbi Avi Weiss.
The Modern Orthodox rabbinical “umbrella” was specifically reacting to the Chief Rabbinate’s October, 2013 disqualification of the halakhic authority of prominent New York Rabbi Avi Weiss. Neither the couple nor Weiss were notified of the incident until several months later.
The RCA claimed that, even prior to this incident, it had been developing an alternate methodology that would “enable Jewish status letters to be written by its member rabbis and be endorsed in the United States, where the RCA is better informed and positioned to resolve matters in ways that will avoid the problems and embarrassments of these past weeks.”
The response to the rejection of Weiss’ rabbinical authority was wide ranging. In a uniquely transparent letter, Harel Goldberg, the Chief Rabbinate’s legal advisor, wrote that Weiss’s testimony “was dismissed because complaints had reached the Israeli rabbinate of his lax ‘halakhic commitment.’” The letter states “The Chief Rabbinate has been contacted by various rabbis known to the rabbinate, some of whom hold positions in the RCA [Rabbinical Council of America], who claim that Rabbi Weiss’ halakhic positions, as expressed in various incidents and under various circumstances, cast doubt on the degree of his commitment to customary and accepted Jewish halakha.” He continues, asking “How can we suggest criteria for rabbis who are themselves elected without criteria?”
The controversy led to a November, 2013 Knesset debate on the rabbinate’s traditionally opaque policy of disqualifying certain Orthodox rabbis overseas based on no clear criteria.
What was Weiss shortfall? Could there be some other reason for the Chief Rabbinate’s action? Weiss has challenged Orthodox “tradition.” He is the Senior Rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and is the founder of the Yeshivat Chovevei Hatorah, now considered Open Orthodox. Weiss initiated the Yeshivat Maharat program for women. He has and continues to ordain its graduates. Some feel that the Israeli rabbanut’s rejection of his testimony is “payback” for empowering women, especially agunot, and creating a more accepting attitude toward other denominations of Judaism.
Rabbi Seth Farber, Director of ITIM, an Israeli Modern Orthodox organization that helps Jews get through the country’s religious bureaucracy, said Weiss’ rejection is “a symptom of the problem” many American Modern Orthodox Jews face when trying to live or marry in Israel.
Farber says there is a “growing distrust of the American Jewish community within the ranks of the Israeli rabbinate, mirrored by that body’s approach to the American Jewish/Orthodox community which effectively says, ‘We’re going to assume everybody is not ok, except for those on a list established about three years ago noting those rabbis considered kosher.’” Farber terms the list “capricious” and joins other Orthodox voices calling for greater transparency and the publicizing of the Israeli rabbinate’s criteria for accepting testimony from overseas rabbis.
While there is much speculation as to which individuals excoriating Weiss without consulting the RCA, one Modern Orthodox rabbi in greater metropolitan New York, (who requested anonymity because of unintended consequences in such a politically charged ambience), said that one of the reasons the Israeli rabbanut is attempting to force its religious power over the rest of World Jewry is because it is compensating for lost political power—they have to make changes in education and national service policies or they lose funding. “What the government does not realize, and is not controlling at this time, is the rabbanut’s alienation of all of American Jewry by its actions, except for those who think like they do. It is interesting that at a time when the American Jewish establishment is attempting to increase American Jewish kiruv to Israel, and asking for financial and political support for her, actions in Israel—at every level of society—are making that more difficult to do whether it is the rabbanut, certain civilians or the government. Racism and sinat chinom seem to prevail, at least in the media. That’s why a number of issues that involve human rights, ethics and justice have come to the fore, as exemplified by the actions of the rabbanut. And those rabbis do not understand that they are alienating a committed Modern Orthodox Zionist, Israel-loving community—Israel’s best friends.”
Assaf Benmelech, Rabbi Weiss’ attorney argued against the decision of the Chief Rabbinate and said that “The rabbinate is insulting all Modern Orthodox in Israel and the Diaspora. Today it is Avi Weiss, tomorrow it could be any rabbi. Every rabbi who hears this story should be shocked and speak his mind…The [Israeli] rabbinate is exporting its isolationist postures to the Jewish world at large, and that has to be curtailed, because it’s not just bad for the rabbinate, it’s bad for the Jewish people and Israel.”
In Israel, Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah is working towards a democratization of religious services and a separation of religion and politics. The organization is proposing that Israeli Jewish communities be allowed to choose their own rabbis instead of government-appointees. “All the denominations can play on our field. We want to open up religious services and put as many players as possible in there, from Israel and the world.”
By Maxine Dovere