A Recent Episode As Seen From Three Perspectives by David Wolkenfeld

Rabbi Avi Weiss and the Israeli Rabbinate: An Episode Seen from Three Perspectives


Rabbi Avi Weiss announced last October that his letters attesting to the Jewish status of members of his community who had moved to Israel were no longer acceptable to the rabbanut, the Israeli rabbinate. When pressed to justify their rejection, a spokesman for the rabbinate explained last month that controversial positions that Rabbi Weiss had taken over the years, as reported to them by anonymous American rabbis, rendered Rabbi Weiss suspect in their eyes and insufficiently Orthodox even to vouch for the personal status of members of his community.

Since Rabbi Weiss broke this story, he has been able to mobilize an impressive list of colleagues, students, and other allies, both in Israel and in the diaspora, to advocate on his behalf.  Late last week, the rabbanut announced that they would, once again, accept Rabbi Weiss’ letters regarding personal status when members of his community move to Israel.  Just last Thursday, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) announced a larger agreement with the rabbanut, wherein they would take responsibility for verifying the Jewish status of the congregants of any of its member-rabbis and that the rabbanut would, as a matter of course, accept the status-determinations made here in America.

Like a Mandelbrot fractal image, no matter how narrowly or how broadly one examines this episode, the shape is the same and raises fundamental questions.  Broadly speaking, there are three levels to this episode and three important contexts for the ensuing conversation.


The first level is the question of “who is Orthodox?”  For those of us love rabbinic politics (or love to hate rabbinic politics), and for those who have some personal connection to the question – this is an important and compelling question. But for most Jews, whether or not Orthodoxy has boundaries and where those boundaries lie, is, at most, a passing thought. Furthermore, within the context of the decades long battle over the place of Liberal Orthodoxy within the broader Orthodox community, there are no surprises. Anyone who has read the polemics surrounding Liberal Orthodoxy, or about Rabbi Weiss himself, that have been published in the past fifteen years already knows that there are segments of the Orthodox world who no longer consider Rabbi Weiss, and inter-alia, his students, to be Orthodox.  Secretly encouraging the rabbanut to reject Rabbi Weiss letters was, perhaps, a new low, and a worrisome escalation, but it was not a move that should have been surprising.

That being said, there are two new elements of this stage of the story that should be noted, condemned, and responded to. First, several of the most consistent and fiercest critics of Liberal Orthodoxy published essays or blog-posts in the past two weeks that disagreed with the decision to disqualify Rabbi Weiss’ letters. Those conflicted critics, and those who agree with them, should experience this episode as a wake-up call. The sensationalist attacks on Rabbi Weiss could have no other long-term effect among those who believe them, other than the total inability of Rabbi Weiss to function as part of the Orthodox rabbinate. That self-destructive path would lead Orthodoxy to a place of less trust, less collegiality, less sharing of Torah ideas, and less respect for Torah and Torah scholarship among a jaded community who witness Torah scholars attack and vilify each other.

Second, the RCA has a need to investigate and identify (at least as part of an internal review) the anonymous source(s) that the rabbanut relied upon to initially disqualify Rabbi Weiss. The ability of the elected leadership and professional staff of the RCA to direct the organization for the benefit of its membership and for the benefit of Torah, necessitates the ability to adopt policies and implement them. Rogue rabbis who speak in the name of the organization without authorization render all of that collective action impossible. Having been burned once, the rabbanut, one hopes, will be more discriminating regarding from whom it accepts information. In turn, the RCA needs to restore its ability to devise and implement policies.


Ironically, the public and private defenses of Rabbi Weiss, from organizations that he is affiliated with and from his colleagues, students, and allies, all affirmed his faithfulness to Orthodox beliefs and practices, and argued that he should be entitled to all of the legal privileges of Orthodox rabbis. This, however, only begged the question of why Orthodox rabbis alone should have this legal status in the State of Israel. More than a few non-Orthodox Jews, and other astute observers, have publicly condemned the resolution of this latest episode as being insignificant for their aims of bringing religious diversity to Israel. The struggle for religious pluralism in Israel is the second context within which to examine this episode. Both those who condemn and those who embrace religious pluralism should recognize that the past two weeks have been insignificant to that broader cause.


But the rabbanut, the state rabbinate, is not an independent variable. The role and function of the rabbanut is dependent on the tasks that the state asks it to perform and that is connected to a much broader question. What does it mean to be a “Jewish State?” The State of Israel currently defines itself as a Jewish state – at least in part – in an ethnic-religious way. This means that those who can prove a Jewish ethnic background, or who were converted by the right sort of rabbis, are entitled by law to a certain legal status. And, as long as that remains the case, there will be a need for a centralized government agency that can keep track of who is Jewish and who is not.

This broader context, to me, is the most interesting perspective from which to contemplate the latest episode between Rabbi Weiss and the rabbinate.  So long as the conversation remains, “is Rabbi Weiss sufficiently Orthodox for the purposes of a certain government agency” or even if the question is expanded to include, “what kind of diaspora rabbi will have the ability to affect the legal status of Israeli citizens?” then the conversation is one that is beyond the conventions of democratic public discourse. “Rabbi Weiss is indeed an Orthodox rabbi” is not a liberal cry. Nor is, “every rabbi should be able to perform conversions recognized by the State of Israel,” at least not as liberalism has been understood for centuries.

The State of Israel was established because the Zionist visionaries understood that nation-states can uniquely protect their citizens from the threat of violence and that the Jewish people needed our own nation-state to protect our lives in a dangerous and threatening world. Nation states can also sponsor, protect, and encourage a national culture in various guises. But nation-states, at least in the democratic world, are ill-equip to answer questions like, “who is a rabbi?” or “what are the boundaries of acceptable halakhic behavior?” Those sorts of questions, however, are asked and answered every day by kehilot, by communities, and by the religious leadership of those communities.  And because we don’t depend on each other for our physical survival, it’s OK for our kehilot, our shuls, and our religious movements and denominations, to answer those questions in different, or even contradictory, ways.

Think of what you love about living in Israel or visiting there. Think about what the State of Israel means for world Jewry and its significance in the grand sweep of Jewish history. Does any of that depend on a government office collecting lists of Jewish and gentile citizens?

A kehillah is capable of organizing around a common religious vision and a common purpose. That sort of unity, ish echad b’lev echad, as Rashi taught us last week in Parashat Yitro, is a preface to receiving Torah.  But a nation-state cannot easily impose that degree of unity.  Contrary to Kobi Oz’s creative lyrics, the State of Israel is not a giant shul.  Let’s learn to unite where we should, and to foster diversity where that is needed.  We in the diaspora should celebrate all that Israel represents for us, and do what we can to ensure Israel’s safety and flourishing. But we should not look to Israel to resolve questions of Jewish identity that we can more properly answer at home.

16 Responses to A Recent Episode As Seen From Three Perspectives by David Wolkenfeld

  1. Mr. Cohen says:

    COMMENT 1:

    Shmuly Yanklowitz was ordained as a Rabbi by Yeshivat
    Chovevei Torah (YCT), which was founded and directed
    by Avi Weiss.

    Shmuly Yanklowitz recently publicly announced his support
    for so-called “gay marriage”:

    Go to: http://openorthodox.com/ and click on ARTICLES,
    or just go to: http://openorthodox.com/articles/.

    Notice that there are only 4 names:
    First Avraham Weiss, the founder of the Open Orthodox movement.
    The second name is Shmuly Yanklowitz.
    Viewed from this perspective, Shmuly Yanklowitz seems
    to be prominent in the Open Orthodox movement.

    COMMENT 2:

    A Black Baptist Church choir performed in The Bayit,
    the synagogue of Avi Weiss, on Martin Luther King Day:

    If you doubt that The Bayit is affiliated with Avi Weiss,
    then go to: http://openorthodox.com/communities/

    I’m not complaining just because the choir was Christian;
    if the choir had been Muslim or Buddhist or Native American
    Indian religions, my complaint would be the same. None of
    them should sing in a synagogue that claims to be Orthodox.

    A Christian minister also spoke at the event, at the invitation
    of The Bayit. Why did synagogue that claims to be Orthodox
    invite a Christian minister to speak?
    I’m not complaining just because the lecturer was Christian;
    if the lecturer had been Muslim or Buddhist or Native American
    Indian religions, my complaint would be the same. None of
    them should lecture in a synagogue that claims to be Orthodox.

    • Tuvia says:

      Lighten up Mr. Cohen! If hashem doesn’t think it is appropriate, he will make his feelings known! Otherwise, live and let live…

      • Mr. Cohen says:

        Rashi on Vayikra, chapter 20, verse 26:
        If you are separated from them [the Gentiles]
        then behold, you belong to Me; and if not, then
        you belong to Nebuchadnezzar and his associates.

  2. I think it’s somewhat inaccurate to say that there were rabbis sneaking around behind everyone’s back to get the Rabbanut to take the position they did. Many rabbis have been quite public in their opposition


    and the Agudah publicly refused to go on the Zev Brenner show when R’ Lopatin made his appearance because they said Open Orthodoxy was no longer Orthodox as an official position. There have been no secrets here about what people believe and their public opposition. The question isn’t how it got back to the Rabbanut but why it took so long.

    • Rabbi David Wolkenfeld says:

      Rabbi Kotkin, the rabbanut claimed that they spoke to individuals with whom they have a prior relationship, with some seniority within the RCA, and were cautioned against trusting Rabbi Weiss’ letters. This suggests that there were individuals misrepresenting the RCA’s position to the rabbanut. You are quite right that the existence of many who deny Rabbi Weiss’ Orthodoxy is an old story. Several of the people, however, who signed the statement you linked to, have written publicly that the rabbanut should accept Rabbi Weiss’ letters of this sort.

  3. Josh says:

    “That self-destructive path would lead Orthodoxy to a place of less trust, less collegiality, less sharing of Torah ideas, and less respect for Torah and Torah scholarship among a jaded community who witness Torah scholars attack and vilify each other.”

    Rav Soloveitchik (as reported by Rav Rakeffet) used to say: How do you know that Hazal had a sense of humor? Because it says: “Talmidei hakhamim marbim shalom ba’olam . . . .”

  4. Mr. Cohen says:

    Avi Weiss favors non-halachic conversions in Israel.

    SOURCE: End the Chief Rabbinate’s Monopoly
    by Avi Weiss, The Jerusalem Post, 11/5/2013

    • Rabbi David Wolkenfeld says:

      Mr. Cohen, that was what I was alluding to when I mentioned that it was ironic that the support for Rabbi Weiss had reinforced the position that his credentials qua Orthodox rabbi should enable him to write letters to the rabbanut.

    • Rabbi David Wolkenfeld says:

      Interestingly, an anonymous commenter on an anti-Rabbi Weiss op-ed on “Yeshiva World News” addressed this issue from an anti-Zionist Haredi stance and asserted that Rabbi Weiss’ Orthodoxy is a less interesting question than the question of how we ask the State of Israel to involve itself in matters of halakhah. See bellow:

      1. Martin Luther King Day is a government holiday, similar to the Fourth of July in the United States, the Queen’s Birthday in England, or Yom ha-Atzumut in Israel. If it would be prohibited from observing one of those days in a shul, most non-hareidim would be in trouble. There really isn’t a prohibition of patriotic observances in a shul. Certainly from a halachic perspective, honoring Dr. King in shul is less offensive than honoring the zionists by saying hallel to commemorate the day they defeated the British (as if defeating a dying empire and starting an unending war was something to say hallel over).

      2. Women signing in front of men, as well as other forms of lewd behaivor, are quite common among modern orthodox and religious zionists. Given that the Israeli government has used such lewd behavior to weed possible hareidim from the army’s officer course, the medinah would be hard put to accept this as a standard.

      3. Having a government decide “who is Jewish” is the problem. Given that Israel is a secular state, in which goyim and secular Jews form a clear majority, it is a problem asking such people to decide halacha. Frum Jews need to decide halacha for themselves without dependence on, or interference, from the secular government.

      – See more at: http://www.theyeshivaworld.com/news/editorial/211402/op-ed-the-decision-of-the-chief-rabbinate-should-be-rescinded-avi-weiss-brings-baptist-choir-into-his-orthodox-synagogue.html#sthash.XHs2RERD.dpuf

      • Mr. Cohen says:

        Considering that Jewish Law forbids Jews from entering a church, and urges Jews to stay far away from churches, how can Avi Weiss justify bringing a church choir into a synagogue, and watching them perform, and inviting a Christian minister to give a speech?

        In the very early days of Reform Judaism [before 1900 CE], a Catholic Bishop requested permission to speak in a Reform Synagogue. The result of his speech: around 25% of the Jews in the Reform Synagogue converted to Christianity. They and their descendants are lost forever. This story was told to me around 1983 CE by a retired Torah teacher whose name appears in the back of The Metsudah Tehillim by Rabbi Avrohom Davis.

        Now do you understand why I object to Avi Weiss inviting Christian ministers to give speeches in synagogues?

      • Josh says:

        I wouldn’t phrase this so categorically. There are situations in which mainstream poskim permit entry into a church. Ask your LOR.

  5. Mr. Cohen says:

    Avi Weiss expresses “solidarity and support” for homosexuals:

    Avi Weiss said this on 2009 August 13:
    “This is an evening for all of Am Yisrael and beyond, to reaffirm that every human being is created BeTzelem Elokim, every human being is created in the image of G_d. As G_d is of infinite and endless value, so too every human being, gay or straight, is of infinite and endless value, and we love you for who you are.”

    Using the logic of Avi Weiss: Since every human being is created in the image of G_d and is of infinite and endless value, therefore we must love all human beings, including: Nazis, terrorists, murderers, rapists, child molesters, wife beaters, racists, thieves, and people who hate homosexuals.

    • Tuvia says:

      I don’t think Rav Weiss meant what you are saying. He is saying that you must love people whose essential identity is good — not you have to love someone who does terrible things to people.

      Mr. Cohen — the shul did a wonderful thing to have the choir there! You would have been very moved by their singing. I think church choirs are wonderful — and, like the intellectual Rav Weiss, belong to all of us as wonderful efforts to celebrate G-d. If Haredim would listen to them — they would leave impressed, not feeling sullied.


  6. This should not have been a surprise. The Rabbanut is Chareidi-controlled. Chareidim are not, as a rule, good at dealing with diversity. So along comes your Rabbi Weiss and announced “I’m making women rabbis!” “I’m letting non-Jewish choirs sing in my synagogue!” “I don’t think there should be any problems with homosexuality in Judaism!” What did you think would happen? What conclusions did you expect them to come to?

  7. shaul shapira says:

    “But for most Jews, whether or not Orthodoxy has boundaries and where those boundaries lie, is, at most, a passing thought”

    That may or may not be true. Let’s assume it is. It doesn’t make the issue any less (or more) important. I could paraphrase “for most Americans, whether BDS movements and Academic boycotts of Israel are legitimate, are at most passing thoughts.” Therefore what?

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