A Recent Episode As Seen From Three Perspectives by David Wolkenfeld

January 22, 2014

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.

Maha – right

June 3, 2009

Los Angeles is a continent away from Sara Hurwitz’ controversial ordination as MaHaRaT by Rabbi Avi Weiss. As a result, almost no one here in the West seems to yet know or care. Perhaps the only advantage of living in this parallel Modern Orthodox universe is that it affords one the possibility of viewing this event, along with the discussions it has generated from, well, a distance. And from a distance, it appears to me that much of the discussion that this event has generated – discussion about the propriety of ordaining women – is actually missing the mark. I see Sara Hurwitz’ quasi-semicha as indeed sparking several important discussions, but none of them about women and ordination  per se.


Chief among the discussions that seems to largely miss the point, is the “halachik discussion”, i.e. the discussion as to whether there is a halachik barrier to a woman serving as a rabbi. To folks who have served in the congregational rabbinate, the question seems almost nonsensical. I have been blessed to serve as a congregational rabbi for the last 19 years.  The sections of  Shulchan Aruch that have governed my work are entirely egalitarian. The laws of visiting the sick and of comforting the mourner, the laws of rebuking people without publicly embarrassing them, and the laws of tzedaka and proper treatment of synagogue employees are not gender-sensitive. The Torah that God has merited me to teach has been drawn exclusively from texts that Modern Orthodox Jews believe are open to everyone regardless of gender. Ninety percent of the answers that I have given to questions of practical halacha have come straight out of the standard halachik literature, and the other ten percent  – questions that I felt truly needed adjudication –  I submitted to people who are formally authorized to render decisions. The laws of Helping Jews Work Together On Committees are not halachikly codified at all. The question as to whether a woman may be appointed to a position of srara (of authority over a community) has been effectively addressed through the halachik recognition that any leader who is freely elected by (and can be fired by) a community, and whose authority is shared with lay-leadership, is not in fact exercising srara.


What are the important discussions that ought be raised by Sara Hurwitz’ ordination? I’d propose there are three:


(1)   Are we as committed as we should be to having the best leaders that we can have?

The American Orthodox community, now as always, is in need of creative, visionary, dedicated rabbinic leadership. (The looming day school crisis underscores this need well.)  Arguably, we have been facing our challenges in recent years with much of one hand tied behind our backs, as half of our population (the female half) has not been encouraged or been given the necessary training to provide the sort of  broadly-impacting religious leadership that is invested in the rabbinate. The discussion we ought be having is not about “can women be rabbis?”, rather “are we serious about having the best possible religious leadership?”  Assuming that we are, I propose that we ought be opening the rabbinate to women not to address feminist concerns, but in order to have the best chance at producing the rabbinic leaders that we need.  This isn’t a “women’s issue”. It’s a leadership training issue.


(2)   Are we prepared to correct a fundamental illogic in our approach to Talmud Torah?

Opening the Orthodox rabbinate to women is also about fixing a glaring inconsistency in our educational philosophy. We are today ideologically committed to the proposition that Talmud Torah is an equal-opportunity value, and that all Jewish people should pursue the study of whatever area of Torah they desire. This obviously includes the kind of intensive study of practical halacha that characterizes a semicha curriculum. We already confer degrees on men or women who have completed courses of study in TaNaCH, Jewish philosophy, or even Talmud. But for reasons more social/political than logical or fair we won’t do so for Jews who have completed the requisite study of practical halacha, when those Jews lack a “y” chromosome. This arbitrary discriminatory practice reflects poorly on us, and for the sake of our communal integrity and the uprightness of our educational system needs to be addressees one way or another.  


(3)   Recognizing Sara Hurwitz’ ordination not as a revolution but as a challenge

A third meaningful discussion that we ought to have is about the twin realities that over the last decades we have created a community in which Orthodox women have become more deeply educated, have taken some leadership roles in educational and communal settings (and for that matter in rabbinic settings as well in several instances though usually without a title), and that our community has changed for the better as a result. Our schools have become infinitely more creative, our homes are religiously much deeper, and our communal stands against sexual abuse and recalcitrant husbands more robust. And these are but a few of the positive changes that have resulted. MaHaRaT Hurwitz’ ordination should not be characterized as – and in fact isn’t! –  a challenge to our traditional ways. It is rather a challenge to us to keep striving for new and better ways to make our community better, wiser, and holier through opening opportunities for all Jews, men and women alike.