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

I.

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.

II.

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.

III.

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.

IV.

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.


Understanding Orthodox Halachic Innovation: Rabbi Lopatin’s Tribute to Rav Hershel Schachter, shli”ta

May 5, 2010

Rabbi Shai Held, Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivat Hadar in New York,  recently wrote an Op Ed critical of Rav Hershel Schachter’s position prohibiting the ordination of women as rabbis.  Rabbi Schachter, perhaps the preeminent Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University and a student of Rav Soloveitchik, zt”l, was one of many speakers at the recent Rabbinical Council of America convention where the issue of women rabbis in Orthodoxy – and, women’s roles in Orthodox Jewish communal leadership in general – was discussed and eventually voted on.  Rabbi Held mentioned, accurately, that Rav Schachter put the ordination of women in the category of “yehareg ve’al ya’avor” – those things that a person has to give up his or her life for rather that doing them.  Rav Schachter further invoked the ruling of his rebbe, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, that it was halachically impermissible for a woman to be a rabbi.  Many of the speakers at the convention, some of whom are poskim, halachic decisors like Rav Schachter is, disagreed with this understanding of the scope or application of Jewish law.  Moreover, even Rav Schachter, to the best of my understanding,  is in favor of women’s Torah learning and teaching on the communal level;  everyone at the convention, including Rav Schachter, would agree with Rabbi Held’s view that, “one of the crucial mandates of the hour is to create more opportunities and contexts [within halacha (ed.)]for women’s voices to be heard in Jewish life.”

Where I want to strenuously, and lovingly, disagree with Rabbi Held is in his implication throughout his Op Ed that Rav Schachter, and those of his ilk, are against “chidush bahalacha”, new, innovative ways of understanding the classic texts and traditions.  Nothing could be farther from the truth, especially since Rav Schachter’s speech at the conference delved specifically into the requirement  of every contemporary halachic decisor to examine the tradition and the text based on his (or her) own understanding: “l’fi r’ot eini hadayan” – according to the way the judge – of any era –sees it.  Rav Schachter spoke eloquently and passionately of how all the rules which seem to prohibit a lesser and later court from ruling against a greater and more numerous earlier court did not apply to understanding halacha, but, rather, only to rescinding a “takana” an edict.  When it comes to understanding the infinite word of God, especially in the world of Halacha, Rav Schachter proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that that understanding cannot  be based on “status quo”, as Rabbi Held claims, but, rather, by the most contemporary understanding of the halachic decisor who is examining it.

Rav Schachter gave as examples of this new and fresh approach that is required in learning and issuing halachic rulings, Rav Moshe Feinstein of the 20th century and the Vilna Gaon, the great Lithuanian decisor of the 18th century.  The Vilna Gaon regularly disagreed with Rishonim and Gaonim, authorities of the centuries and millennium before him.  He had no choice: he had to be honest, and if he felt they didn’t read the tradition and the texts (Talmud and Midrash) correctly, he had to disagree with them.  When it came to Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Schachter said that Rav Moshe, zt”l, wasn’t even so familiar with many of the opinions of the Acharonim, the big names of the three or four centuries before him,  and that he didn’t feel a loss: It’s always interesting for a halachic decisor to see what others are thinking,  but in the end of the day it doesn’t matter: halachic decisions are not just copied from the past, they are based on the latest, freshest thinking of the individual halachic authority.  Independence and, yes, innovation, where it is called for to bring out the truth of the Torah, are the hallmarks of the Orthodox halachic process, and from what Rav Schechter said at the RCA convention, he was their biggest advocate.

In fact, even though, in general, the authorities of the Gemarra (Amoraim) committed themselves not to take on the understandings of their predecessors, the authorities  of the Mishna (Tanaim), Rav Schachter showed how in some ways the great Amora Rav actually did disagree with Tanaim, as an Amora, not under the guise of a Tana himself, though he is sometimes called a Tana.  The great halachic and aggadic authority, the Netziv (19th century), Rosh Yeshiva of the storied Volozyn yeshiva developed this concept of “chidush bahalacha” – innovation in the halacha – long before any of the later authorities that Rabbi Held quotes, and Rav Schachter is squarely in the tradition of the Netziv, having studied with Rav Soloveitchik, himself a scion of the Volozyn tradition.

The very idea of ordaining women being “yehareg ve’al ya’avor (die rather than violate)” is based on an innovative understanding of the law in the Talmud of “arkesa d’mesana” – “laces (?)of the shoes”.  Rav Schachter explained this Talmudic concept in his talk that even the smallest infraction can become “yehareg ve’al ya’avor” – even how you tie your shoe – if it is in the context of “she’at hashmad” – a time when Jews are being persecuted for keeping Judaism, even down to the smallest detail like how Jews tie their shoes.  The innovative read on this Talmudic concept was pioneered by Rav Schachter’s teacher, Rav Soloveitchik, in taking on what the Rav saw as the “she’at hashmad” in the and ‘50’s and ‘60’s, when the Conservative and Reform movements’ popularity in Jewish circles created an atmosphere of pressure on Orthodox Jews to compromise their halacha and conform to Reform and Conservative styles of Jewish worship.  Thus, even davening in a Reform or Conservative synagogue, with mixed seating and other infractions of halacha (in the eyes of Orthodoxy), while not normally seen as a central violation meriting “yehareg ve’al ya’avor”, in the context of the social pressures and climate of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s were classified by the Rav as “yehareg ve’al ya’avor”.  Wow!  While we may recoil from this ruling, to use Rabbi Held’s term, it is certainly an innovative and revolutionary way of viewing a two thousand year old halacha from the Talmud.  Rav Schachter continues in Rav Soloveitchik’s innovative interpretation, by seeing the act of ordaining women rabbis as Orthodox Jews knuckling under pressure from a climate of feminism in society and amongst the other movements of Judaism.

Orthodoxy believes in a divine, infinite and eternal Torah that was revealed to Moshe at Sinai and through the 40 years in the wilderness.  To understand that Torah properly, requires each Torah scholar and halachic authority, in every generation, such as Rav Schachter, to think for themselves, to figure out what God told us, to understand the texts of our tradition in a way that feels true to the person reading them.  The halachic process, within the theological underpinnings of Orthodox Judaism, thrives on new understandings of the ancient texts and traditions; these new and innovative understandings, “chidushei halacha” are  celebrated as the contribution of each individual mind, in every era, to give us a better understanding of what God commanded Moses and the Children of Israel in the written and oral law so many years ago.  It is ever fresh, ever eternal, and ever open to debate and new challenges.     RAL