This past October, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel rejected a letter attesting to the Judaism of a couple who sought to wed in an Israeli ceremony written by Rabbi Avi Weiss, the liberal spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a Modern Orthodox congregation in New York, and founder of the Orthodox rabbinical seminary Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, that, among other things, ordains women as clergy. According to a spokesman for the Rabbinate, the letter was on hold, pending an investigation into the rabbi’s adherence to traditional Jewish law.
Weiss – whose letters confirming the Jewishness of myriad Israeli immigrants had not been questioned in the past – was outraged. Ultimately, the Rabbinate rescinded its decision, and announced that it would once again accept all of Weiss’ letters. Nonetheless, the rabbi, in his ongoing quest to strip the Israeli Chief Rabbinate of its mandate on issues of personal Jewish status in the Jewish State, took his case to the New York Times. “The episode has propelled me to raise a larger issue: the Chief Rabbinate’s far-reaching and exclusive control in Israel over personal matters like marriage, and its intrusion into the affairs of the Diaspora. It is time to decentralize the Chief Rabbinate’s power and to give Jewish communities greater say in what is acceptable for their members,” Weiss wrote in a Times op-ed of Jan. 29, entitled “Rein in Israel’s Rabbinate.”
Since, in this case, Rabbi Weiss’ issue directly affects American Modern Orthodox rabbis, the Ledger asked Connecticut’s Modern Orthodox rabbis to comment on the rabbi’s editorial and, in particular, his decision to air his grievances in the New York Times. Several responded. (In fact, Weiss has also advocated for the acceptance of the conversions of Conservative and Reform rabbis by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate – which is currently not done. The Ledger plans to tackle that topic in a future issue.)
Congregation Ahavath Achim
Rabbi Rocklin is a member of the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA).
One of the greatest sources of unity for American Jews is our support for Israel. It should sadden all American Jews that Rabbi Avi Weiss, a well-known advocate for Jewish unity and the State of Israel, used language in a New York Times article so harsh towards Israel that it was officially promoted by the Palestine Liberation Organization: https://twitter.com/PLODelegationUS/status/428945919229169669
Like any bureaucracy, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has its problems. Yet there are important reasons why it was established and maintained by a mostly secular society. As a Jewish state with an overwhelmingly secular population and an Orthodox minority, Israel found itself in a unique position. For various reasons, Israel’s first Knesset deemed a government-supported rabbinate to be essential. For instance, the Chief Rabbinate protected Jewish women by ensuring that religious divorce procedures are carried out when required. It also maintained standards for conversions, so that Israeli Jews could ascertain the Jewish status of a prospective spouse. The decision to require Orthodox standards seemed natural, since there were almost no Reform or Conservative Jews in the population – most Jews were secular, some were Orthodox, and others were non-denominationally traditional. The rabbinate contributed to an overwhelmingly secular society in other ways, such as making kosher food easily available throughout the country.
As part of a liberal democratic government in a Jewish state, the Israeli rabbinate benefits both secular and religious Israelis. Unlike U.S. institutions, it was created by a society with particularly Jewish needs, even when they are secular. For instance, famously secular Tel Aviv passed Shabbat blue laws, which ensure that disadvantaged small businesses receive a well-deserved day off. For its part, the rabbinate uses lenient standards for kosher food supervision that promote its widespread availability.
The Rabbinate has limited powers. It can only establish Jewish identity standards for marriages, not for immigration or citizenship. Everything that it does is ultimately controlled and overseen by the Knesset.
As for the rabbinate’s problems, there are many debates in Israel concerning how to solve them. As Americans, while we ought to support Israel’s citizens as they make difficult decisions about their future, we should avoid projecting American norms onto a very different Israeli society. Above all, we should be positive. Rabbi Weiss made a serious mistake in these respects, and in doing so, he unintentionally allowed the PLO to use his words to outrageously malign Israel as a society that supposedly allows religious “coercion.”
Young Israel of Stamford
Rabbi Krimsky is a member of the RCA. He points out that his response is on his own behalf and represents his own views and not those of his congregation nor the RCA.
I believe it to be inappropriate to publicly comment about a senior colleague’s judgment and choice to publish his criticism of fellow rabbis in the New York Times. I am cognizant of the challenges with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate in general, and its relationship to Diaspora and American Jewry in particular. For that very reason I proudly support the RCA’s relationship with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. I believe that the RCA can use its growing influence to help encourage the needed changes, such as never allowing one of our august colleagues to be humiliated as Rabbi Weiss was, for reasons that are unjustifiable.
Rabbi Avi Weiss is a hero to many of us for his incredible love for humanity, the Jewish people and his endless empathy. His accomplishments will forever be his. Lately he has ventured into a different type of activism. While his prestige and our homage for him will always give him a voice, I support the RCA’s decision to continue to broker deals with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which I believe will ultimately benefit our beloved congregants. It is very difficult to promote an extremely progressive religious agenda on one hand and, on the other, maintain one’s mainstream credentials. In this particular case I support the continuing diplomacy rather than the declaration of war promoted by others. I believe the needs of American Jews will be better served by the former strategy, not the latter.
Rabbi Jacob B. Mendelson
Congregation Bikur Cholim
The office of Chief Rabbi in Israel was not merely an invention of the British Mandate in Palestine at the start of the 20th century, as implied by Rabbi Avi Weiss in his recent op-ed piece in the New York Times. Rather, it represents a modern link in a continuous chain of chief rabbis dating all the way back to when the Torah was first received at Mount Sinai. In the famous biblical passage, read several weeks ago in all synagogues, Moshe’s father-in-law, Jethro, urges our first national leader to create a hierarchical system of rabbis and batei din (Jewish courts), in order to organize and administer authority in Jewish law for the welfare of all the people. This tradition continued with the Sanhedrin, whose nasi, or president, was effectively the Chief Rabbi of Israel. In the Diaspora, there were chief rabbis of communities and countries, such as Hasdai Crescas, in 14th century Spain, and Rabbi Meir of Rottenberg, 13th century Chief Rabbi of Germany.
Rabbi Moshe Isserlish, 16th century co-author of the Shulchan Aruch [Code of Jewish Law], expressly confirms in his responsa the validity of even royally appointed chief rabbis. The last chacham bashi, or chief rabbi, of the Ottoman Empire was elected in 1909. It was thus quite natural for the British Mandate to create the Office of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel in 1920, especially since England already had the institution of Chief Rabbi since the eighteenth century.
For Weiss to complain about the rejection of his letters confirming the Jewish status of candidates for marriage in the State of Israel is not surprising. He is an avant guarde and deviationist rabbi, who recently introduced the ordination of “Orthodox” female rabbis; so we can expect him to view the standards of the centrist Chief Rabbinate’s office as “ultra-strict.” His call for the decentralization of organized rabbinic authority in Israel, however, is truly shocking because it flies in the face of millenia of authentic Jewish tradition. Communal standards are certainly taken into consideration in the election of the Chief Rabbis of Israel, as local rabbinic councils are indeed represented in the electoral process. Everyone is aware that the candidates for these appointments represent the spectrum of Orthodox rabbis in Israel.
For Weiss to threaten to bring his complaints against the Chief Rabbinate to the Israeli Supreme Court is beyond outrageous. It has always been the practice of rabbinical organizations to discipline their own members. This is usually accomplished by self-appointed investigative committees and, in the case of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, there is also the electorate ballot box. In other words, if you don’t like the current chief rabbi, support the candidacy of someone else next time. But to look to government organs outside the Chief Rabbinate to dictate to the rabbis how to decide their rabbinic questions is patently un-rabbinic, to say the least. One would expect this behavior to be disciplined by Weiss’s own Orthodox rabbinic organization.