Avi Weiss - Like Butch Cassidy In Bolivia
03/15/2010 - 12:13
James Besser

In the end, all of Orthodoxy — RCA, YU, Agudah, YCT — was aiming its guns at Avi Weiss. To see him this past week reminded me of the end of Butch Cassidy down in Bolivia, with every policeman, every soldier, south of the Rio Grande ready to blow him away (along with his plans for women rabbis).

Despite the claims that the Avi Weiss vs. RCA conflict was peaceful, here’s a memo sent by the RCA officers to its members regarding the resolution of their disagreement with Avi: This is “a first major step in bringing this matter to closure in a fashion which avoids a damaging battle in the public arena.” (Signed by RCA Pres. Rabbi Moshe Kletenik)

Why would there be ”a damaging battle in the public arena” if they weren’t already having a damaging battle backstage? This has been a long-standing pattern with the RCA. When an unpleasant story begins to make its way into the papers, they quickly settle, deny there was any problem in the first place, and hope the story will just go away.

In the end, Avi Weiss backed down because no major figure except Marc Angel openly supported Avi’s elevation of Sura Hurwitz from Maharat to her current title Rabba” –a feminized version of rabbi with full clergy status. No one supported Avi, not even the leaders of his own yeshiva, Yeshivat Chovivei Torah. “What did you expect,” said one rabbi, a graduate of YCT. “All the YCT guys want to get into the RCA someday. Who did you think they’d support? Avi or the RCA?” Like Osama Bin-Laden said, when there’s a weak horse and a strong horse, people want to ride the strong horse. Avi’s retreat on Rabba sends a message to his own yeshiva, and the yeshiva sends a message to Avi: The RCA is the strong horse.

A stronger message was sent to Rabbi Weiss by the number of congregants at his Hebrew Institute of Riverdale who have left the shul — gone — over the Rabba issue, with objections ranging from its unilateral conception by fiat to the mishandling of the campaign in support of it. These are congregants who are Orthodox and like to think of themselves as members of an Orthodox shul; both Agudah and the RCA (Rabbinical Council of America) said Avi was taking the shul to the Orthodox-Conservative borderline.

There was, however, a victory in all this for Rabbi Weiss: The RCA letter made no mention of the one Rabba in existence, Sara Hurwitz. And so Rabbi Weiss ran through that wisp of daylight, saying on Shabbos afternoon, in a talk to his congregation, that she gets to keep the title Rabba. But she will be the last. All future graduates of his Yeshivat Maharat , where women are trained for Orthodox rabbinic positions, will not be called Rabba but will get the title “Maharat.” As far as Agudah is concerned, if Sara Hurwitz is still a rabbi-like Rabba, with full clergy status, as Avi maintains, that is enough to make the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale not Orthodox.

Avi hasn’t addressed whether Sara Hurwitz will still be considered rabbinic clergy or not. That she keeps the title Rabba — every bit as contrived and made-up as Maharat — is less important than whether she is advertised as “rabbinic.” If Avi doesn’t surrender on that front, than congregants have to decide how comfortable they’d be in shul considered non-Orthodox by Agudah, representing the vast association of the yeshivish world. Avi told me that he was confronting “cherem,” excommunication, over Hurwitz’ rabbinic status. He didn’t address that in his Shabbos talk, and he didn’t address what the trickle-down negativity would have on his YCT students and congregants.  He also didn’t agree to be interviewed. He took questions from congregants but won’t take questions from journalists who would ask not (as the congregants were allowed) just one question — easily deflected by Avi – but follow-up questions, less easily deflected. As of now, follow-up questions are not something Avi wants.

Avi told the congregation that these past several weeks were the worst of his life. And yet he denies now that he was having any trouble with the RCA, which is totally contrary to what I was told directly both by Avi and in black-and-white by one of his top associates.  What are we supposed to believe, that Avi — the tough, uncompromising activist — is suddenly backing down on his Orthodox feminism and giving up the right to call women “Rabba” because of a cordial phone call with the RCA? If all was so cordial, why were these the worst weeks of his life?

Notable in the RCA-Weiss deal, there was no retreat by the RCA on their refusal to recognize Yeshivat Chovivei Torah ordination as sufficient for RCA membership — the only Orthodox rabbinical school in the metropolitan area to be so dissed. The RCA has every right to uphold their basic standards for rabbinic ordination. By granting the RCA veto power over the Rabba title, Rabbi Weiss himself is saying that the RCA is the proper address for Orthodox standards, and the RCA continues to say that YCT isn’t good enough.

Chabad and Satmar and Agudah don’t even include the RCA in their conversation. They are the really independent ones, not Avi and not YCT. If Avi and YCT and their so-called “Open Orthodoxy” are not independent but will do the RCA’s (and Agudah’s?) bidding on Rabba, then isn’t it time for YCT to grow up and stop bad-mouthing Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school (the majority of the rabbis in the RCA) and admit that YCT aspires to be every bit as conventional and mainstream as they (sometimes unfairly) accuse the YU rabbis of being?

And if Avi could initiate the talks with the RCA as is claimed, why won’t he initiate talks with Agudah instead of complaining that Agudah hasn’t called him? The RCA didn’t call him either (supposedly).

If Avi was only under pressure from “the right,” why is that Marc Angel was one of the only centrist-left rabbis to support him? Where were all the rabbis who’ve spoken at the JOFA conference over the years? Where were the rabbis in Avi’s own yeshiva? (His YCT rabbis were running for cover. YCT Rosh Yeshiva Dov Linzer, usually scared, was even more scared than usual. Linzer, himself, is not on board with women rabbis or neo-rabbis or the Maharat program. As usual, he won’t go on the record, prefering to throw spitballs in the dark.)  It wasn’t just the right-wing that brought down the Rabba. Nothing is more lazy than to blame the right. Avi was under pressure from the left, right and center, even from his own yeshiva, from a portion of his own congregants, from some of his financial supporters.

There is something to be said for the ideal that halacha, and all legal systems, must be the result of consensus. In the end, Avi did not build even a semblance of a consensus and he could produce only the most skeletal of constituencies beyond his own shul. For all his supposed gifts for public relations, he didn’t build consensus by doing  interviews, returning phone calls, or speaking on the record in the wake of the Agudah ruling against him. His lieutenants did most of the talking — and not very well. What we’re left with is Avi Weiss singing I Fought The Law And the Law Won.

This is only one battle, one defeat for liberal Orthodoxy. But he’ll lose the war, too, if he doesn’t realize exactly what went wrong and why. When MacArthur said “I shall return,” he didn’t return alone. He made sure he had an army behind him. Where is Avi’s army? He says he feels alone. He’s right. He’s not a general, he’s a cowboy. His plan worked out as well as Butch and Sundance in Bolivia, a couple of good guys but very much alone.

Here’s the RCA statement followed by Avi’s response.

(March 5, 2010)

“Over the course of the last several weeks, at the request and initiative of Rabbi Avi Weiss, the leadership of Rabbinical Council of America and Rabbi Avi Weiss have engaged in discussions concerning the issue of ordaining women as rabbis. We are gratified that during the course of these conversations Rabbi Weiss concluded that neither he nor Yeshivat Maharat would ordain women as rabbis and that Yeshivat Maharat will not confer the title of “Rabba” on graduates of their program.  We are delighted that we have been able to resolve this matter in adherence with Torah principles and in a spirit of cooperation for the sake of peace and unity within our community. We are confident that continued dialogue of this type will enable us to resolve other important issues facing the Jewish community today. The RCA reaffirms its commitment to women’s Torah education and scholarship at the highest levels, and to the assumption of appropriate leadership roles within the Jewish community. We strongly maintain that any innovations that impact the community as a whole should be done only with the broad support of the Orthodox rabbinate and a firm grounding in the eternal mesorah of the Jewish people.”

Letter from Rabbi Avi Weiss to RCA President Rabbi Moshe Kletenik:

“Dear Rabbi Kletenik

“This has been a most challenging time. The change in title from “Maharat” to “Rabba” has precipitated a level of controversy in the Orthodox community that was neither expected nor intended.  In light of the tension caused to our greater community and my commitment to the principle of gadol hashalom, I share the following:  It is not my intention or the intention of Yeshivat Maharat to confer the title of “Rabba” upon its graduates.

“Yeshivat Maharat prepares women for positions of religious leadership in the Orthodox community. Each student who completes its course of study in Tanakh, Talmud, Halakha and Jewish Thought, and is deemed fit by her faith, knowledge of our Mesoret, ethical integrity and temperament to assume positions of religious leadership in Orthodox institutions will be confirmed as manhigah hilkhatit, ruhanit, toranit (Maharat).  They will have been prepared to provide varied forms of communal and synagogue leadership in accordance with halakha.  They will also have been trained in pastoral counseling, as well as having the ability to answer questions of halakha to those who seek them out, as has been recognized and well established in both classical and contemporary halakhic sources.

“I hope that good will emerge from all of this, and that some of the meaningful conversation and communication that has taken place these past few weeks between myself and yourself as the President of the Rabbinical Council of America, might continue.  I thank you for your candor and your receptiveness.  In the prayer that we all continue to work for the betterment of Am Yisrael—

“Biydidut, Avi

And here’s a portion of the Agudah statement: “Rabbi Avi Weiss has conferred ’semikha’ upon a woman, has made her an Assistant Rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale where she carries out certain traditional rabbinical functions, and has now given her the title of ‘Rabbah’ (formerly “Maharat’). He has stated that the change in title is designed to ‘make it clear that Sara Hurwitz is a full member of our rabbinic staff, a rabbi with the additional quality of a distinct woman’s voice.’ These developments represent a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition and the mesoras haTorah, and must be condemned in the strongest terms. Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.”

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