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Time To Stand Up To The Rabbinate

Rabbi Avi Weiss not only diaspora rabbi Israel rejected; why isn't the RCA speaking out?

Tue, 01/07/2014 - 19:00
Editor and Publisher
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

Natan Sharansky, the iconic hero of the Soviet Jewry movement and chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, this week characterized the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s questioning of Rabbi Avi Weiss’s rabbinic credentials as “absurd.”

Sharansky said that the “commitment and integrity” of Rabbi Weiss, the longtime spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and a leading figure in the Modern Orthodox community, are “beyond reproach,” noting that “by his teachings and his personal example he has inspired and raised generations of Jews… with a deep commitment to the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”

Rabbi Weiss has been in the spotlight since his name was made public several months as being deemed unqualified by the Chief Rabbinate to verify the Jewishness of a young couple planning to marry in Israel. 

In fact, though, a number of other American Orthodox rabbis, including Yeshiva University graduates, congregational rabbis of Orthodox Union (OU) synagogues and members of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), have had letters attesting to the Jewishness of couples seeking to be married in Israel rejected by the Chief Rabbinate. In effect, the rabbis were told they were not qualified to determine who among their congregants and constituents was indeed Jewish.

Rabbi Weiss was the only one willing to go public — the others preferred anonymity — and that complicated the situation. That’s because Rabbi Weiss is a lightning rod of sorts. His outspoken views and actions in regard to women’s ordination and his brand of Open Orthodoxy at the yeshiva he founded, have made him a controversial figure within the RCA, where some colleagues are urging the leadership to come to his defense and others call for his dismissal.

Now another North American Orthodox rabbi with none of controversial baggage of Rabbi Weiss has come forward and expressed indignation that he, too, was found to be unacceptable to the Chief Rabbinate for the purpose of verifying that a young couple he knows well is indeed Jewish.

“I’m outraged that I would be disqualified,” Rabbi Scot Berman told me this week. He received his ordination from the Hebrew Theological College (known as “Skokie yeshiva”) in Chicago and has had a three-decade history as a Jewish educator in Orthodox schools.

Rabbi Berman has been a principal and administrator at several Orthodox day schools, including the Rabbi David Silver Academy in Harrisburg, PA, the Ida Crown Academy in Chicago, the Kushner Academy in Livingston, NJ, and the Yeshivat Ohr Chaim Bnei Akiva school in Toronto, where he now lives.

The Chief Rabbinate said he lacked the tools and skills of a congregational rabbi.

Their decision “is indicative of the Chief Rabbinate’s lack of understanding of the Jewish community in North America,” said Rabbi Berman. “What tools do shul rabbis have more than school principals who are embedded [in the community] and keenly aware of the constituents with whom they work?”

Rabbi Berman, a member of the RCA, said he shared the news of the Chief Rabbinate’s decision about him with the group’s leaders and colleagues during a meeting in Toronto last month. “No one responded verbally,” he said.

He chose to step up now, in part, so that the community could understand that the issue is about far more than Rabbi Weiss, who is initiating a lawsuit against the Chief Rabbinate for questioning his credibility as an Orthodox rabbi. (Rabbi Berman does not plan to take such action at this time.)

To be clear, this issue is not just about Rabbi Weiss and it’s not just about Orthodox politics. It’s about how Israel’s two new chief rabbis, Ashkenazi David Lau and Sephardic Yitzchak Yosef, elected to 10-year terms this summer amidst hope they would present a more benign face to Jews in Israel and the diaspora, are instead continuing their predecessors’ deeply disturbing trend to monopolize and centralize rabbinic authority, limiting the autonomy of Orthodox rabbis in the diaspora. And that is bad for Jews everywhere, splitting us further apart as a people.

It is high time to speak out against this power grab on the part of the Chief Rabbinate — and the passive response of the RCA, which has more than 1,000 members in the U.S. and Canada. Despite its size, the RCA seems to be cooperating in diminishing its own influence for fear of losing status with a Chief Rabbinate few here or in Israel respect. And with good reason.

Over the last several decades the Chief Rabbinate has become increasingly haredi in practice and narrow in scope, more eager to protect its authority than to take a welcoming attitude toward an Israeli society increasingly distanced from Judaism.

The rabbinate controls personal status in the state — marriage, divorce, burial and conversion. Increasing numbers of Israelis have opted to marry outside the country, often in Cyprus, to avoid an Orthodox ceremony. And while there are hundreds of thousands of Russians with Jewish relatives living in Israel, many of whom may want to become Jewish, the rabbinate has made the process increasingly difficult, insisting on observance of all of the mitzvot to qualify.

Several years ago the previous chief rabbis, Sephardi Shlomo Amar and Ashkenazi Yona Metzger (who was arrested in November for fraud and taking bribes), took control of Orthodox conversions in the U.S. Until then the RCA had its own policy guidelines; its conversions, conducted by rabbis who knew well the men and women with whom they studied and guided during the process, were recognized in Israel. But the Chief Rabbinate moved to limit the role of congregational rabbis and established a policy where only a select number of bet dins could conduct conversions.

The RCA acquiesced rather than insist that its congregational rabbis were best qualified to see the procedure to its fruition.

Some observers say the rabbinical group here lacked confidence to stand up to the Israeli chief rabbis, who could have cut them out of the process altogether. Others say a few RCA insiders enjoyed being the exclusive North American conduits to the Israeli rabbinate.

Last October, Israel Correspondent Michele Chabin broke the story in The Jewish Week about Rabbi Weiss’s letter for a young couple being rejected by the Chief Rabbinate. But weeks earlier, such groups as ITIM, an Israeli organization that helps people navigate the bureaucracy of the Chief Rabbinate and government agencies dealing with marriage, divorce, conversion and burial, and Tzohar, a group of religious Zionist rabbis in Israel dedicated to making weddings and other Jewish rituals more appealing to society, pressed the Chief Rabbinate on its decision-making methods. They wanted the chief rabbis to explain how they determine which of the thousands of Orthodox rabbis in the diaspora are approved for ritual participation and which are not.

The Chief Rabbinate acknowledged that it has no systematic means of determining the credentials of diaspora rabbis so it relies on the advice of a few trusted colleagues, some of whom are members of the RCA. It’s hard to believe that this primitive method, prone to rumor, gossip and personal bias — and administered by only one, mid-level, non-English-speaking official in the Chief Rabbinate office — is employed by an agency of the government of Israel in dealing with thousands of diaspora rabbis for official matters of personal status.

“It’s completely arbitrary,” says Rabbi Seth Farber, the director of ITIM, which has proposed to the Chief Rabbinate that it recognize all members in good standing of Orthodox rabbinic institutions in the diaspora that are at least 10 years old and have at least 50 members.

In that way, he points out, the decision of who is Jewish would be decentralized and made within the various diaspora communities who know their constituents best. “It’s a matter of trust” between the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and the qualified local rabbis, Rabbi Farber says.

“If there is no mutual trust…” He left the sentence unfinished but the message was clear.

Meanwhile, the RCA is trying to tamp down the public attention and work out an agreement that would recognize its members as legitimate in the eyes of the Chief Rabbinate.

But along with other major Orthodox institutions, such as Yeshiva University and the OU, whose rabbinic constituents have been snubbed by the Chief Rabbinate, the RCA has left Rabbi Weiss — and Rabbi Berman — out to dry. Only this week did the organization come out with a brief, painstakingly neutral statement on the controversy. It notes the group’s “cherished” relationship with the Chief Rabbinate and expresses the hope of resolving matters “in ways that will avoid the problems and embarrassments of these past few weeks.”

The real embarrassment, though, is that the RCA cherishes a relationship with a religious body that has veered from its sacred mission, choosing to detach itself from, rather than embrace, the majority of the Jewish people.



Chief Rabbi, Orthodox Union, Rabbi Ari Weiss, RCA

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Maybe it's time to stand up to Rabbi Weiss. If he chooses to change the face of orthodoxy, he has to realize that, at some point, people are going to view him as being beyond the pale. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel is not obligated to accept the halachic decisions of every rabbi on the planet, let alone one at the fringe of orthodoxy. Just because someone was ordained by Yeshiva University doesn't mean he's untouchable, any more than a doctor who received his medical degree at Harvard is immune from charges of quackery.

There are few things which are being (intentionally?) ignored in this discussion.
The population of Jews that put G-d's commandments and will before all else and strive to lead the most perfect life possible in accordance with G-d's will as communicated by G-d to humanity through Moshe and the Neviim as understood by the Rabbanim who passed this tradition down through the ages, which are in current vogue referred to as Haredi Orthodox, are not really concerned about pandering to public opinion of people who happen to be Jewish. It is not important to them that their decisions and rulings are popular among the broad Jewish population- the majority of which do not care for G-d's will, word and certainly have no valid tradition passed down from Sinai to validate their various forms of "Jewish worship." The only concern of people who understand that G-d created the world and charged man with upholding his purpose in this world- to follow G-d's will and uphold his commandments- is exactly that: what does G-d want. There is no other concern that is of any importance. As to what G-d's will is has been conveyed in the Torah, Gemora and as understood by the Poskim and their students. That is all. There are many people nowadays who are part of many different branches of Judaism who believe many interesting things and all want, in essence, to do what they want without being hindered by G-d's commandments and by way of seeking approval for their disregard of G-d's commandments, seek acceptance for their dalliances. The Rabbanim in this type of environment and with the reality that there are large groups of people who label themselves Orthodox but don't have a fidelity and allegiance to this tradition of understanding and upholding of G-d's word therefore need to identify for this population of people who seek only to fulfill G-d's word who is trustworthy and not- especially with regards to conversion which hinges very much on the presiding Rabbi's integrity and his being someone who is also only concerned with G-d's will and is of a respectable stature and scholarship. Confusing the conversation with labels and terms is just a smokescreen for understanding the stark reality of what is going on...

Thank you, Mr. Rosenblatt, for a well reasoned statement. And to Rabbi Berman for not hiding in the shadows, as apparently others are doing.

The the RCA now is clearly as worthless a body as the long corrupt "Chief Rabbinate" in Israel. The rightwing, frummer than thee, chumra-loving, parasitical, largely anti-Zionist, charedi political/religious elements in Israel have clearly cowed a majority of the "Modern" Orthodox rabbinate in the U.S., who apparently seek some form of legitimacy from the corrupt charedi leadership. That leadership is hell bent on recognizing as Jewish only those who accept their various charedi fossilized versions of Judaism as being the true paths, with their harmfully foolish "gedolim" to be followed without question.

I consider myself to be a traditional Sephardit who embraces in spirit all those who attest that they are Jewish, and who learn from and follow the teachings of the Tanach and the practical guidelines of the mesorah and Shulcan Aruch, guidelines -- rather than shackles -- that cannot only be interpreted to respect the enhanced societal roles of women but can be encompassing to be sufficiently respectful of the potential of the soul of each and every Jew who loves and has awe of the One All Powerful.

I'd like to see the question of "who's Jewish taken from the Rabbinate and put before juries of, um, certified Jews, you know, lay people. Believers, unbelievers, whatever. But juries of Jews. Jewries, as it were!

Becoming jewish has absolutely nothing to do with acceptance by other Jews. And, as Mr. Rosenblatt apparently doesn't know, becoming a Jew has all to do with someone's personal integrity and resolve to uphold ALL of the 613 commandments of the Torah and faithfully follow all of Rabbinical decrees and the leading Rabbis who have the tradition as passed down from Moses, from teacher to pupil through the ages. All the Chief Rabbinate is doing is trying to uphold this and fulfill their responsibility as leaders, to their followers, that they will follow the commandments of the Torah and lead and direct the Jewish people in the path of G-d's will.

You are incorrect. The Talmud (Yevamot 47a and 47b) spells out clearly the process of conversion which is to be short and easy. Both Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch codified this as the proper method of Giyur. The Beit Din need not even be comprised of rabbis. Says the Gemara:
"Our Rabbis taught: If at the present time a man desires to become a proselyte, he is to be addressed as follows: 'What reason have you for desiring to become a proselyte; do you not know that Israel at the present time are persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed and overcome by afflictions'? If he replies, 'I know and yet am unworthy', he is accepted forthwith, and is given instruction in a few of the minor and major commandments. He is informed of the sin [of the neglect of the commandments of] Gleanings, the Forgotten Sheaf, the Corner and the Poor Man's Tithe. He is also told of the punishment for the transgression of the commandments. Furthermore, he is addressed thus: 'Be it known to you that before you came to this condition, if you had eaten suet you would not have been punishable with kareth, if you had profaned the Sabbath you would not have been punishable with stoning; but now were you to eat suet you would be punished with kareth; were you to profane the Sabbath you would be punished with stoning'. And as he is informed of the punishment for the transgression of the commandments, so is he informed of the reward granted for their fulfilment. He is told, 'Be it known to you that the world to come was made only for the righteous, and that Israel at the present time are unable to bear either too much prosperity. or too much suffering'. He is not, however, to be persuaded or dissuaded too much. If he accepted, he is circumcised immediately. Should any shreds which render the circumcision invalid remain, he is to be circumcised a second time. As soon as he is healed arrangements are made for his immediate ablution, when two learned men must stand by his side and acquaint him with some of the minor commandments and with some of the major ones. When he comes up after his ablution he is deemed to be an Israelite in all respects.
"In the case of a female proselyte, women make her sit in the water up to her neck, while two learned men stand outside and give her instruction in some of the minor commandments and some of the major ones."
Your baseless statement about requiring the potential convert to swear fealty to the 613 Commandments reminds me of the time I was in a pizza shop in the Five Towns the week of Parashat Masei, and there was a bearded man with Brisker Peyot and Tzitzit hanging out, sitting at a table with closed eyes and clenched fists as he bentched Birkat HaMazon. After he finished I went over to him and asked him, "You seem to be a Choshever Yid. Tell me, how many stops did Benei Yisra'el make in the Midbar?" He looked at me and answered, "That's easy. They stopped every Shabbos." (The real answer is 42.)

According to you, I probably wouldn't be Jewish either because I don't observe all 613 mitzvot. My mother also wore a sheitle and my father was a professional chazan.
Although my maternal and paternal grandmothers wore sheitels and were gassed in Auschwitz, you would not accept my rabbi's word about my sons identity because he (our Rabbi) is only a graduate of Yeshive University. Right?
Don't you think it is ridiculous?

If your mother was a Jew then you are a Jew. Even one with a basic knowledge of Halachah knows that. However if one wanted to convert they would need to accept upon themselves all the 613 mitzvos. These Halachos are well known and aren't the creations of the Chief Rabbinate, they are quite explicitly in the Torah. In addition this discussion has absolutely nothing to do with YU. There are many fine upstanding Rabbanim who came from that yeshiva. In addition if a Rabbi learnt in a Chareidi institution and behaved in practice or in ideology in a manner inconsistent with the Torah then that Rabbi as well wouldn't be recognized and his conversions, kashrut, etc. would not be relied upon.

As much as people may want to paint this as a political battle and one which is corrupt and Rabbis playing favorites and acting inappropriately, it actually has nothing to do with this at all. This is very simply an outcome and example of the Chief Rabbinate defending and working to uphold the Torah. Conversion is a very serious issue according to the Torah, as are gritting, and these areas the Chief Rabbinate and Haredi Rabbanim in general are just trying to act in accordance with Halachah and carry out G-d's will.

The sad state of the leadership of Jewish Orthodoxy is now brought to light by virtually "excommunicating" a singular courageous man and Rabbi...Avi Weiss. It is of the utmost urgency to clean house and raze the RCAs infrastructure. Cowardice has no place in the once venerable RCA. We learned this from the horrors of European Jewry in 1939-1945, and caving in to any terrorists. The Israeli Rabbinate is akin to a Taliban like tyranny. America was founded upon freedom of religious tenets. Now is the time for "good men" and "women" to do something proactive..."Evil occurs when good people do nothing" (Edmund Bourke0

Pull the plug on the Chief Rabbinate and stop funding them.Remain silent and you deserve what you get.

Excellent article. Thank you for writing. It is wrong to focus on Rabbi Weiss.This has to do with a broken Chief Rabbinate.

Please stop using such long-winded sentences that constitute an entire paragraph. You are a better writer than that.

Two comments.

First, the criticisms of the Chief Rabbinate are valid, but what is needed is a viable alternative to their approach that addresses their objections to wholesale acceptance of anyone in the US who claims to be an Orthodox rabbi or claims to head or to be "involved with" an institution that claims to be Orthodox or even is a member of the RCA. We all know rabbis with impeccable paper credentials on whose kashrut certification we would not rely; status question in Israel are far important as that. As long as the affected rabbis are a relatively few who are at the "left wing" end of the spectrum, the US Orthodox establishment will have no interest in objecting and may even secretly harbor thoughts of "serves him right for . . . ."

Second, the discussion of this issue centers mainly on perceived slights to the US rabbis in question and does not address whether or not they were able to find an accepted rabbi to certify their congregants' status in Israel. If not, then we have a much larger problem. But if it is largely a matter of individuals' ego, then welcome to the real world in which other professionals operate.

"First, the criticisms of the Chief Rabbinate are valid..." I guess you just expect us to take your word for that?

If only you hadn't seen fit to include this sentence:

"As long as the affected rabbis are a relatively few who are at the "left wing" end of the spectrum, the US Orthodox establishment will have no interest in objecting and may even secretly harbor thoughts of "serves him right for . . . .""

This line represents too much of the objectionable attitude so many people perceive (rightly or wrongly) in the "establishment" and will only steal attention from your valuable comments.

I think that you have a very naive view of the relation between the RCA and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate on conversions.

The RCA wanted to bring conversions in the US under the control of RCA approved Batei Din and freeze out conversions by any independent Beit Din. To this end they got the Chief Rabbinate to accept only those conversions performed under the auspices of RCA
controlled Batei Din. The thinking in the RCA was that community rabbis could be pressured in some cases to grant conversions inappropriately.

Now the Chief Rabbinate is turning on the RCA and trying to establish itself as the world's arbiter of who is Jewish - a very unfortunate turn of events.

As a fan of Rabbi Berman from his days in Chicago, I feel that the Chief Rabbinate's refusal to accept his statement that a couple is Jewish highlights the incompetence of the Chief Rabbinate.

Yours sincerely,
Richard Chasman