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Not A Proud Moment For The RCA In Dealing With The Chief Rabbinate
Mon, 02/10/2014
Israel's Chief Rabbinate council, 1959. Wikimedia Commons
Israel's Chief Rabbinate council, 1959. Wikimedia Commons

The setting was the annual dinner of the SAR Academy, a leading Modern Orthodox day school in Riverdale, enrolling over 1000 students from homes throughout the tri-state area. SAR’s long-standing school president closed the evening by applauding Rabbi Avi Weiss for his tireless advocacy on behalf of the Jewish people in the face of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel’s efforts to delegitimate him. A standing ovation ensued. For one evening, at least, grass-roots Modern Orthodoxy had spoken out in unequivocal opposition to the senseless and arbitrary actions of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Modern Orthodoxy’s leadership and communal institutions.

We are forced to agree with Elli Fischer’s observations (Jewish Week, Opinion, Jan. 31) that the bureaucratic compromise reached between the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and the Chief Rabbinate to accept Rabbi Weiss’s testimony on personal status matters, in effect, enhances the exclusive authority of the Chief Rabbinate and actually aligns the RCA with the Chief Rabbinate even more closely than previously. When applauding these developments, however, Fischer conveniently omits mentioning that domestic pressures coupled with American Jewish interventions caused the Chief Rabbinate to retreat from its stance. Nor does he acknowledge that the RCA stood by silently for months while Rabbi Weiss, its own member for longer than many of its officers, and indeed others of its members as well, were being systematically discriminated against by that very same Chief Rabbinate.

Ironically, then, Fischer praises the RCA for its leadership during this affair and celebrates its becoming de facto a “Chief Rabbinate for America.” Moreover, he closes by noting that “for the forseeable future… (the RCA) must cultivate and maintain its relationship with the Rabbanut.” His analysis and prescription are faulty on several counts:

First, creating an RCA equivalent of a chief rabbinate on American shores is both myopic historically and unwise programmatically. A century ago, Jewish leaders brought Rabbi Jacob Joseph to the U.S. from Europe and bestowed upon him the title of “Chief Rabbi.” The experiment turned out to be a disaster. The American ethos of democracy and pluralism has long encouraged divergent expressions in all walks of life, including religion. Not surprisingly, establishing a chief rabbinate with exclusive authority proved dissonant with those norms and predominant American culture. Attempts to revive the idea today risk importing the most undesirable features of the Israel Chief Rabbinate, be they irresponsible pronouncements denigrating the liberal Jewish religious movements, statements damaging the positive relations of Jews and non-Jews in this country, or creating tangible human tragedies in areas of personal Jewish status.

Second, as we have indicated, the RCA, contrary to Fischer, hardly covered itself with glory during the Rabbi Weiss saga. Fischer concedes that RCA officials reportedly lobbied the Chief Rabbinate to disenfranchise Weiss, and that at least four RCA executive committee members posted blogs “justifying or at least expressing sympathy for the Rabbinate’s refusal to accept Rabbi Weiss’s letters.” The RCA statement of “neutrality” on the question was tepid at best and somewhat disingenuous at worst. At no time did the RCA move to censure those officials that had slandered Rabbi Weiss, thereby violating Jewish law as well. Indeed, the RCA has never revealed who those officials were; and for their part, those rabbis have never had the courage to own up to their actions.

For his part, Fischer does the RCA no favors by defining it narrowly as a trade organization seeking the best deal for its members, somehow ignoring its status as a Jewish leadership organization allegedly dedicated to advancing the collective welfare of the Jewish people. In fact, even as a trade organization the RCA would fall short; trade unions should tend to the interests of all its members.

Last, Fischer fails to distinguish between the RCA’s commitment to Modern Orthodoxy and its loyalty to a Chief Rabbinate that is anything but Modern Orthodox. Ironically, both the RCA and the Chief Rabbinate originated as champions of Modern Orthodoxy. The RCA began as a Modern Orthodox alternative to the right-wing and isolationist Agudas Harabbonim, which attacked it as illegitimate.

Under Chief Rabbis Kook, Uziel, and Herzog, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel charted a bold path towards defining Israel as a democratic Jewish state coping with the challenges to Jewish law and tradition posed by modern culture and technology.

In recent decades, however, the Chief Rabbinate has been dominated by haredi rabbis. This in itself poses a paradox: The official voice of Judaism in the Jewish state is vested in non-Zionist rabbis who attach, at most, only utilitarian value to the very idea of a Jewish state absent a messianic redeemer.

The RCA, to be sure, continues to define itself as Modern Orthodox. But its deference to the haredi Chief Rabbinate as halachic decisor for the State of Israel suggests that Modern Orthodoxy in America, in the RCA’s judgement, lacks the necessary courage to mount a persuasive and truly Modern Orthodox vision for the Jewish people in the face of haredi detractors. The latter, by contrast, dismiss Modern Orthodoxy as an artificial concession to religiously lax Orthodox Jews rather than a bold and exciting set of ideals and values to be emulated and realized.

This last issue far transcends the question of Rabbi Weiss’s personal standing. Rather, his case challenges the Modern Orthodox community to recapture its distinctive and independent voice and escape the shackles of those who relegate it to an at best second-class, albeit tolerated, status within contemporary Judaism. Whether Modern Orthodoxy has the courage and verve to do so remains questionable. Yet the stakes in this struggle could not be higher: The future ethos of the Jewish state and the future unity of the Jewish people rest in many ways on the putative emergence of a truly Modern Orthodoxy capable of forging a distinctive synthesis of Jewish tradition and modern culture and serving as a bridge connecting divergent sectors of the Jewish people. Rabbi Avi Weiss and the institutions he has established appear ready for that task. The RCA, by contrast, is not.

Dov S. Zakheim and Steven Bayme serve, respectively, as chairman of AJC’s Contemporary Jewish Life Commission and director of AJC’s Contemporary Jewish Life Department (

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On October 2, you reported that Steven Bayme, now apparently a visiting professor at Jewish Theological Seminary, supports Rabbi Avi Weiss's Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT) and would be teaching there this Fall. Meanwhile, Dov Zakheim is on the YCT Board of Directors. Would it not have been more honest of your publication, more transparent, if you had identified the co-authors as engaged partisans in the Avi Weiss vs. RCA debate? Because your newspaper does not give a fair and equal opportunity to set forth an account balanced with the full "other side," this Comment slot hardly is the place to do so. But silence is not right either, hence this brief note to say that the Bayme-Zakheim biased, partisan account above is both dishonest in failing to identify the authors' true roles as engaged partisans and is just-plain wrong in several areas above. Me? I am one of the four or more RCA National Executive Committee members whom they falsely say never speaks openly. We do -- all over the place, but only in publications that will publish what we submit. Your newspaper's refusal to publish what we submit does not mean that we are silent, merely that Bayme and Zakheim choose not to read certain publications with whose editorial line they disagree. By contrast, we on the other side read and thereby listen to both perspectives. They should try it sometime, too. Dov Fischer

Your choice of characterization for the authors of this piece is very telling. Steven Bayme's credentials are public: He's just as affiliated with YU (more so even) than he is with YCT or JTS. He's an academic teaching in academia, and your choice of characterization, trying to paint him as conservative, is simply false.

Rabbi Dr. Dov Zakheim is also a very accomplished individual: who's Orthodox ordination and credentials are unchallenged. His choice to be on the YCT Board of Directors comes out of his sincere belief that they are Orthodox and pursing a course that is better for the Jewish people. He outlines this above. Disagree with him on substance, but don't assassinate his character.

In terms of your representation that there is a Rabbi Weiss vs. RCA Debate. My understanding is that he was a member in good standing. I believe the public RCA statements made clear that there was an internal (and heated) debate between members within the organization, but not a formal stance by the RCA as an organization. That is a substantive difference.

I commend the fact that you are willing to take a personal and public stance. I just ask that you stick to substantive argument and not character assassinations, intentional misrepresentations, polemic, or vitriol. There is ample ground to construct an argument against the positions espoused by Rabbi Weiss based in sound reasoning and authoritative sources.

Read what he said carefully. He a) pointed out relevant facts that raise legitimate questions as to whether they are passive bystanders, and b) critisizes the paper for (in its typical style) being an insiders club that preaches to its own followers. He did not attack charecters or commit any of the accusations you are making. Hence, perhaps ask yourself if you are relying on the classic "the right wingers are meanies syndrome" that this paper seems to love so much

First, I have used my name, dear "Anonymous" correspondent. You hid behind "Anonymous." Second, there absolutely is a huge, huge, unbelievably intense Avi Weiss vs. RCA Debate raging right now within RCA. However, you need not be inside the RCA National Executive Committee to know that the debate that is raging. Just read his NYT op-ed article, where he attacks the RCA openly in a newspaper that he once criticized regularly and roundly for its biased coverage antithetical to interests in Israel that he used to emphasize more than attacking RCA and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Be well, whoever you are.

When did the good folks of Riverdale who can not only afford to pay SAR's exorbitant tuition but can afford to attend the dinner to boot become Modern Orthodoxy's "grass roots"?

I appreciate that Zakheim and Bayme took the time to disagree with my recent article. A few notes are in order:
1) I do not know what caused the Rabbanut to change its mind. I do know that the RCA came out with more power. I do not "celebrate" the RCA becoming the closest thing to a chief rabbinate that the US has ever had. I have a long record of opposition to the powers arrogated to the Chief Rabbinate. In fact, my opposition to the office is not contingent upon whether its occupant is Haredi or Modern Orthodox. I merely made an observation - one with which the authors are "forced to agree."
2) The RCA has been working with the Rabbanut on this issue for several months, since November, in fact, soon after Rabbi Weiss went public with his story. It was not sitting by idly, even if it was not doing what the authors would have liked it to be doing. Moreover, the Rabbanut's discrimination against individual rabbis can hardly be termed "systematic." I tend to agree with the authors' earlier contention that the Rabbanut's actions are "senseless and arbitrary." Implementing a systematic policy is actually a step forward, which is why the RCA and, for that matter, ITIM, have been lobbying the Rabbanut to adopt transparent guidelines for proving Jewishness.
3) As noted in my article, the RCA's membership is very broad. It includes rabbis who strongly disagree with Rabbi Weiss just as it includes Rabbi Weiss, who has been openly critical of the organization for at least a quarter of a century. Should it distance itself from every member speaking in his own name, and not in the name of the organization?
4) as noted, my opposition to the Rabbanut is not contingent on whether the chief rabbi happens to be Haredi or Modern Orthodox. It is worth noting, however, that the current occupants of the office are not Haredi in any conventional sense. They have already taken several important and positive steps in a moderate direction - including appointing rabbinical court judges who take a more expansive view of the power to coerce recalcitrant husband to issue gittin; returning to a more lenient application of the laws of the upcoming Shemittah year; allowing women to serve as kashrut supervisors; and more.
5) I am not a spokesman for the RCA, so the contention that I do the RCA no favors is irrelevant. It IS a trade association, one that was originally created in order to allow rabbis to buy health insurance collectively. And in this case, it DID work for the benefit of all it's members, reaching an agreement that served them all. I am furthermore baffled at the contention that it is somehow inconsistent for an ostensibly Modern Orthodox RCA to work with an ostensibly Haredi Rabbanut. The Rabbanut is an arm of the Israeli government, like the DMV or the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption. Perhaps "regime change" is desirable, but certainly a former State Department official would not fault the RCA for preferring realpolitik.
6) I applaud the AJC's initiative to imagine what Israel would look like without a Chief Rabbinate. I personally believe that the Rabbanut must die a slow death, and that religion and state must be disentangled slowly and judiciously in Israel. There are a number of wonderful organizations and individuals who have done some great groundwork in this regard, and I hope that all of the various ideas and proposals are brought to light during this process.

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