An Open Letter To My Role Model, Rabbi Avi Weiss
Mon, 01/27/2014
Rabbi Avi Weiss prays at a vigil for victims of a train derailment in December, 2013. Getty Images
Rabbi Avi Weiss prays at a vigil for victims of a train derailment in December, 2013. Getty Images

Dear Rabbi Weiss,

While I was relieved to learn that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has revoked its claims against you, I have been deeply saddened by the entire episode. But I have not been surprised. In their book, “Leadership on the Line,” Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky define leadership as an act that involves “disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.” In order to make progress around issues that touch on people’s beliefs and values, it is often necessary to touch on very sensitive issues, challenging people’s understanding of what is true and right.

You have managed to challenge the Orthodox Jewish community to look at itself honestly, to articulate the often hazy distinctions between tradition and Jewish law, for the sake of the ultimate health and survival of that community. You have given voice to critical issues and constituencies in the Orthodox community that otherwise would have been ignored or suppressed, and in the process you have sometimes disappointed people, even made them angry, threatened or scared. This is a telltale sign that you have been exerting leadership, tirelessly, year after year, decade after decade, issue after issue, in our community. I think it is exceptional.

You have been at the intersection of the modern, liberal world, and the traditional, halachic world, sometimes disappointing one side, sometimes disappointing the other, all for the sake of ensuring that our tradition maintains its integrity and vibrancy. Your example has shown us how utterly difficult it is to truly navigate both spheres. I would like to thank you for exemplifying this type of leadership, and for modeling it. You are a symbol to the Jewish community as a whole, no matter what side we lean towards, or how we grumble or act out against you, why living a Jewish life that simultaneously allows us to be open to ourselves, to our moral compasses, to our questioning minds, and to the world in which we live, and to our Torah, our halachic code, our history, is so valuable, and critical for our very survival.

One of my earliest memories is of sitting on my father’s shoulders, marching out of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR) after Shabbat morning davening, trekking to the Russian mission, chanting, “Free Sharansky Now!” Who knew that other kids went to shuls with Kiddush? We were nourished by our passion and commitment to get Sharansky out of a frigid jail cell beyond the Iron Curtain. My early childhood imagination was full of Russia. When it snowed, and I walked the few blocks to shul on Friday night with my father, my boots sinking through the snow, I thought of Sharansky in his snowy prison, and wondered if he had boots to wear.  It turns out that I was being educated in empathy, and in social activism, trained from a tender age to believe that I had a responsibility, and an ability, to influence far-away worlds, to help resolve intractable conflicts.

I would watch you in the early years of your leadership at the HIR, in the early years of my life, viscerally learning how “kol Yisrael arevim zeh la’zeh,” all of Israel is profoundly interconnected, my eyes wide with disbelief when Sharansky himself showed up at our shul, a free man, and making the links between all those years at the Russian mission, and the man standing before me.

And this was simply way you taught, by example, a small group of Jews in Riverdale, NY, to be open to the world outside, internally driven by Torah values and practices. You built a shul culture of participation, one in which there is very little, if no, talking, in which everyone is either singing along, or following silently, but the whole community is fully engaged. It was quite shocking to me, upon growing up and leaving home, visiting other shuls, around the United States, around the world, to find how rare and special this is. The avirah, the atmosphere, inside of the shul is a metaphor for the community you have built. The beauty and purity of the song during tefillah at HIR is an audial manifestation of this commitment.

I remember you standing at the door each Shabbat after services, shaking everyone’s hand as they walked out of the sanctuary, giving each person your full attention, even for a moment. That was the advice you gave me when I got married, when I was overwhelmed at the thought of seeing so many friends and family in one intense time and place. You advised that when engaged in conversation with one person to stay fully engaged. To pretend in that moment that nobody else is in the room. And to do so with each person, with each conversation. I cherish that advice to this day, and strive, though it is difficult, to follow it. You model looking both internally, the value of the small, of the intimate, in addition to looking externally, the importance of the big, the global.

I believe that this is partly why you have been at the forefront of the “women’s issue” in the halachic community. You have listened to girl after girl, woman after woman, heard our struggle. You have opened your heart, genuinely, to the challenge that women face, blessed and burdened with the religious, cultural, and biological responsibilities of raising children and running a home, combined with the need or desire to earn money and have a career, and the passion to be knowledgeable about and involved deeply in our Jewish life.

The question of the boundaries of women’s responsibilities and power threaten the very structure of halachic Judaism, which is built upon a clear delineation between the mitzvot in which men are obligated, and those in which, most importantly, women are not obligated. This structure protects the centrality and sanctity of the family, and places the woman at the center of the home, and the man at the center of Jewish public life. You have dared to look closely at these structures and find openings, spaces, in which women can gently enter the halachic, Jewish public sphere, in which men can gently find their places in the home, so that the core values behind the halachot are preserved, and the core humanity and sanctity of both men and women celebrated. You have made “women’s issues” a communal issue, one that is the responsibility of all members of the community.

You, Rabbi Weiss, have had the courage to be fierce and creative with Torah for the sake of preserving Torah.  You have been my role model, inspiring me to dedicate my professional life to striving to help our community grow, to meet its people’s changing needs, to help those who care about it to learn to adapt so that they can preserve what they love in Judaism, and help it thrive. I was blessed to grow up in a home in which my parents modeled living an engaged Jewish life, and taught me to find the joy and beauty in Jewish living. And I was doubly-blessed to grow up in your bayit, in the communal home you have created that taught me that I am responsible, and able, to shape Jewish life, to protect it, to preserve it, to let it change, to help it grow and flourish. Thank you. May you continue to be blessed and protected, may your powerful light shine and bring joy to our community, and may your work help us lift our truest faces to each other, and bring us, and even the world, towards greater wholeness and peace.

Maya Bernstein is the Strategic Design Officer at UpStart.


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Beautifully said, Maya. I wish that more rabbis would have the moral compass and compassion for other Jews and, indeed, for all of G-d's creations, that Rabbi Weiss has. He is a true role model and, in my opinion, a rabbi's rabbi. It is unfortunate that sometimes those who seek beneficial changes, even when they are fully Halachic, are vilified by others. Some of our greatest and most respected rabbis who instituted changes that are accepted by all now, were vilified in their times. May you, Rabbi Weiss, continue to be an inspiration to others.

The article doesn't say anything about violating halakhah.

beautiful .

Wow! Kol Hakavod Maya! Thank you. All of us, young and old who grew up and attended HIR knew that we were in the presence of a gadol hador. You put it into beautiful words. My Rebbe at MTA asked me if davening at "that"shul made me "more frum"(whatever that meant). My answer at the time was simply "Yes" 40 years later my answe would be' Rebbe you taught me how to learn a daf of gemara and Rabbi Weiss taught me how to think, be and act as a Jew in this world."

I have no doubt that the letter is heartfelt and that Maya Bernstein truly admires Rabbi Weiss. However, the decisions and direction of Rabbi Weiss has left him and his community on the outside looking in the "Orthodox" world. As she quotes that leadership is "disappointing your own people at a rate that they can absorb". Regretfully, he has led his people at a rate that they can't absorb. Increasingly, his people are left with fewer allies and greater distance in the "Orthodox" world and increasing acceptance and admiration in the Conservative and Reform world.
In the end, I don't think that this "disappointment" will be absorbed even among his present followers.

What is true Judaism? Is it those who walk around in Shtreimels and white socks in garb that has actually no relation to the religion, but rather to the European fashion dynasties under whom Jews brutally lived? Or is Judaism those who would go to Iran and kiss the Ayatollah in the name of Neturei Kartah, and also claim to be Jews. Or is it women dressed in a tallit and tefillin purporting to be rabbis. Or is it the Lubbavitch movement who does tireless work in helping Jews all over the world with their outreach, and yet are disdained by many Chassidic groups? Or is it Reform Judaism; Jews who think the Torah was written by man, and in its present form is outdated, outmoded and does not fit in with the times. Avi Weiss represents to me and to many the pure Jew. The one who does what he does out of true "Ahavat Yisroel," love of fellow Jew. He tries to lead by example, not rhetoric, he has put his money where his mouth is. He has sought to give women their place in Halachic Judaism without relelgating to what many in the ultra-orthodox stream would like them to be: mindless "hausfrau with no real knowledge of Torah, with no way of participating in Judaism fully, without being a man. G-d asks for modesty. Who decided that a knowledgable woman cannot be modest? Who decided that women who can counsel other women according to the law is not modest? Who decided that women having their own minyanim is not modest? The shtreimels, the Chareidim? Are these people the deciders of Jewish Law? I don't know if even one sector of Jews has gotten it right. As far as I am concerned, Avi Weiss is as close to that ideal as can be. Avi Weiss is inclusive. He incldes the convert, the people who are seeking to find their way., the sick, the handicapped. Everyone! Remember also, a very evil man named Hitler did not test Jews in their knowledge of Judaism before he killed them. He just reminded all Jews that they were Jews. Let's try to remember that together through people like Avi Weiss, without waiting for the evil of the earth to do so.

Nicely Said Maya. I too remember the days R' Weiss spent in jail, getting urinated on in Poland and everything else I would hear, see and read about him. He was always more concerned with the 'clal' then himself. We would occasionally daven in his shul. Besides it taking a long time :), it was always an upbeat inclusive atmosphere. Granted, it was a long way away from the serious, somber tone of my more Yekkish background, it was always a nice change of pace. R' Weiss' love for G-D, Judaism and Jews, is up there with the best of them. Even if the Israeli Rabbanut had a legitimate claim into his personality or Halachic standing, they certainly went about this in a despicable way.

Just yesterday was the Yahrtzeit of R' Yisrael Salanter. This Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, happens to be the "S" in the school you and I went to, SAR Academy in Riverdale, NY. Rabbi Sobol in Modiin, where I now live, gave a small shiur today on R' Salanter's life and his influence on Judaism. The big takeaway was his influence in demanding Yeshivas to include the study of Mussar. Within that framework, R Salanter emphasized the need to mind the interpersonal Mitzvot BEFORE those between us and G-D, for without this mutual respect of one another, there is no Godliness within us, no matter how 'frum' we think we are. Surely this is a lesson that is apropos to the situation at hand.

And therefore? So he's an activist and does what he thinks is right. And tries to help people. That's no proof that what he's doing actually is right. The road to very bad places is paved with good intentions.

Further, this article makes the veiled claim that violating Jewish tradition is necessary to save Judaism. That's completely unfounded. We're doing just fine without being violated, thank you.

Not so.

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