‘Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Rabbi Avi Weiss said on
the podium of his synagogue before more than 400 community members, paraphrasing
the famous saying. He was not talking about the occupation; he was talking about
Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.
Weiss is an absolutely kosher Orthodox rabbi,
and a Zionist to the core. He is a scholar with a great spirit, a human rights
activist, kind, charitable, and an ardent Zionist. He leads a modern Orthodox
community which ends its morning daavening with a daily halakha, and Shabbat and
Holiday prayer with the Israeli national anthem, Hatikva.
the Chovevei Torah Yeshiva for training rabbis and Maharat Yeshiva for women. In
short, Weiss does everything you would expect of a modern Orthodox
For years he has served an involved, Zionist community, a
community that is well connected, a community which sustains Orthodox
educational establishments, and supports Israel demonstrably, both financially
In short, everything you might expect from a committed
Spend a few weekends at the Hebrew Institute of
Riverdale (HIR) – “The Bayit”– as Rabbi Weiss’ community in New York is called.
I’ve prayed here for more than two months, and until last Saturday, all the
words of Torah I heard were pure love. If reproach were woven into his sermons,
it was so well hidden it was hardly visible. Rabbi Weiss is an expert at
attracting a community through bonds of love and aiming for
But a month ego, for the first time, the rebuke in the
rabbi’s sermon was so explicit that one could hardly find the love that so
characterizes him and his community. Pain and offense took over.
Israeli Chief Rabbinate succeeded in offending one of most important leading
modern Orthodox rabbis in America.
In the last election for the Knesset
and the Chief Rabbinate we were promised a Rabbinate that would represent and
serve all Israelis. But apparently, even Rabbi Weiss is not religious and
reliable enough to attest to the religious status of his community members. And
this is not even about conversion, it is about marriage testimony. The Chief
Rabbinate decided to reject letters of testimony from Weiss and other Orthodox
rabbis in the US.
The “sin” that disqualifies these rabbis is that they
support more open models of Orthodoxy. Compared to other liberal Israeli rabbis
I know, these rabbis are not radical at all. They did not make any controversial
halakhik decisions, as have others, such as Rabbi Hayim Drukman, Rabbi Aharon
Lichtenstein, or Rabbi David Bigman. In fact, the rabbis whose letters of
testimony were rejected by the Rabbinate, according to Rabbi Weiss, are also
rabbis from Yeshiva University – the flagship institution of modern
In short, the Rabbinate has apparently started “blacklists” of
“reliable” rabbis and “unreliable” rabbis to legitimize some and disqualify
Many of the North American Orthodox rabbis who appear on the list
are ashamed to speak out in public, because this apparent mark of disgrace is
imprinted on them by the official rabbinical institution of the State that they
support. The stigma undermines their status as rabbis and undermines the
certificates of rabbinical ordination that they received from rabbis who are far
more important than the officials who disregarded them and the chief rabbis (at
least the Ashkenazi ones) that the State of Israel managed to elect in recent
But not Rabbi Avi Weiss. He didn’t shy away; he started a public
He understood that the ruling accelerated the slippery slope
which has made the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate essentially an ultra-Orthodox
At first they disqualified the Reform and Conservative
movements, then conversions by Orthodox rabbis.
And now they reject even
the slightest testimony from them. Rabbi Weiss, like many Israelis had already
done, arrived at the painful and regrettable conclusion that the Rabbinate is an
obstacle to Jewish religiosity in Israel and around the world.
problem is coercion. Coercion of beliefs and opinions and lifestyles suppresses
religious growth and flowering.
It does not encourage it,” he said. And
he is right. No religious flower will blossom on a bed of coercion and
Rabbi Weiss calls for the Chief Rabbinate to open its gates,
and for an open and free religious dialogue with all Jewish sectors and
denomination in Israel and the US He understands the significance of such a call
to this kind of religious dialogue: it means recognizing the right of Jews to
belong to different denominations, recognizing the right of Jews to marry in a
civil ceremony or a religious marriage of any kind. This official recognition
has an “Orthodox price,” but it will save religious life, it will save the
Jewish religion. It will free Judaism from its current oppression.
time to be courageous This call from the heart of American Orthodoxy is not
really directed at the Chief Rabbinate. It is directed first and foremost to
Weiss’s fellow Orthodox rabbis in the US and Israel, who understand that the
Rabbinate’s monopoly control will lead to stagnation and oppression. It should
also be directed at political leaders who understand all too well the
problematic condition of Jewry worldwide.
For years we in Israel have
tried to engage the heads of secular political parties on the questions of
religion and state. But we had little success, because not dealing with this
issue was the price they paid for political support from the ultra-Orthodox
Recently, since the Weiss affair went public, a Knesset caucus
headed by MK Elazar Stern has devoted extensive discussion to it. I understand
that the new Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi David Lau, said that he will
personally handle the case of Rabbi Weiss’s status.
There is no doubt
this will quiet down the Weiss affair, but while this may be the quickest
solution to this particular matter, it should not isolate this affair from the
larger question by treating it as a personal matter.
The Chief Rabbinate
is an official institution that must abide by the laws of a civilized state, and
public issues having broad implications must not be handled behind closed doors
as if it were the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet). It is time to change the
Now, before we lose the last of our strongest
supporters in North America, we need an intervention. The prime minister, the
minister of Religious Affairs, who holds liberal views on these issues, the
minister of Finance and his party members, Ruth Calderon and Aliza Lavie, all
need to stand up and do something.
It is time for our elected officials
to get involved in creating a new Jewish covenant that will unite all the parts
of the Jewish people. It is time to show courage and leadership and
fundamentally change the relationship between religion and state in Israel, to
allow an equal voice and equal status for all. This crisis is an
Dr. Shraga Bar-On is a research fellow, lecturer, and
educator at Shalom Hartman Institute. Find out more about the Institute at