Rabbi Avi Weiss leads protesters outside the World Trade Center in Baltimore June 13, 1994..
In recent weeks it has emerged that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is considering
taking disciplinary actions against Rabbi Avi Weiss, founder of Yeshivat
Chovevei Torah, a rabbinical seminary in New York that advocates a more
open-minded and liberal approach to Orthodox practice. Apparently, the Chief
Rabbinate might stop recognizing Weiss’s rabbinical credentials due to certain
“un-Orthodox” views he purportedly holds.
As a legal adviser to the Chief
Rabbinate put it, the rabbinate had been contacted by rabbis known to it “who
claim that Rabbi Weiss’s halachic positions, as expressed in various incidents
and under various circumstances, cast doubt on the degree of his commitment to
customary and respected Jewish Halacha.”
If the Chief Rabbinate follows
through and withdraws recognition of his rabbinic credentials, Weiss, ranked the
10th-most prominent rabbi in the US by Newsweek in 2013, will cease to be
considered a rabbi by the State of Israel. He will no longer be able to testify
to the Jewishness of members of his congregation in Riverdale, New York, and
other American Jews who come to Israel to marry. The State of Israel will no
longer recognize Non-Jews who converted to Judaism under Weiss’s rabbinic
guidance as Jews eligible for automatic Israeli citizenship.
the Chief Rabbinate is allowing itself to be dragged into a battle over the
boundaries of Orthodoxy presently going on in the US. And because it is a
state-funded institution that enjoys a state-mandated monopoly over Jewish
religious observance in Israel, the Chief Rabbinate is essentially dragging the
entire State of Israel into the fray.
This incident is yet another
reminder of the dire need to relieve the Chief Rabbinate of its monopolistic
powers over divisive matters such as “Who is a Jew?” and “Who is a rabbi?” The
decision whether to recognize someone as a rabbi or as a Jew is best left to
private individuals. The time has come for a more inclusive religious policy
that recognizes all streams of Judaism equally. Orthodox and non-Orthodox
streams view themselves as belonging to the Jewish people and the State of
Israel should recognize them as such.
Dismantling the Chief Rabbinate’s
monopoly would be a boon to Orthodoxy.
First, it would defuse the
tremendous animosity that too many Israelis feel toward the rabbinate for using
coercive measures to enforce Orthodox practice.
No one wants religion
forced down their throat.
An atmosphere of freedom and fair competition
would serve as an incentive for growth and innovation of all forms of Jewish
expression – something fitting to a Jewish state.
Second, it would give
Orthodox rabbis complete freedom to rule in accordance with their conscience
without being subject to political pressures. Nor would rabbis run the risk of
seeing their religious freedoms infringed by the Supreme Court that has in the
past overturned the Chief Rabbinate’s halachic decisions.
centralization of rabbinic power, which has turned the Chief Rabbinate into a
body similar to the Vatican, has infringed on the autonomy of rabbinic
leadership in Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora. For centuries Judaism
has flourished without a centralized body and it should continue to do
Israel is the nation-state of the entire Jewish people, Orthodox and
not. The Chief Rabbinate must be prevented from dragging the Jewish state into
the somewhat esoteric internal squabbles among Orthodox rabbis over the precise
boundaries of Orthodoxy. An absurd situation has been created in which Weiss, a
rabbi widely respected and honored by many Jews of all denominations in the US,
Israel and elsewhere, might not be recognized by the State of Israel simply
because a particularly reactionary stream of Orthodoxy has taken control of the
Chief Rabbinate. The State of Israel’s policies should strive to unite all the
diverse streams of Judaism. We have enough enemies who are not Jews, we do not
need to be our own worst enemies.
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