Rabbi Weiss and the Chief Rabbinate

This incident is yet another reminder of the dire need to relieve the Chief Rabbinate of its monopolistic powers.

Rabbi Avi Weiss leads protesters outside the World Trade Center in Baltimore June 13, 1994. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Rabbi Avi Weiss leads protesters outside the World Trade Center in Baltimore June 13, 1994.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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.
Apparently, 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.
Third, the 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 so.
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.