The Spinning Wheel

 The Israeli Rabbinate has once again decided to accept the “attestation of Jewishness” letters of Rabbi Avi Weiss. That was a no-brainer, and I, for one, was not supportive of the initial rejection of those letters, of which I have written many. Let’s face facts: it is a real insult to be told that one has no credibility to state that “X” is Jewish because his mother is Jewish. That is like being told that you cannot be relied upon to ascertain that the sun has risen or set. Can an “Open Orthodox” rabbi be relied upon to state that someone’s mother was Jewish? I would assume so.

But even more was reported in the “Times of Israel:” “In the decision of the Chief Rabbinate, one can see recognition of the life work of Rabbi Avi Weiss in Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat, and of the halachic legitimacy of Open Orthodox rabbis, who are contending with the challenges of our generation within the limits of the halacha,” [Rabbi Weiss’ attorney, Assaf] Benmelech told JTA.

Actually, one sees nothing of the sort, with all due deference paid to the attorneys and public relations professionals hired to deal with the latest crisis that imperiled the Orthodox credentials of the self-styled “Open Orthodox.”

     The initial rejection was founded not upon the alleged lack of credibility of Rabbi Weiss on a personal level, but, I assume, on a simple, categorical judgment made by the Rabbinate: since the attestations of non-Orthodox rabbis are not accepted, they cannot accept the attestations of Rabbi Weiss because he is not to be construed as an “Orthodox” Rabbi, regardless of the protestations to the contrary. That preliminary decision by the rabbinate is one that, whatever esteem one (myself included) rightly holds for Rabbi Weiss’ legendary work on behalf of the Jewish people and his equally renowned love for all Jews, is increasingly shared by a growing segment of rabbis within the RCA, not to mention in the Haredi world which has long held that view.

It seems clear that the Rabbinate’s decision to reverse itself was not on the merits and entirely political. Whatever the publicity, do not believe for a moment it was a simple, straightforward restoration to the good graces of the Rabbinate, and certainly not the endorsement of “Open Orthodoxy” as depicted by the hired gun cited above. A decision on the merits would not have required the intervention of the distinguished Minister of Religions, Diaspora Affairs and Economics Naftali Bennett, who needed this contretemps like he needs to hold another Cabinet portfolio. It was entirely political – an attempt to defuse the controversy, call off the hounds threatening protests and boycotts of the State of Israel in these perilous times, and find some face-saving way for both sides to move forward. In Israel’s highly-charged religious environment, today’s Rabbinate lacks political clout and simply cannot compete with a PR onslaught.

A decision on merits would not have involved politicians, lawyers, and PR flacks but a meeting between Rabbi Weiss and representatives of the Rabbinate explaining why his innovations are within the boundaries of halacha and mesorah, and why he should therefore be construed as an Orthodox Rabbi like all others. Need we wonder why that was the road not taken?

Indeed, the movement that calls itself “Open Orthodoxy” has been dubbed here “Neo-Conservatism.” Consider: many of the novelties that Rabbi Weiss has produced, and  have been embraced by his disciples, come straight from the playbook of the Conservative movement, many of whose founders were quite Orthodox in practice: the female chazzan, the female rabbi, and the dilution of conversion standards. Others – the mixed church choir performing in shul, the enunciation by some of his cherished disciples of heretical ideas on Sinai, the mesorah, the halachic process, or the celebrations of same-sex marriage in defiance of Jewish law – tend to find him, at least, outside the Orthodox mainstream, if not Orthodoxy itself. The irony is the formal retention of the mechitza in shuls. That must stick in the craw of feminists and others but can’t be removed because it is so much a part of the Orthodox brand, and yet in many liberal shuls is often hidden from sight and barely noticeable. A partition that is barely noticeable hardly serves its purpose.

It would be unlikely and inappropriate for the Rabbinate to comment on any of this, as they relate to the American-Jewish experience and are quite foreign to Israel. But it should not be too surprising that, as also happened here, a rabbi who calls for the acceptance by the Israeli Rabbinate of Reform and Conservative conversions would not be perceived as “Orthodox” by other Orthodox rabbis.

You do make the bed in which you lie. A rabbi who adopts a steady progression of non-Orthodox practices and policies will be perceived as non-Orthodox, all the disclaimers to the contrary notwithstanding and not really relevant. Res ipsa loquitur.

Particularly disheartening is the spin – even the lies – that have emanated from the defense camp – claims that the RCA “rejected” the Rabbinate’s decision; that the RCA expressed its support for Rabbi Weiss; that the Rabbinate asserted that it had spoken to the RCA; that the Rabbinate is out-of-touch with the American Orthodox Rabbinate and been Haredized; and, as above, that the Rabbinate has somehow endorsed the objectives and practices of “Open Orthodoxy.” Not a single of those assertions are true: the RCA never officially spoke to the Rabbinate before the ban, the Rabbinate never claimed to have spoken to the RCA, the RCA never expressed its support for Rabbi Weiss in any of its statements, the Rabbinate reflects quite accurately the sentiment of a preponderance of the Orthodox rabbinate across the globe, and has certainly never endorsed “Open Orthodoxy.” That last claim especially – obvious, transparent overreach by an enthusiastic, paid partisan – is typical of the misinformation and disinformation that have been propagated here.

It needs to be reiterated, as was stated by many of his supporters, rabbinic and otherwise (few of whom actually addressed the relevant issues), that Rabbi Weiss is a giant of interpersonal relations, a lover of Israel and the Jewish people, a courageous fighter for causes (Soviet Jewry, Jonathan Pollard, anti-Oslo, and numerous others) before they were trendy, a person who has risked life and limb for the Jewish people, a role model for many, an enormously-gifted teacher, and a mentor with whom I enjoy, still, very warm personal relations. It is tempting to say that none of that is relevant to the matters at hand, but even that is not true. The respect he has deservedly earned has provided him in these struggles with enormous latitude – even cover, in a sense – from his fellow rabbis, many of whom, in deference to his character and accomplishments, have remained silent in public while castigating his activities in private.

For the Rabbinate, in the first instance and before the political flak and PR-tillery started raining down on them, such considerations were not widely factored. Personal observance and even personal virtues were not the focus of their research. This is business, not personal. Like the late Ariel Sharon, who built the settlements and then destroyed some, Rabbi Weiss – unabashed lover and conscious unifier of Jews – is wittingly causing a schism in the Orthodox world.

No amount of spin is going to change that reality. The reversal of the decision means that the matter was finessed, not resolved, and certainly not that the broader Orthodox community – here or in Israel – has accepted the positions of the self-styled “Open Orthodox.” Nothing has changed the perception that this is neo-Conservatism. This is not a battle of turf, money or power – but one of ideas. There are simply certain ideas, values, practices, and actions that are not part of Torah Judaism.

And all the lawyers, all the spinners and all the letter-signers in the world will not change that. Only one person can.

16 responses to “The Spinning Wheel

  1. I hope you’re not suggesting that every rabbi is relied upon to assess someone’s Jewishness. After all, we don’t eat by every rabbi’s hashgacha, or accept every rabbi’s psak in any other area, so why here, which is probably more important than any other issue? Are you saying, “graduated from RIETS” = “guaranteed ne’emanus for life, no questions asked?” Come on. If you’re not going to eat in Rabbi X’s restaurant, how can you tell someone it’s ok to marry the daughter of the woman whom he vouched for her Jewishness?

    • The answer to your questions is that there are different standards for kashrut, even chumrot that many hold but others don’t. But there is only one standard for a Jewish mother! Forget the issue of conversion for a moment – I fail to see why anyone with basic credibility could not vouch for the Jewishness of a mother. Remember that we are talking here about a rabbi who has a personal relationship with a family, not a stranger.
      Ascertaining Jewishness is not a “psak,” to use your example, but “beirur metziut,” clarifying a reality.

  2. Shmuly Yanklowitz was ordained as a Rabbi by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), which was founded and directed by Avi Weiss.

    Shmuly Yanklowitz recently publicly announced his support for “gay marriage”:

    Avi Weiss has long been a loose canon who simply does whatever he pleases without considering the consequences of his actions; I would not trust him to tell me sof zman kriat shma.

  3. A little strong?!
    It is a good question how much a Rebbi should be held responsible for a talmid who strays. Every Rebbi – every Rabbi – has such stories. I suppose it depends on how much support the Rebbi still gives the talmid – and whether it is unequivocal support or just enough to retain a relationship.
    Unfortunately, Rabbi Weiss is not the only Rebbi who has disciples who support same-sex marriage.

  4. I think this really demonstrates that Orthodoxy has really joined the ranks of No mans land. The only true Judaism is not found in the Diaspora, it is found in Israel with Jews who adhere to Chazal. Orthodoxy is just another failed attempt at True Judaism.

  5. While I applaud your respect for Rabbi Weiss based on his historically indefatigable defense of Israel and Klal Yisrael, that respect was earned from past accomplishments and behavior. Unfortunately, just as respect must be earned, it also can be lost. Rabbi Weiss cannot live on past laurels, he must now be judged based on his current actions. The simple fact is that not only his talmidim, but he himself has crossed over the line from Orthodoxy. Remember, he is the one who hired his successor Rabbi Lopatin who is “in your face” with this “open orthodoxy” agenda. Rabbi Weiss is hiding behind the cloak of his past. Fortunately, he has been disrobed and his neo-conservative agenda must be openly challenged by all Orthodox Jews. Remember, there once was another who challenged the authority of Torah and an entirely new religion arose. If he willingly ignores the Halachic Rov on matters central to Torah belief and tradition, and chooses to paskin as a yachid without strong Talmudic support, then his credibility should be held in question on all halachic matters regardless of simplicity. He has certainly left the Rov and as such, his opinions are no longer credible. Perhaps in the future he will tell his followers they need not recognize any other religious authority other than him. He is on a very slippery slope and must be stopped before the RCA and the like gets dragged down with him. Until proven otherwise, his word on any issue should not be accepted unless verified by a reputable Rabbinic authority. I would suggest he move over to JTS and take down his fictitious mechitza.

  6. Moshe Hacohen

    Very well said! Yasher Kochacha!

  7. Go to: and click on ARTICLES,
    or just go to:

    Notice that there are only 4 names:
    First Avraham Weiss, the founder of the Open Orthodox movement.
    The second name is Shmuly Yanklowitz. Viewed from this perspective,
    Shmuly Yanklowitz seems to be prominent in the Open Orthodox movement.

  8. A Black Baptist Church choir performed in The Bayit,
    the synagogue of Avi Weiss, on MLK Day:

    If you doubt that The Bayit is affiliated with Avi Weiss,
    then go to:

    I’m not complaining just because the choir was Christian;
    if the choir had been Muslim or Buddhist or Native American
    Indian religions, my complaint would be the same. None of
    them should be singing in a synagogue that claims to be Orthodox.

  9. Avi Weiss favors non-halachic conversions in Israel.

    SOURCE: End the Chief Rabbinate’s Monopoly
    by Avi Weiss, The Jerusalem Post, 11/5/2013

  10. Avi Weiss expresses “solidarity and support” for homosexuals:

    Avi Weiss said this on 2009 August 13:
    “This is an evening for all of Am Yisrael and beyond, to
    reaffirm that every human being is created BeTzelem Elokim,
    every human being is created in the image of G_d. As G_d is of
    infinite and endless value, so too every human being, gay or straight,
    is of infinite and endless value, and we love you for who you are.”

    Using the logic of Avi Weiss: Since every human being is created in the image of G_d and is of infinite and endless value, therefore we must love all human beings, including: Nazis, terrorists, murderers, rapists, child molesters, wife beaters, racists, thieves, and people who hate homosexuals.