By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Rabbi Avi Weiss, founder of Open Orthodoxy’s flagship institutions, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat, and a vocal proponent of granting semichah to women, announced on Shemini Atzeres that he is stepping down from the pulpit of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR). He had previously given up the presidency of Chovevei Torah.
In a speech to his congregation, Weiss announced his plans to end his tenure as rabbi, a position he has held for over four decades.
“There is natural sadness that I feel as I step back, but it is overwhelmed by feelings of hoda’ah laKel, of gratitude to G-d, and of simchah, joy,” Weiss said. “As we embark on this necessary and critical transition phase, let’s do so with joy that as wonderful as it has been, the best is yet to come.”
The 70-year-old Weiss – who called his wife Toby up to the bimah after his speech – said he would step down in July 2015.
Weiss said he is not retiring, stating that he will still serve as rabbi-in-residence at HIR, adding that he would continue speaking and mentoring rabbinic students.
In his speech, Weiss called “Rabba” Sara Hurwitz – who he ordained – “my hero,” stating that “although Rabba Sara is spending more time as the dean of Yeshivat Maharat, an institution which grants semichah to women, her contribution in the Bayit (HIR) has been historic, and it continues to be indispensable. A woman’s voice in the spiritual leadership of our Bayit as a full member of our rabbinic team is crucial to our future success.”
While Weiss is stepping down from leading the congregation, the agenda he has set in motion continues to wreak havoc. His graduates occupy pulpits in congregations and schools across the country, propagating his innovations under the cloak of Orthodoxy. In fact, in his speech announcing his “transition,” he proclaimed that he would be working on “establishing an umbrella organization which will hopefully encompass the myriad of today’s Modern Orthodox and Open Orthodox voices.”
He has been the subject of many articles and columns in this publication over the past decade, decrying his faux-Orthodoxy and calling on him to ditch the label and acknowledge his changes for what they are. They are not Orthodox.
While the RCA and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate do not recognize the semichah and geirus granted by Weiss and his institution, mainstream Orthodox organizations have failed to condemn his actions. In fact, Allen Fagin, executive vice president and chief professional officer of the Orthodox Union, is scheduled to attend the installation of Open Orthodox Rabbi Gabriel Greenberg, a YCT graduate, as spiritual leader of OU member congregation Beth Israel in suburban New Orleans, LA.
In rejecting a geirus performed by Weiss, the Israeli Rabbanut explained, via its legal adviser, Harel Goldberg, “The Chief Rabbinate has been contacted by various rabbis known to the rabbinate, some of whom hold positions in the RCA [Rabbinical Council of America], who claim that Rabbi Weiss’ halakhic positions, as expressed in various incidents and under various circumstances, cast doubt on the degree of his commitment to customary and accepted Jewish halakha.”
As an example of the double-speak that organizations engage in when talking about Weiss, the RCA quickly issued a statement a day after the Rabbanut said that. The RCA stated, “Recent assertions that the Rabbinical Council of America advised the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to reject the testimony of RCA member Rabbi Avi Weiss are categorically untrue.
The statement continues: “The RCA regrets that the discussion concerning the reliability of American rabbis for technical matters under the aegis of the Chief Rabbinate has been used to promote broader issues relating to the contours of American Orthodoxy and its limits. The RCA believes that there are better places and ways to work through these issues.
“Since its inception, the RCA has cherished its relationship with the Chief Rabbinate and has been working closely with it in recent months to create a new protocol. This protocol will enable Jewish status letters to be written by its member rabbis and be endorsed in the United States, where the RCA is better informed and positioned to resolve matters in ways that will avoid the problems and embarrassments of these past weeks.”
What makes one Jewish person Orthodox, another Conservative, and a third Reform? What is it that has defined Orthodoxy ever since that term was formulated to describe our way of life?
When the Reform movement began, its proponents claimed that they were simply interested in reorganizing davening to make it more orderly and beautiful. They shortened the tefillah by removing parts that they claimed were no longer understood, relevant or necessary. There was absolutely no attempt to tamper with the fundamental underpinnings of Yiddishkeit or make any readjustment to the doctrines that are at the foundation of our religion. Nor did they amend any halachos or observances.
That all came later. It was in 1885 that the Reform rabbis, meeting in Pittsburgh, issued their proclamation to do away with all the “rituals” that they deemed to be “dispensable.” They discarded the Torah and removed it as an influence in their lives. They did away with awaiting a return to Eretz Yisroel and established, for all intents and purposes, a new secular religion.
The Conservatives also began as a seemingly harmless group devoted to maintaining halachah, but concerned with tweaking a few observances here and there so that they would conform to the times. Everything else came later. At their founding, they referred to themselves as “Historical Judaism,” as they sought to counter the radical inroads of the Reform.
Conservatives sought to implement certain minor changes and amendments, and promoted them all as being consistent with biblical and rabbinic precedent. They maintained fidelity to the traditional form and precepts of Judaism and did not deviate by changing any of the laws, not even the language of prayer.
Eventually, the Conservative movement also degenerated and became a religion without a G-d, constantly seeking to amend its observances and conforming to the prevailing notions in style at the moment. To them, the mitzvos of the Torah, which we cherish and observe as the word of Hashem as we seek to draw closer to Him, are the stuff of legend which are followed in order to feel good and part of some glorious ancient tribe with fabulous customs and recipes.
The Conservative yeshivos and rabbinic organizations became tools of the secularists. Although they may have been founded with good intentions and employed Talmudic scholars, they became pedestrian-level institutes of sophistry, doing little more than providing a cynical religious cover to a meandering, secular, assimilationist organization.
Orthodoxy was the term given by the Maskilim to those who remained loyal to the Torah, halachah and minhagim as handed down through the generations. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, “Orthodoxy looks upon attempts to adjust Judaism to the ‘spirit of the time’ as utterly incompatible with the entire thrust of normative Judaism, which holds that the revealed word of G-d rather than the values of any given age are the ultimate standard.
“The Orthodox community, institutively realizing that liturgical reforms were only the beginning of a long-range process designed to change the tenets and practices of Judaism…reacted with an all-out effort to preserve the status quo.”
Orthodoxy regards with great alarm even the slightest tampering of any part of tradition. It refuses to recognize or participate in any united collective religious organization that deviates from – or reforms in any way – traditional halachic Judaism, which is based upon observance of the Shulchan Aruch.
We have repeatedly written about Rabbi Avi Weiss and his innovations. We have written exposés about his yeshiva, Chovevei Torah, and its graduates. He is at it again and authentic halachic Orthodoxy is once again sleeping at the wheel. We feel that it is about time that he be considered outside of Orthodoxy. Once and for all, the collective bodies of Orthodoxy should declare that he has driven himself out of the camp.
Open Orthodoxy began its path by crossing socio-religious red lines, such as fostering greater cooperation with and recognition of non-Orthodox Jewish clergy, and engaging in celebratory religious interaction with Christian clergy. Then came their adopting new standards for geirus. New attitudes toward non-traditional marriage were proffered by YCT’s rabbis, radically changing accepted Orthodox norms so as to bring Open Orthodoxy in line with the times, yet not violating halachah. Soon thereafter, Open Orthodoxy introduced the ordination of women, again accompanied by teshuvos to justify this breach of tradition on technical halachic grounds. Then came changing tefillah: Tefillah could be led by women, and brachos could be cancelled and replaced. They updated davening and nusach to reflect the values of the day. Sometimes, bogus halachic loopholes were created, while at other times, no halachic justification was offered.
Open Orthodoxy’s reforms and attempted integration into Modern Orthodoxy are met with deafening silence at best and sometimes even with cooperation and support. To wit, YCT’s graduates are landing pulpit and campus rabbinical positions at synagogues and universities affiliated with mainstream Modern Orthodox synagogue organizations.
Popular Modern Orthodox lecturers and authors, affiliated with mainstream Modern Orthodox organizations, participate in YCT symposiums and contribute to YCT publications. Meanwhile, Open Orthodoxy continues its leftward trek over the edge, reforming Orthodoxy and breaking away from the chachmei hamesorah, and even censuring the ideas of Chazal when they do not fit in with the times.
Open Orthodoxy has very ambitious plans to change Yahadus, and Modern Orthodoxy and its organs had better wake up, whether Avi Weiss is rabbi of the Bayit in Riverdale or not.
Avi Weiss has a long history. He kept on pushing the envelope as far as he could and waited to see if anyone pushed back. When there was no pushback, he took the next step, and then the next and the next. Eventually, he went so far that he clearly stepped off the cliff and descended into a different realm.
Weiss’ actions are even more brazen than those of the original reformers, yet he has succeeded in evading the eye of scrutiny and continues to be permitted to parade as an Orthodox rabbi.
Why should we care? For the same reason Jews cared for the past three hundred years when reformers of all stripes advanced their agendas. We fought back and repelled them from the normative community. There is no reason that Weiss should be permitted to speak in our name. There is no reason that students of his rabbinic institute should be allowed to label themselves as Orthodox and compete against frum candidates for open pulpits in synagogues across the country.
Having learned from the Maskilim of previous centuries, the students of that movement in this century demonstrate that they have learned from the mistakes of the former. Without seeking to entrap the masses on an individual level and convert them to their beliefs, they concentrate their efforts on a communal level, aiming to conquer pulpits in communities across the United States and Canada in their bid to corrupt Orthodoxy.
Zacharias Frankel, referred to as the Conservative movement’s intellectual ancestor, wrote, “The means [of transformation] must be grasped with such care, thought through with such discretion, created always with such awareness of the moment in time, that the goal will be reached unnoticed, that the forward progress will seem inconsequential to the average eye.”
Pretty soon, the innovations and transformations put into motion by Rabbi Weiss won’t be considered silly, and there will be more and more aberrations, if the phenomenon is permitted to fester.
Yes, it is late. We should have dealt with this earlier. But it is not too late. Even as he rides off into the sunset, his sun still shines.
Let us take this most recent step in his career as an opportunity to remove this cancer from the midst of Orthodoxy.
This article first appeared in Yated Neeman.