Avi Weiss’ Latest Disgraceful Shenanigans


avi-weissSee Matzav’s initial report here. The following is from a report by Steve Lipman in the Jewish Week: This time, in the pitched battle between Rabbi Avi Weiss and the Orthodox establishment, the “rabba” was merely the undercard. Sara Hurwitz is a spiritual leader at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and her promotion in March to rabba, a member of the shul’s rabbinic leadership, by Rabbi Weiss set off a brushfire of criticism at HIR and across the Orthodox world. She was at shul as usual last Friday night, but she was hardly the main event.

In Rabbi Weiss’ latest effort to push the boundaries of women’s roles in an Orthodox shul, he had a woman, Lamelle Ryman, lead a Friday-night service with both men and women in the pews. Rabba Hurwitz, who heads a seminary for Orthodox women created by Rabbi Weiss, made a few brief remarks, not even touching on the fact that no other Orthodox synagogue in the U.S. had apparently ever before had a woman lead a Kabbalat Shabbat service.

But it was Ryman’s show, and according to those in attendance, the davening was beautiful. Still, the alternative minyan that played out last weekend in the synagogue’s upstairs Beit Midrash study hall – the service drew about 50 people, roughly 20 men and 30 women separated by a mechitza divider – has caused additional anguish at the Hebrew Institute, in what has been the spring and summer of its discontent.

Like most members of the Modern Orthodox congregation, Bernice Schwartz only learned that HIR would add a Friday night service led by a woman when she received an unsigned e-mail from the synagogue that Friday morning.

She was upset, not that a female would lead a worship service at the synagogue, a sharp departure from traditional Orthodox practice, but that HIR members found out at the last minute.

“The Hebrew Institute does things impulsively, then looks for [justifying] answers,” Schwartz said. She was referring not only to the short notice about the woman-led service but also that Rabbi Weiss’ conferring of the rabba title came with little or no prior discussion within the synagogue.

“It is given over as fait accompli; there is no input,” Schwartz continued. “There is no [consultative] process. It would be helpful if we could sit down while these ideas were germinating.”

Her frustrations over the rabbi’s authoritarian leadership style, as well as his radical innovations that risk the shul’s Orthodox standing, were echoed by several other congregants who preferred to remain anonymous because they, for now, are still members of the shul and felt uneasy confronting the rabbi.

According to a recent New York Magazine story, Rabbi Weiss’ “close congregants describe – with affection and exasperation – a man who claims to invite opinions but ultimately listens to his own.”

The rabba controversy seemingly reached closure when Rabbi Weiss – under strong pressure from the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), centrist Orthodoxy’s largest rabbinic body – vowed that he would no longer confer the rabba title. He also apologized to the congregation for his handling of that situation. However, last week’s move added kindling to the fire just as some thought it was over.

The RCA has called Rabbi Weiss’ latest innovation “a violation of Jewish tradition.” A censure may yet follow.

The congregation was said to have taken a hit in attendance, and even in membership, over the rabba issue and how it was handled by Rabbi Weiss, and more congregants may be lost because of the female-led Kabbalat Shabbat, some members say.

But Howard Jonas, a former president of the congregation and once one of its leading financial supporters, said HIR is unlikely to lose more members.

“There are a lot of people who stopped going” to the Hebrew Institute in protest over the rabba controversy, he said. “All the people who … didn’t agree” with having a rabba have already departed. “There’s nobody left to object.”

Jonas says he frequently meets former members of HIR when he attends services at other Orthodox congregations in Riverdale.

At the same time, he said, “I know there are large numbers of people who have stayed in the shul” because of the rabbi’s innovations. “There may be additional people who join because of it.”

Jonas said, “I view Rabbi Weiss as a tzaddik – I have tremendous gratitude to him for being a spiritual mentor to me and my entire family.” Nevertheless, “I don’t agree with women rabbis. I am not comfortable with it. It’s just a slippery slope” toward other liberalizations taking the shul beyond what is generally recognized as Orthodox.

Jonas said he is still a member of HIR, but declined to say if he has decreased his contributions to the synagogue this year.

“You can say I’m a supporter of the yeshiva,” Chovevei Torah, which also was founded by Rabbi Weiss, Jonas said. In contrast to his changes in the synagogue, Rabbi Weiss has yet to make similar feminist innovations at Chovevei Torah, which does not admit women.

The synagogue’s unsigned e-mail notice – “Additional Kabbalat Shabbat: What and Why” – last Friday offered explanations, from a halachic perspective, why a woman leading a prayer service is permissible: “A number of halakhic sources point out that … kol ishah [the prohibition against a man hearing a woman sing, particularly in public] is not a concern where women are chanting in a liturgical context.”

Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella charedi organization, said Rabbi Weiss’ move “saddens me.”

“What defines Orthodoxy is – as it always has been – fealty to the Jewish religious tradition. What is Jewishly right and Jewishly wrong, from an Orthodox perspective, is not always divined from a halachic text. And it is certainly not divined from a congregational rabbi’s personal feelings, especially feelings born of what broader society considers proper,” Rabbi Shafran said.

“When an Orthodox Jew who truly respects our mesorah [tradition] wants to do something that has no Jewish precedent, he seeks the guidance of elder decisors, those who not only know the sources well but who possess deep experience and sensitivity to the mesorah,” Rabbi Shafran continued. “That doesn’t seem to have happened here, and that is what so saddens me. Innovations … in Jewish ritual may only be made with the guidance of a posek [halachic expert] – and for an innovation like this, a posek universally recognized and respected.”

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Englewood, N.J., a vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, said RCA leadership is critical of Rabbi Weiss’ action, but has not yet decided on any action it may take.

“A woman serving as shaliachat tzibbur [the cantor] for any portion of synagogue services is unacceptable,” Rabbi Goldin said. “If such a thing occurred, it would obviously be wrong and not in keeping with Orthodox tradition.”

Read the full report in The Jewish Week.

{The Jewish Week}

{Matzav.com Newscenter}


  1. I may be understanding this incorrectly, but if you can have a woman leading the service, why do you need a Mechitza?
    Someone please explain this to me (unless she was
    standing on the women’s side)

  2. He’s a shagitz and a mazik and the OU and RCA are a disgrace for not putting him in cherem long ago. If you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem.

    I’m sure the Reform religion would welcome him with open arms.

  3. Howard Jonas’s statement is very revealing, “There’s nobody left to object.” This seems to apply to the RCA as well.

  4. Funny thing is those traditional people who left HIR are the people who do not know how to learn
    and just can’t get beyond the traditional aspects.
    The people who stayed are people who are yodei sefer.

  5. I am told that the Chazzanit Rabba had a sore throat so she sounded like a man

    That according to the New Testament ”seef’ ‘122 A ‘it is allowed

  6. Don’t worry so much about the slippery slope. Especially when what you are doing now is making you more irrelevant than the Amish.

  7. Listen to your terminology,ie: shenanigans, shagitz,mazik. This is just childish.
    If you are so sure of your position, then let’s have an open, professional and respectable dialogue about the issues and deal with them. Do you think this constant name calling is furthering your cause? It’s not
    creating any real Kiddush Hashem. All you are doing is preaching to the choir as you make yourselves dirty.

  8. Sheldon…there is no cause anyone wants to further!!!!True name calling is out of line, regardless of any situation…but it’s not a question of furthering a cause, just observations on how someone can besmirch the truth….Does he actually believe himself???I wonder…Torah is forever binding…no cause to further. Those who know the truth are not here to further it….it speaks for itself.

  9. It is time for the RCA to do more than censure Rabbi Weiss. He must be made to understand that these ‘innovations’ are pulling him AND his congregation towards conservative and reform Judaism.
    And Though Rabbi Weiss may take this marginalization as a prize or as statement of his ‘bridging the gap’ or being more ‘inclusive’, his congregation will not be so understanding. They too will want to draw the line at being defined as conservative.
    The argument that something may be technically permitted does not give licence to it being done.
    A man is permitted to marry more than one woman, does that mean we should bring it back Rabbi Weiss?. A father can Marry off his underage daughter (in Halacha), does that mean we should bring it back?. Women can serve as Shochatim, why don’t we institute that?

  10. I daven regularly in shul on Friday night. I do not understand in what way does a Rabbi lead the services. The Rabbi in my shul sits in an honourable place in front but his participation in the service is no different than mine. His only public participation is the shiur he gives between Kabbalat Shabbat and Arvit, which hardly can be considered part of the service.

    Does the article mean that the woman in question assumed the role of “chazzan”? Or is the Rabbi always the chazzan in this synagogue?

  11. To #13 ANONYMOUS:
    Listen to your terminology:
    “besmirch the truth”, “Torah is forever binding”, “those who no the truth”. You sound like a “fundamentalist”. What happened to Eylu VaEylu Divrei Elokim Chayim? What happened to frank, open and honest debate of the issues?
    What happened to reverance for those whose opinions are different from yours, yet are Halachicly valid.
    The question here is can we seize on something that is Halachicly permisible under these circumstances, yet may go against traditional values of Mesorah. Must the tradition of the Mesorah be kept at all costs (Chodosh Assur min HaTorah)? Or are these new and different situations in history create the need to reevaluate not the Halachah, but the relevance of the Mesorah. These are issues that plague
    Halachick innovators. You need innovators but you also need traditionalists. Either way don’t assume that your position is Torah true or the truth. It may just be Traditional.

  12. I’m not #13 so won’t go back and parse it, but what possible objection could a religious Jew have to the statement that Torah is forever binding?

    IIRC Rav Hirsch said, about Aseh Torascha Keva, that we are too make Torah the constant, the prism through which we view the times. We don’t subject the Torah to be twisted and morphed by the times we’re in.

    Your questioning whether we need to reevaluate the relevancy of mesorah – and I hate to say this – almost makes me wonder if you’re a troll.

  13. Avi Weiss is an activist and a demagogue therefore acts to further his agenda.He has made clear in his speeches his disdain for the current Torah authorities. He has stated to his congregants that he is fundamentally egalitarian.His goal is to establish an egalitarian form of Judaism. One would hope that by now nobody is fooled by any rationalizations that are offered. It is suprising that the orthodox union still endorses him(as prominently displayed on HIR.org.).