Rabbi Weiss: Please Don’t Confuse Form with Substance


????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????By Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer

Winds of secession are in the air. Rabbi Avi Weiss and his disciple, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, yesterday announced their immediate resignation from the Rabbinical Council of America, and Rabbi Weiss subsequently issued a broad explanation for his new trajectory, presenting his view of the recent history of Orthodoxy and his launching of the Open Orthodox denomination and its rabbinical and educational institutions. (Truth be told, Rabbi Weiss resigned from the RCA many months ago. His announcement of immediate resignation is quite puzzling and appears to be part of a wider plan of action.)

Rabbi Weiss presents Open Orthodoxy as the new manifestation of Modern Orthodoxy, arguing that

Since the early ’90s, Orthodoxy has undergone a number of great shifts. Responding to a precipitous move to the right within Modern Orthodoxy, a plethora of institutions and organizations have emerged. These include the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), Edah, YCT and YM, the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, and the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF). In Israel, too, Beit Morasha, Beit Hillel, Ne’emanei Torah Ve’Avodah and others were founded and today women are being ordained (receiving semikha) from Yeshivat Maharat.

Modern Orthodoxy, which 25 years ago faced a significant decline, has been reclaimed by tens, even hundreds of thousands of adherents.

In other words, according to Rabbi Weiss, Open Orthodoxy is merely a continuation of Modern Orthodoxy, after Modern Orthodoxy abandoned its mandate.

Rabbi Weiss further elaborates:

Others, like myself, prefer a new term: “Open Orthodoxy.” In the ’60s and ’70s, Modern Orthodoxy dealt primarily with two issues: secularism and Zionism—more broadly, the modern secular world, and the modern State of Israel. Modern Orthodoxy insisted that one could be Orthodox while embracing the humanities and science, even as one could be Orthodox while committed to the rebirth of the State of Israel.

“Modern” issues of 40 and 50 years ago are no longer modern. We are, in fact, in the postmodern era, as we face new issues and challenges.

The dividing line within Orthodoxy today revolves around inclusivity. Is Orthodoxy inclusive of women—encouraging women to become more involved in Jewish ritual and Jewish spiritual leadership? Notwithstanding the Torah prohibition on homosexuality, are those in such relationships included as full members in our synagogues, and are their children welcomed into day schools? Do we respect, embrace, and give a forum to those who struggle with deep religious, theological, and ethical questions? Do we insist upon forbiddingly stringent measures for conversion, or do we, within halakhic parameters, reach out to converts with love and understanding? Should Orthodox rabbinic authority be centralized, or should it include the wide range of local rabbis who are not only learned but also more aware of how the law should apply to their particular communal situations and conditions? Are we prepared to engage in dialogue and learn from Jews of other denominations, and, for that matter, people of all faiths?

Put simply, is our focus on boundaries, fences, high and thick—obsessing and spending inordinate amounts of time ostracizing and condemning and declaring who is not in—or is our focus on creating welcoming spaces to enhance the character of what Orthodoxy could look like in the 21st century? To quote the late Rabbi David Hartman’s description of having been raised Orthodox: “I grew up in a home where I didn’t feel piety needed an object to hate. I felt close to God without saying, ‘I don’t like him, I don’t go into his shul.’ I never felt piety through anger and negation, but piety was the result of internal conviction and joy.”

This is Open Orthodoxy. While insisting on the foundational divinity of Torah and observance of halakha, this Orthodoxy is not rigid. It is open to a wider spectrum.

Unfortunately, Rabbi Weiss’ account of recent Orthodox history leaves much to be desired, and his association of Open Orthodoxy with Modern Orthodoxy is likewise quite wanting.

Modern Orthodoxy has not made “a precipitous move to the right”, as Rabbi Weiss asserts. While Torah study and mitzvah observance have dramatically increased over the years in most Modern Orthodox communities, thank God, these communities are still Zionistic, committed to secular education, and heavily involved with the “outside world”.

Geirus (conversion) standards in Modern Orthodox communities, as emphatically insisted upon by Rav Yosef Dov Ha-Levi Soloveitchik zt”l of RIETS, included and continue to include an unqualified Kabbalas Ha-Mitzvos (Acceptance of the Mitzvos) requirement. Due to a concern of some Modern Orthodox rabbis failing to maintain consistent standards, and in order to assure a uniform, lechatchilah (best practices) caliber of geirus, the RCA entered into a unified conversion protocol with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. For Rabbi Weiss and his colleagues in the Open Orthodox rabbinate to portray this as the disenfranchisement of local rabbis in favor of unnecessarily tight standards and unfair oversight, is very inaccurate, to put it kindly.

Taking a step back, the issue here is one of form versus substance. For Modern Orthodoxy, the rule of Halacha and Mesorah (traditional Torah practices and attitudes) is a must. Deviation from Halacha and Mesorah, be it in the cast of mitzvah observance, beliefs, synagogue practices, and so forth, is not in the equation. (It is unfortunately true that much of Modern Orthodoxy has routinely suffered from some laxity in observance on the part of laity, but we speak here of official policy and accepted theology.)

In stark contrast, Open Orthodoxy has materially departed from this model and commitment. Its ordination of female clergy, significant modification to geirus procedures, inclusion and embrace of heresy, celebration of same-sex marriage and acceptance of homosexual relations, deletion of berachos from the daily service, and much more (please see, e.g., here and here), distinguish the Open Orthodox denomination from Orthodoxy of any type. Unlike Modern Orthodoxy, which has retained the substance of Orthodoxy and has adopted some differing forms, Open Orthodoxy has abandoned much of the substance of Orthodoxy and has instead adopted new and foreign substance – substance that is actually quite similar to that of the Conservative movement of several decades prior. (Please see here.)

The immense boundaries and fences of which Rabbi Weiss speaks are an exaggeration and a straw man, but rest assured that whatever boundaries and fences needed to be erected were so done in order to protect Orthodoxy from the assimilationist practices of the heterodox movements, which plunged headlong into halachic dilution, compromise, and abandonment, and have all but disavowed any commitment to Jewish tradition or continuity.

Rabbi Weiss: It is Open Orthodoxy, not the rest of Orthodoxy, which has veered. Unfortunately, your new denomination, which has already created a seismic schism, will be responsible for any new boundaries and fences that mainstream Orthodoxy may in the future be forced to erect.

This article first appeared at Cross Currents and is published here with permission of the author.

{Matzav.com Newscenter}


  1. This may be the worst Rabbi Gordimer piece ever. Chazal created halachah that allowed any three rabbis to perform a conversion. Rabbi Gordimer thinks that Chazal got it wrong, and so does the Chief Rabbinate. It is Rabbi Gordimer and the people he defends who have deviated from the norms of Rabbinic Judaism.

    And if you doubt this, consider that all three of the recent attempts to centralize conversion authority ended with scandal involving the rabbi who was put in charge. Rabbi Weiss opposed all three.

    And if you further doubt this, and think that the RCA is correct, consider that when one of Rabbi Weiss’s musmachim did a single joint conversion with heterodox rabbis, Rabbi Weiss joined Rabbi Dov Linzer in publicly condemning him. That rabbi is no longer listed on Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s internet site and I have been told by someone who claims to know that he returned his semicha. By comparison, the rabbi who led the notorious Denver joint conversion “beit din” remained a member in good standing of the RCA to the end of his life a few years ago and was even featured on the RCA web site.

    It should be noted that this is Rabbi Weiss’s last day as Senior Rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. He is retiring. Perhaps Rabbi Gordimer should retire from writing hit pieces.

  2. Charlie Hall, Weiss and his cohorts have said they don’t accept torah min hashomayim. They have denigrated our avos and these are of their smaller misdeeds. The line between Orthodox and otherwise is drawn at the 13 Ani Maamins for which they have no regard. If they mistakenly get something right it’s kosher meat cooked in a traif pot.
    As a nation we have outlived the karaim, the Helenists, the conservatives, korach and other enemies of Hashem. We will outlive the Weisses too.
    When I was younger Weiss was known as a rabble rouser and never taken seriously. People didn’t answer him when he mocked Gedolim he was just ignored. It’s unfortunate that we’ve come to this that the face of the generation is that of a dog.

    How do I begin? It has been over 50 years since I met you as an impressionable young boy. My father Rabbi Yitchok Ebert ZL had just become Rav of Jewish Center Nachalat Zion in Sheapshead Bay Brooklyn. You and your Father ZL .davened in the shul. You were a role model to me a serious young man learning in yeshiva , I remember you being a madrich in Shabbos groups I believe it was bnei akiva in Rabbi Ostrinskys shul. You were very inspiring and dynamic .That was the only frum groups in our area.
    I shudder to read fifty plus years later about your lax attitude in giyur standards. How strange life is . In the 80s I took a diferent stand when I was in Chicago. To verify the story google Elchonon Ebert and you will see Articles in the Chicago Tribune , Where there was total laxity in the conversion process of even the Orthodox I was determined to raise the stanardas and in the Orthodox council the standards were raised. Unfortunately the Orthodox Mikva allowed reform Rabbis to do conversions in there mikva and still does, Maybe it was the chinuch of being a close talmid of Horav Hagoan Shmuel BerenbaumZTL who encouraged me to stay the course .Rabbi Aron Solovechik ZTL wrote a forty page Teshuva that it was osur to allow reform in the Mikva unfortunately he was ignored, Horav Berenbaum ZTL had great respect for Rav Aron SolovechikZl asking me numerous times to bring him to his home when he visited Chicago Chol Hamoed Sukos and would talk in Learning with Rav Solovechik. So you see its not about right wing left wing Mizrachi or Agudah or modern Orthodox its about . following Halacha Avi I still have fond memories of a serious young man who wanted to do great things for klal yisroel Please go back to your roots and stay within Halacha. Just a parting thought Your father was a great Talmid Chochom
    Im sure he would encourage you to stay connected to Halacha . What a great honor you would show your father by following halacha .

  4. Perhaps Charlie should rethink commenting on areas he clearly knows little about. Three rabbis is notcthe only qualification for conversion.

  5. Charlie Hall, comment number 2. is a member of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, that try’s to push and defend Avi Weiss’s radical viewsin the comments section of numerous blogs,. His opinion, to say the least, is tainted. Secondly, his ignorance of the laws of geirut is astounding. If there is not a complete kabbalat mitzvot the geirut is invalid. Secondly, Rabbi Avi Weiss and Dov Linzer are not Orthodox Rabbis. Both Weiss and LInzer have espoused outright heresy disparaging the Avot, Moshe Rabbeinu and engaging in other forms of bible criticism. The only thing that Open Orthodox Conversion will do is prevent well meaning converts from having a conversion that will be accepted by the Orthodox community.

  6. Unfortunately , Rabbi Weiss, who was a well meaning Rabbi in the modern orthodox world has gone off to a new realm. It is not Orthodoxy at all , not open or closed!