By Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
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.