Rabbi Avi Weiss
The Chief Rabbinate of Israel has stated that due to American Rabbi Avi Weiss' "questionable" commitment to Jewish Law, it has decided not to accept letters from him attesting to the personal status of his congregation members who seek to immigrate to Israel or get married in the country, until the matter is clarified.
This is the first time the Rabbinate provides reasons for its strict attitude towards Weiss and other liberal rabbis affiliated with the Orthodox community.
In a response to the religious-Zionist Ne'emanei Torah Va'Avodah movement, which has been supporting Rabbi Weiss' struggle for recognition by the Chief Rabbinate, the Rabbinate said it had received testimonies from well-known rabbis in the United States, some of whom are member of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), that Weiss' halachic opinions – reflected in different incidents and circumstances – "cast doubt on the level of his commitment to the customary and acceptable Jewish Halacha."
'It's not enough for a rabbi to say he is Orthodox'
The Rabbinate's legal advisor, attorney Harel Goldberg, wrote to attorney Assaf Benmelech, the movement's representative, that the Chief Rabbinate was looking into the American rabbis' claims against Weiss. Until the matter is clarified, Weiss' congregants have been asked to obtain certificates on their Jewishness or personal status from other rabbis.
Goldberg added that should the Rabbinate seek to "disqualify" the Rabbi Weiss, the examination's findings would be brought to his review and he would be able to comment on them.
"We must not ignore the difficulty facing Rabbinate representatives, who are required to check hundreds of rabbis across the world's Jewish Diaspora, whose certificates have been submitted to the authorized elements in Israel for the purpose of registering a couple for marriage," attorney Goldberg wrote.
He noted that the Rabbinate was checking and cross-checking information with rabbis it trusted who were capable of testifying about colleagues seeking recognition.
"The Rabbinate examines whether the rabbi who signed the submitted certificate indeed serves as the rabbi of an Orthodox congregation, how he was certified as a rabbi and the level of his commitment to Halacha, in order to ensure that the Judaism certificates he issues can be trusted," the lawyer wrote. "The Chief Rabbinate believes that it is not enough for a rabbi to identify himself as Orthodox in order for the Judaism certificates he issues to his congregants to be recognized."
The legal advisor clarified in his letter that the Rabbinate recognizes Judaism certificates issued by a very wide variety of rabbis, but that it cannot do so when its representatives are convinced that a rabbi's halachic perception, lifestyle or the way he leads his congregation deviate from the acceptable Orthodox framework.
'Modern Orthodoxy unwelcome in Rabbinate'
Upon receiving the Rabbinate's response, attorney Benmelech said it was unfortunate that documents of "an important rabbi among modern Orthodoxy in the United States" were being rejected on "unclear grounds."
According to Benmelech, "The decision to disqualify Rabbi Weiss appears to have been made some time ago, and the unfamiliar examination procedure mentioned in the letter appears to be aimed at legitimizing Rabbi Weiss' denunciation retroactively without even receiving his response."
The decision shows, Benmelech said, that "the circles of modern Orthodoxy, which are courageously dealing with the challenges of our generation within the boundaries of Halacha – are unwelcome in the Chief Rabbinate.
"It is every person's right to disagree with a different rabbi's halachic opinion – but there is a long way between that and rejecting his testimony on the Jewishness of his congregation members," he added.
"The existence of an examination process with no transparency should bother any person who fears for the existence of a disagreement culture and for Israel's Jewish image," he concluded. "The Ne'emanei Torah Va'Avodah movement believes that the discussion on the boundaries of Halacha and on rabbis' authority is important, but it should be done publicly and openly."
Rabbinate rejects claims
The Chief Rabbinate said in response that the examination process, as described in attorney Goldberg's letter, was homogenous and referred to all rabbis abroad. As for the claim that the process lacks transparency, Rabbinate officials said Rabbi Weiss or his representative had never contacted them for the testimonies about him, and that if they were to do so – they would be given access to the information.
The Rabbinate rejected the claim of a hostile attitude towards modern Orthodoxy circles, noting its tight relations with the RCA, which includes most American rabbis belonging to this stream, and the cooperation agreement signed between the parties recently.
Rabbi Avi Weiss, who leads a large community in northern New York, has been waging in recent weeks a public battle against the Rabbinate, which he says has stopped recognizing him and his colleagues over their liberal worldview. His protest has reached the Knesset, and he also plans to petition the High Court of Justice with the help of prominent Jewish American lawyer Alan Dershowitz.
Rabbi Weiss is a graduate of Yeshiva University. Among the most influential Orthodox rabbis in America (and perhaps in the world), he is probably the most liberal.
Weiss is known as the founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah for the ordination of rabbis and Yeshivat Maharat, which is the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as clergy – a move which was one of the causes of the serious dispute between him and the central stream of modern Orthodoxy in the US.
One of the symbols of his permissive worldview, according to his critics, is his definition of a woman graduating from Yeshivat Maharat as a "rabba" – as the Reform and Conservative do – rather than as a "rabbanit."
Several rabbis serve under him in his New York congregation, which includes senior officials like the American secretary of the treasury and AIPAC heads pray. One of those rabbis is a woman.
Amid the dispute, Weiss quit the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and is competing against its rabbinic ordination institutes. In his blog post, he slammed the RCA for failing to back the community rabbis against the Chief Rabbinate, and even implied that his rivals in the US rabbinate had turned their colleagues in Israel against him and his colleagues, as if they were not necessarily part of Orthodox Judaism.