Make the Avi Weiss Case a Precedent for All Rejected Rabbis

Israel’s chief rabbinate decided to recognize Rabbi Weiss after leaders in the Jewish Diaspora stood up to its dogmatic approach. Now, Orthodox and non-Orthodox leaders should unite for the sake of all liberal leaders.

The American Jewish community was outraged over news that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate had rejected Rabbi Avi Weiss from testifying to the validity of a conversion.  Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League found it “disturbing,” and decried it as a “witch hunt.” Other notable figures in the Jewish community were equally dismayed – and rightly so. Rabbi Weiss has demonstrated his love of Israel and deep commitment to Judaism for many years, and there should be no doubt as to the status of his converts.

On Wednesday, the rabbinate made a u-turn and decided to recognize Rabbi Weiss. Was this thanks to the power of the collective voices of leaders in the Jewish Diaspora? (After all, Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett did reportedly cite concerns for Israel-Diaspora relations in his efforts to resolve the Weiss case.)

When the rabbinate rejected Rabbi Weiss, I was equally as outraged as those leaders, but I was not surprised. This was not the first time  the Chief Rabbinate had rejected the attestation of an Orthodox rabbi. Nevertheless, for years, our Orthodox colleagues have turned a blind eye to the rabbinate’s intolerance. Not once – to my knowledge – has an Orthodox leader publically called on the rabbinate to recognize the credibility of one of their non-Orthodox colleagues.

This situation reminds me of a well-known piece that was written in a completely different context, but whose point rings true here, too:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me.

I do not wish to draw any parallel whatsoever between the Nazis and the Chief Rabbinate, nor do I suggest this situation, as shameful as it is, has anything to do with the Holocaust. But I do wonder why, after witnessing for decades the rabbinate’s rejections of conversions performed by liberal rabbis – and yet, all the while keeping quiet, not speaking up for their neighbors – American Jewish leaders were so shocked that the rabbinate would reject the conversion of an Open Orthodox rabbi like Rabbi Weiss.

It is true that conversion standards differ between Jewish movements. It is okay for an individual rabbi to be exclusive, to set ideological boundaries for his own community. However, there should be a difference between what a particular rabbi requires for his or her community, and what a country accepts for all its citizens. The State of Israel ought to be as inclusive as possible. How else can it fulfill its mission of being the homeland of all Jewish people?

Thus, the solution to this dilemma is not, as some in the Orthodox community maintain, implementing a better system to evaluate the credentials of Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora. Rather, the solution lies in advocating for a more inclusive rabbinate in Israel altogether.

After years of ignoring the rabbinate’s disrespect for liberal rabbis, Orthodox leaders in the Jewish Diaspora can join the battle against the Israeli rabbinate’s attack on Klal Yisrael. For the rabbinate cannot continue to dominate world Jewry in this way.

The case of Rabbi Weiss shows that when leaders in the Jewish Diaspora stand together, they can effect change. Now they must take their efforts one step further, for the sake of non-Orthodox rabbis, and either pry open the rabbinate’s doors, or strip it of its power to represent Judaism in Israel altogether.

There is still time to speak out.

Rabbi Micah Peltz is a Conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

This article was updated at 5:45 P.M. It was originally entitled "Jewish leaders, unite in the name of Avi Weiss and all rejected rabbis."

Tomer Noyberg / Jini