Israel's Chief Rabbinate Questions 'Commitment' of Leading U.S. Modern Orthodox Rabbi to Jewish Law

Rabbi Avi Weiss was previously disqualified from attesting to the personal status of members of his NY congregation seeking to marry in Israel.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

The Chief Rabbinate has doubled down on its opposition to a leading American modern Orthodox rabbi, Avi Weiss, saying it doubts “the degree of his commitment to customary and accepted” Jewish religious law.

About two months ago, in a move that roused protests from Orthodox rabbis in both Israel and the United States, the Chief Rabbinate disqualified Weiss from attesting to the personal status of members of his New York congregation who sought to marry in Israel. The decision even sparked a Knesset debate in November on the rabbinate’s opaque policy of disqualifying certain Orthodox rabbis overseas based on no clear criteria.

Weiss, founder of the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical school, represents the left flank of the Orthodox community, and he recently upset many in that community by becoming the first Orthodox rabbi to grant ordination to women. But he is also highly influential in the American Orthodox community, hence the outrage when the rabbinate refused to accept his affidavits regarding the personal status of people seeking to marry in Israel.

Weiss’ battle against the rabbinate’s decision is being led by attorney Assaf Benmelech on behalf of the Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah organization. Thus earlier this week, the rabbinate’s legal advisor, Harel Goldberg, sent Benmelech a response.

“The Chief Rabbinate has been contacted by various rabbis known to the rabbinate, some of whom hold positions in the RCA [Rabbinical Council of America], who claim that Rabbi Weiss’ halakhic positions, as expressed in various incidents and under various circumstances, cast doubt on the degree of his commitment to customary and accepted Jewish halakha,” Goldberg wrote, using the term for Jewish religious law.

The rabbinate hasn’t yet completed its own investigation of Weiss, Goldberg continued. “When this investigation is finished, and to the degree that the Chief Rabbinate thinks there is a problem with recognizing affirmations of Jewishness made by Rabbi Weiss, the findings of the investigation will be brought to Rabbi Weiss for comment before a final decision is made.”

Regarding how the rabbinate decides which rabbis overseas it considers trustworthy, Goldberg wrote that it makes these decisions by asking other rabbis from the same country, “who are known to and trusted by representatives of rabbinate,” about the rabbi under investigation. The rabbinate is careful to cross-check the information it obtains by asking several different rabbis from the same country, he added.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, said it would be a mistake to confine the debate to Weiss alone.

“It’s clear that the rabbinate is right about Weiss, from its perspective, and that’s the problem,” he said. “We have a Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] rabbinate with a Haredi worldview, but it serves the non-Haredi public. That’s the Israeli absurdity we’ve created. It’s clear that by Haredi criteria, there’s doubt about Weiss’ commitment to halakha. But the moment the State of Israel determines that there is only one halakha, and it’s Haredi, we will disqualify not only Weiss, but most of the Jewish people. The question isn’t only about the bounds of Orthodoxy. This is a rabbinate that’s disconnected from the lives of most of the Jewish people. The riddle that’s hard to answer is why the state allows this.”

Within Israel, Weiss is also being supported by Tzohar, an organization of moderate religious Zionist rabbis, and ITIM, an organization that helps Israelis navigate the rabbinic bureaucracy. His American supporters include superstar lawyer Prof. Alan Dershowitz, who in November asked President Shimon Peres to intervene in the issue of Weiss’ disqualification.

“I am forced to see yet again how basic rights, such as the right to marriage, the right to self-definition and the right of religion, are trampled by none other than the Israeli democracy we value so,” Dershowitz wrote Peres. “This is yet another result of the rather unsuccessful fusion of Religious law and Israeli law, and the problem seems to only intensify over time.”

Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz.Credit: AP

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