U.S. Orthodox Rabbi Pushes Back Against Israel's Chief Rabbinate

Chief Rabbinate has an 'expanding degree' of influence on a U.S. Jewish community it knows nothing about, says ally of Rabbi Avi Weiss.

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NEW YORK – An agreement reached between the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America and Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, in which the latter pledged to accept letters from RCA members attesting to the Jewishness of people wanting to marry in Israel, does not put to rest troubling issues, say Rabbi Avi Weiss and others enmeshed in the issue.

Weiss and at least one other RCA member were suddenly informed last fall by the Chief Rabbinate, that their letters about Jewish status were no longer being accepted. The RCA agreement with the Chief Rabbinate restores their ability to submit letters on behalf of congregants.

Weiss, who founded “Open Orthodox” Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat, which last year ordained its first graduating women as “Orthodox clergy,” has been a lightning rod for controversy in the Orthodox community. He said, after being notified last October that his word was no longer being regarded as trustworthy by the Chief Rabbinate, that he suspected Orthodox politics were at play. It followed some 40 years of Weiss being regarded as one of the most prominent Orthodox rabbis in America.

And while even on its face the episode concerned some about the Chief Rabbinate's ability to undermine American Orthodox rabbis’ autonomy, the backstory is so loaded with intrigue that unanswered questions continue to worry them.

The RCA agreement “is a very small step,” said Weiss in an interview Friday. “All Orthodox rabbis in America should be accepted by the chief rabbis. If they have Orthodox semicha [ordination], they should be trusted.”

This was not the first episode in which Chief Rabbinate has asserted itself into decisions made by American Orthodox rabbis. In 2008, after decades of accepting American Orthodox rabbis’ imprimatur when converting people to Judaism, the Chief Rabbinate demanded approval of any RCA member who wanted his converts - or their descendants - accepted as Jewish in Israel. Weiss and others said, at that time, that the RCA “capitulated” by agreeing to set up a regional religious court system for conversions populated by rabbis approved by the Chief Rabbinate. That court system continues to be the only way that American Orthodox rabbis can assure converts that their Jewishness will be accepted by Israel’s religious authorities. Rabbi Mark Dratch, the RCA’s executive vice president, told Haaretz that the regional court system was set up in response to domestic concerns about the inconsistency of various rabbis’ standards when they converted people.

Shmuel Herzfeld is the rabbi of Ohev Torah: The National Synagogue, in Washington D.C. He met with Chief Rabbinate officials in Jerusalem on January 12, at Weiss’ behest, along with Weiss’ Israeli attorney. “The chief rabbi’s office told us that an official of the RCA raised the concerns about Rabbi Weiss with one of their officers. I asked them the source, they said ‘if we tell you the source we won’t be able to get information from them anymore,’" Herzfeld told Haaretz. In a sermon delivered at Ohev Torah on Saturday, Herzfeld said, "At the meeting one of the representatives of the chief rabbi told me that they heard that Rabbi Weiss has a female cantor."

Weiss’ synagogue does not have a female cantor.

A spokesman for the Chief Rabbinate, Ziv Maor, told Haaretz that he has no comment.

“I’ve spoken with all the officials of the RCA and nobody has taken responsibility for that. We’ve never made that statement to them,” the RCA’s Dratch told Haaretz.

Herzfeld, however, isn’t buying it. “The RCA should tell us who their source is,” he told Haaretz. “The way [the Chief Rabbinate] operate[s] with this secret testimony is very disturbing. We have a chief rabbi’s office in charge of the lives of Diaspora Jewry to an expanding degree that knows absolutely nothing about the American Jewish community. It’s disgraceful, and the American Jewish community should be up in arms about it.”

Of what he was told by the Chief Rabbinate, “it was like a petty political game and I left feeling really disillusioned. Even though they’re in total retreat on Rabbi Weiss I left that office more concerned than ever about the expanding power that they’re taking,” Herzfeld said.

Weiss told Haaretz, “one of the unfinished issues is that the RCA did not solve my problem, but rather created the problem. It’s not good that the RCA has a monopoly in America. That monopoly has to be broken as well.”

The RCA has about 1,000 members and does not accept rabbis ordained by Chovevei Torah, though it does accept rabbis ordained by Yeshiva University. In response, Weiss and others established the International Rabbinic Fellowship, which has some 150 members. And while Weiss wants Israel Chief Rabbinate to accept the credibility of IRF members, first he will likely need the RCA to do so.

Weiss has been famous for activism since demonstrating and behind-the-scenes work on behalf of Soviet Jewry in the 1960s and 70s and in 1989, when he and others scaled walls outside a convent located at Auschwitz and blew shofar to protest its presence at the blood-soaked Nazi death camp. More recently, Weiss, who is the rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx, has prompted controversy over the boundaries of American Orthodox Judaism. The RCA itself, of which Weiss is a longtime member, condemned his ordination of women, terming it “a violation of our mesorah (tradition)…that contradicts the norms of our community.”

According to the RCA’s Dratch, officials in the Chief Rabbinate “don’t dictate to us how to be rabbis or what to do just as we don’t dictate how they act.” As a result of negotiations with them since October over the issue concerning Weiss and Rabbi Scot Berman, a day school consultant in Toronto, “We have a stronger relationship today and look forward to other opportunities to develop that.”

Once the Chief Rabbinate deemed Weiss treif last October, a remarkable array of people — from ADL chief Abe Foxman to attorney Alan Dershowitz to Elliot Engel, the congressman representing Weiss’ district and ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committeee — rushed to his defense. Their letters to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres appeared to do little to sway the chief rabbis, however.

It was only when Weiss hired an Israeli attorney and threatened the Chief Rabbinate with a lawsuit, however, did the Chief Rabbinate do an about-face, said Herzfeld.

A conference at the Chief Rabbinate building in Jerusalem.Credit: Tomer Noyberg / Jini

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