Israeli Rabbinate Agrees to Accept Confirmation Letters From Modern Orthodox U.S. Rabbi

In October, the rabbinate rejected a confirmation letter from Weiss, pending investigation into his religious observance.

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The Chief Rabbinate of Israel will accept letters confirming individuals’ Judaism from Avi Weiss, a New York Modern Orthodox rabbi.

The Rabbinate sent a letter Wednesday to Weiss’ attorney in Israel, Assaf Benmelech, affirming that it will accept all letters from Weiss confirming the Judaism of couples who want to wed in Israel.

In October, the Rabbinate rejected such a letter from Weiss, pending an investigation into Weiss’ adherence to traditional Jewish law.

The move sparked widespread outrage that Weiss, a longtime synagogue leader in New York who had vouched for the Jewishness of many Israeli immigrants in the past, was suddenly having his reliability called into question.

The rejection was widely condemned by Jewish groups from both the U.S. and Israel. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League descried it as a “witch hunt," and Prof. Alan Dershowitz asked President Shimon Peres to intervene in the issue of Weiss’ disqualification. 

JTA has also learned that Naftali Bennett, who serves both as Israel’s religious services minister and Diaspora affairs minister, has been meeting since November with officials from the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America and the Rabbinate to resolve the issue. Bennett reportedly sees the issue as one of prime importace based on the potential negative impact it could have on Israel-Diaspora relations.

Weiss founded liberal Orthodox rabbinical seminary Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and has pioneered a number of controversial innovations in the Orthodox world, most recently with his decision to ordain women as clergy through a new religious seminary called Yeshivat Maharat.

“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 Halakhic legitimacy of open Orthodox rabbis, who are contending with the challenges of our generation within the limits of the Halacha,” Benmelech told JTA.

Orthodox Rabbi Seth Farber, founder of the ITIM, an Israeli organization that guides couples through the Chief Rabbinate's bureaucracy, welcomed the rabbinate's decision, but noted that "it doesn't address the rabbinate's systematic problem – the lack of a clear policy for approving rabbis and Orthodox communities in the United States." Farber once again called on the Israeli rabbinate to establish clear and fair rules, "in light of the complicated reality in the Jewish Diaspora." 

The building of the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem.Credit: Alex Levac