Many headlines in the Israeli media this week revolved around the Chief Rabbinate and its attitude towards the rulings of Rabbi Avi Weiss. The very same Rabbi Avi Weiss who’s forward looking approach to Halacha led to the establishment of the groundbreaking Orthodox synagogue, The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York.
To my mind, it is deeply unfortunate that power and influence on topics as critical as that of Jewish identity both in Israel and in the diaspora, lie solely in the hands of an Israeli authority. It is common knowledge that for too many years, those holding the reigns of Judaism in Israel are the rabbis of the Chief Rabbinate. These “rabbis,” able to quote chapter and verse from the Torah and Talmud without feeling obligated to implement any of the socially enlightened ones, are directly responsible for most crucial decisions regarding Jewish identity. For many reasons- some historical, others political- the elite rabbinical establishment of Israel has been elevated to the Jewish equivalent of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. They hold authority over appointing judges for the rabbinical courts, publishing edicts, running Rabbinic training programs, governing marital issues, judging in agunot cases, and determining conversions. In recent months, they have even reversed conversions of other Orthodox rabbis, putting fear in the hearts of hundreds of converts. These “Knights” blatantly violate the most basic tenets of Judaism time and time again. And yet, despite these violations and insensitivities, we adhere to their rulings again and again.
It is maddening that over the years, the state of Israel has resigned itself to leaving the power of religious Judaism in the hands of these rabbis- men (and only men) who represent a minority sect of society, a minority which does not believe in the state of Israel and its officials, does not take part in its destiny, refuses to serve in the army, but is supported, incredulously, by the State; a minority driven mainly by their own financial interests.
How and when did we bestow this power upon a five percent interest-driven minority? Why do we succumb to the rulings of these rabbis? And, now that we are on the topic, who was responsible for blacklisting orthodox American rabbis due to suspicions that they are too liberal or not properly ordained? Why are they calling into question Rabbi Weiss’s halachic authority? Perhaps it is because he was the first rabbi to ordain a woman as an equal orthodox rabbi in his community? Or maybe it’s because he doesn’t sport a beard, or wear a hat or a black suit?
I ask Rabbi Avi Weiss and other Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis of America to continue their activities in Israel. Please do not sit idly by. Be vocal and transparent with your criticism of the Chief Rabbinate, despite the discomfort of doing so. The Chief Rabbinate, in its current constellation, is detached from reality and the people whom they govern. This institution, as it continues to search for new stringencies, propagates feelings of alienation towards the beautiful teachings of Judaism, rather than feelings of interest and attachment. The majority of the secular community has given up on this struggle, and many in the more liberal Orthodox community are following suit. Too often we hear unsettling stories of women suffering from discriminatory treatment, a convert suffering from demeaning degradation, and even rumors of yet another chief rabbi suspected of criminal acts. It saddens me that most of my secular friends have married in Cyprus, and even those who chose to marry in Israel, refused to even contemplate having rabbinical involvement in their marriage ceremony.
The argument that secular society is not really interested in Judaism can no longer be sustained. One needs only to visit Chabad houses around the world and witness the throngs of secular Jews flocking to Shabbat and holiday meals, to belie this argument. Dialogue programs for religious and secular Israelis such as the one run by Micha Goodman, are cropping up daily all over the country. There are even batei midrash (houses of learning) where men and women study Talmud together. Why are these programs so popular? Perhaps it is because they are places where mutual respect and civility replace coercion and condescension.
Back to the beginning, several years ago, I had the pleasure of attending Rabbi Weiss’s community’s services during the High Holidays. I was impressed by the emphasis that was placed on welcoming guests, and moved by the healthy balance of equality between men and women so sorely missing here in Israel. I was amazed to hear that there was an additional minyan on Rosh Hashanah to accommodate the non-religious Jews from the area. When I asked some of the participants why they chose this community, most answered that it is because of the heart-warming hospitality of Rabbi Weiss. “Rabbi Weiss welcomes us like guests of honor. Everyone here knows that we don’t regularly attend services but it’s important to us to take in some of the Jewish holiday atmosphere. There is no other community in the region that welcomes us with open arms like they do here.”
Is Rabbi Weiss deviating from the way of the Torah by taking in these Jews on Rosh Hashanah? Does the Torah not instruct us to be gracious to guests? Is hospitality not a supreme Jewish value? Wouldn’t we all do better to create a feeling of belonging rather than alienation? Is more stringency an answer in our complex world? Perhaps Rabbi Weiss should forget all these Torah based niceties and just acquire a black suit with a matching hat. Then perhaps he too would be accepted as a “real” Rabbi and considered for Knighthood -one worthy of sitting with the Knights of the Round Table.