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Chief Rabbinate Reverses Decision on Rabbi Avi Weiss

After three months of anger, confusion, and frustration, Jews of the Diaspora who were led to question if their rabbis were “Jewish enough,” got the word that at least one is.

On January 15 it was reported that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel will accept letters from Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, on matters of Jewish and personal status.

“I appreciate that this injustice has been corrected and am deeply grateful for the overwhelming support I received from all over the world. I also urge the Chief Rabbinate to reflect on how it can help us reach out, respect, and acknowledge all Jews in the Diaspora,” Weiss said in a statement.

The news had broken on October 16 last year with Weiss’s announcement that he received a letter from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate that his credentials were found to be deficient and that they were rejecting his letter confirming a couple’s Jewish identity.

As explanation, a letter was sent December 30 to Weiss’s lawyer Assaf Benmelech. “The Chief Rabbinate has received various statements from rabbis who are known to the Rabbinate, some of whom have positions in the RCA (Rabbinical Council of America) claiming that Rabbi Weiss’ halakhic position as reflected in various incidents and circumstances raise doubts as to his level of commitment to Jewish law as is customarily accepted.”

Soon after it was found that letters doubting more rabbis’ credentials to perform conversions and to attest to the Jewishness and single status of couples had been sent out in the past two years (with at least 10 in the last six months), rabbis not only from the U.S., but in Europe and Canada.

An agreed-upon system of vetting rabbis is one step which is being worked on, said

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Avavath Torah in Englewood, honorary president and past president of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). “We are still working on an agreement (a system) with the Rabbinate to try to avoid this from happening in the future for rabbis who are members of the RCA. These are people who should not be questioned this way.”

The difference between those who are still not found up to snuff and Rabbi Weiss, said Goldin, is that he made the biggest noise. “The rest said they were going to work through it quietly.” He said, “The concern is right now, when someone writes a letter it goes straight to Israel and the Israeli Rabbinate knows them or knows about them. They make those decisions, [but] it’s kind of arbitrary. We don’t know who’s speaking to them about it. Our sense is that it would be in everybody’s best interest for the vetting of the rabbis to take place here in America as opposed to in Israel. It’s not that we’re going to become more observant, it’s that the decisions are going to be made in a much more strategic way and it’s going to be made by the rabbis here as opposed to there. And then the rabbis there will agree to the vetting process or something like that.”

As for those couples who want to get married in Israel or those who wish to convert, Goldin said the system as is continues to work and most rabbis can continue to write letters, but the RCA is working to standardize the system. “That hopefully will happen soon. People should go to their local rabbis and ask them to attest to their Jewishness and hopefully they’ll be accepted.”

While Weiss’ congregants can now be sure that their rabbi is “acceptable,” nothing has been said about the other Orthodox rabbis. While the words are meant to be reassuring, the shock of the original statement and the system now in place still leaves many disheartened “by the process by which the rejection was carried out, a trial by whispering and innuendo from ‘unnamed sources,’” wrote Judy Heicklen, president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) in a letter to the Naftali Bennett, Minister of Jerusalem, Diaspora Affairs and Religious Services Minister. “No legal system ought to tolerate anonymous slander.”

She said there were three issues, first, that the decision by the Rabbinate arbitrarily discredits American ordination altogether and the institutions from which they graduated.

Second, Heicklen said that no halakhic system should work on the basis of a whispering campaign. A third issue JOFA has, said Heiklen is when the Rabbinate behaves this way it drives a wedge between Diaspora Jewry and Israel Jewry. “The fact that they behave that way is an embarrassment to all of us who are Orthodox.”

While not as affected by this turn of events, Jews who are not Orthodox have felt this rejection of their devotion to the religion and Israel for decades, said Rabbi David J. Fine of Temple Israel, a Conservative congregation in Ridgewood. He said that from the non-Orthodox rabbinic perspective, they are used to the Israeli Grand Rabbinate not accepting their conversions. “It’s a very disheartening reality, but it’s one that we’re used to.” As to the affect on prospective members of the congregation who wish to convert, Fine said he tells them that the conversion might not be accepted in certain areas and if that is an issue, this decision by the Israeli Grand Rabbinate limits where he can tell them to go. He said this has been a non-issue most of the time.

However, the larger concern is that the State of Israel needs to be the State of the entire Jewish people and individual rabbis should be respected for the decisions that they make.

Israel moving in a direction of being more inclusive was also a concept stated by Rabbi Asher Lopatin, President of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, considered a liberal school, which was founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss. He said that the Rabbinate in Israel is going through a lot of changes at this time. “I hope one of those changes is an acceptance of American Orthodoxy.” He said, “There are many voices trying to exclude and I think we just have to be strong when they go after targets. Now, luckily, Rabbi Avi Weiss is not a target you want to go after. He’s a beloved Orthodox leader. The voices of inclusion have to be stronger. The Chief Rabbinate of the Jewish State has to represent all Jews and they have to find a way of doing that.”

As to the rejection of Weiss, he said of the result, “Hopefully this is the beginning of a process and an end of the process of exclusion and the beginning of the Rabbinate understanding their responsibility in representing all Jews. They have to do it by including all Jews, not by writing us off.”

While the issue has upset many, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein and Rabbi Elie Weinstock of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, sent out a letter to their Modern Orthodox congregation downplaying the importance of the fray. In support of Weiss, they said, “If all Orthodox rabbis were like him, we wouldn’t be wasting time on an issue like this…There are real issues that require our attention. We can all identify something more important on which to spend our time and energy. Let’s do so.”

By Anne Phyllis Pinzow

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