Friday, January 03, 2014

A Bad Call by the Chief Rabbinate

Rabbi Avi Weiss
I am not in the habit of defending Rabbi Avi Weiss. I have long been critical of his philosophy and many of his actions.

Rabbi Weiss might be considered the philosophical head of Left Wing Modern Orthodoxy. He has created a Yeshiva (YCT) that has crossed some serious lines drawn by his mentor, Rav Soloveitchik. He admitted parting ways with his mentor on those issues. Among some of his innovations are promoting theological interaction with non Orthodox movements and letting feminism be his guide.

He has been in the forefront of ordaining women for the rabbinate… something that is rejected by virtually all other segments of Orthodoxy. He was chastised by his own rabbinic fraternity (the Centrist RCA) for doing just that when he ordained the first Orthodox female rabbi (feminizing that masculine honorific into the word rabba). They threatened him with expulsion if he ever did it again. He agreed to no longer ordain rabbas.

But he has nonetheless not only continued doing this, he has set up a rabbinical school for that purpose. Ordainees will are given the title Maharat. (How he thinks this is not a violation of his agreement with the RCA is beyond me. A Maharat - is a rabba - is a rabbi. A rose by any other name is still a rose.)

In yet another break with tradition He has allowed women to lead the Kabbolas Shabbos service with men present in his Shul.

He has also been involved in some very public actions that I felt were inappropriate and counterproductive. I  won’t go so far as to call them a Chilul HaShem. But I think he clearly sent the wrong message about how to react to problems facing Judaism.  Just to mention 2 such incidents: 

There was the time he protested a convent being built in Auschwitz. In protest he made a public spectacle of himself at the time by jumping over a fence built to protect the convent. 

In another instance he protested a movie called The Passion of the Christ by picketing a theater in which it was showing wearing a concentration camp prison uniform. This kind of shoot from the hip approach is totally inappropriate and counter-productive in my view.

I am not going to discuss the propriety of any of his innovations here. I’ve done that in other posts. Without going into detail - suffice it to say that I think he is wrong in all of the above.

That said, I do not believe he ever violated the letter of the law in any of what he did. What he did is ignore tradition and broke with it. Tradition has always played an important part in Judaism.  Mesorah, which is another word for tradition is not something to be treated lightly.

(As a matter of fact following the traditions of our parents is something lacking even in the right wing Yeshiva world. As Dr. Chaim Soloveitchik said in his seminal essay, the ‘book’ has replaced the ‘Mesorah’ We are a people of the book now more than at any other time in history. Incorrectly so. Instead of looking at what our father’s customs were, we are taught to look inside a  Sefer. We see what the Sefer says and we follow that instead of following what our parents did. But I digress.)

I am opposed to the type of change Rabbi Weiss has innovated and promoted. That kind of thinking is what motivated the Conservative movement to do things like remove the Mechitza from their Shuls. Their claim was that nowhere in the Shulchan Aruch will one find that a Shul requires a Mechitza. But as we all know, a Mechitza is essential in a Shul if there are women present. There is no Posek even in the most left wing segment of Orthodoxy that permits a Shul to remove a Mechitza. Not even Rabbi Weiss would allow that in his Shul.

And that is the point. Rabbi Weiss has to the best of my knowledge never promoted even the slightest infraction of any Halacha. His ‘sins’ are Hashkafic, not Halachic. And as such I believe his testimony is as valid as any Orthodox Jew.

I am therefore strongly protesting the Israeli rabbinate suggestion that he has lost his validity to testify. They claim that his fealty to Halacha is questionable based on some rabbinic sources which include some members of the RCA. From Ynet
(The Israeli Rabbinate) had received testimonies from well-known rabbis in the United States, some of whom are member of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), that Weiss' halachic opinions – reflected in different incidents and circumstances – "cast doubt on the level of his commitment to the customary and acceptable Jewish Halacha." 
What a curious phrase: ‘Customary and acceptable Jewish Halacha’. This is not the same as not being committed to Halacha. It is what I said earlier. It is his lack of commitment to ‘customary Halacha’ which is kind of a contradiction in terms. Custom is not Halacha. I have to assume they are questioning is loyalty to tradition. Important as that is, it is not the same as violating Halacha. By using the term Halacha in that phrase, they imply that Rabbi Weiss promotes violating Halacha.

It is fair to criticize him for what he does. It is unfair to criticize him by implying he rejects Halacha.

What led to all this is a letter from Rabbi Weiss to the Rabbinate testifying to the legitimacy of a convert who was seeking to be married in Israel. They rejected Rabbi Weiss’s testimony. The rabbinate will not perform a marriage to a convert if they do not ascertain the validity of that conversion.

I don’t know enough about the actual convert is this case. I might agree with their decision not to accept the validity of a conversion that is not made according to their standards. If that had been the claim, they had a right to that opinion. Agree or not, it’s not my call or Rabbi Weiss’s.

But I do know that calling into question Rabbi Weiss’s commitment to Halacha is a mistake which ‘whitened the face of their fellow’. Doing that, the Gemara says, is tantamount to murder!

Rabbi Weiss has had a lifelong commitment to Yiddishkeit.  I am sure that Rabbi Weiss believes that all of his questionable innovations are L’Shma. I’m sure he has a Halachic justification for all of them. Eventhough I strongly disagree with him, I believe that his heart is in the right place. 

To embarrass someone in public the way the rabbinate did implying that he does not follow Halacha is a gross violation of Bein Adam L’Chavero in my view. Ultimately it reflects poorly on the Rabbinate. I think they ought to apologize.