Forward Thinking

Orthodox Rabbis Stand by Avi Weiss — Sort Of

By Uri Heilman

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(JTA) — The Rabbinical Council of America is standing behind Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, N.Y., in his dispute with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate — sort of.

Last week, the Rabbinate for the first time offered its reasons for deciding several months ago that Weiss, an Orthodox rabbi and RCA member, wasn’t kosher enough to affirm that a Diaspora Jew seeking to marry in Israel was indeed Jewish (Israel requires that such people provide a letter from their local Orthodox rabbi affirming they are Jewish and single).

The reason? Well-known American Orthodox rabbis, including members of the RCA, had told the Rabbinate that Weiss — spiritual leader of the Orthodox Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, founder of the liberal Orthodox rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and founder of Yeshivat Maharat, a yeshiva that ordains Orthodox female clergy — had a “questionable” commitment to Jewish law, or halachah.

Last Friday, the RCA – America’s main Modern Orthodox rabbinical group — issued a statement saying it wasn’t the RCA that had cast aspersions on Weiss: “Recent assertions that the Rabbinical Council of America advised the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to reject the testimony of RCA member Rabbi Avi Weiss are categorically untrue.”

But the RCA statement did not contain any expression of support for Weiss or endorsement of his commitment to halachah.

So on Monday I phoned up RCA’s executive vice president, Rabbi Mark Dratch, to ask him whether or not the RCA stands by Weiss.

“We stand by his letters,” Dratch said.

But do you stand by him? I asked.

“He is a person who is committed to halachah, although there are many within the RCA that do not support every halachic position that he takes,” Dratch said. “Rabbi Weiss has done many wonderful things and continues to do many wonderful things for the Jewish people, but not everything he does is agreed to by members of the Rabbinical Council of America and so this is an ongoing discussion and debate.”

The debates, he said, concern Weiss’ ordination of women, among other things.

“There’s no official RCA position with regard to some of these matters,” Dratch said. “A majority of RCA members feel that some of his decisions are pushing the halachic red line or beyond that.”

Dratch called Weiss a “person of integrity.”

As for the dispute with the Israeli Rabbinate — which involves about a dozen other Orthodox rabbis who over the last few months have had their letters suddenly rejected by the Rabbinate — Dratch said his office is in constant contact with the Israelis.

“We are hopeful that we will be able to come to an understanding in the very near future about how to process these letters,” Dratch said. “Our goal is to be able to support the rabbis of the RCA, to be able to make sure that their letters are accepted by the Chief Rabbinate’s office.”


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