The impasse between the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and Rabbi Avi Weiss has been resolved. That is a good thing.
To suggest that Rabbi Weiss, who has been a crusader for the well-being of Jews across the globe for decades, can’t be believed to state that someone is Jewish and unmarried is preposterous. Everyone who knows him can attest that he is a man of honesty and integrity.
Rabbi Weiss has stated that the struggle for Rabbinate recognition is not about him. The Jerusalem Post quotes him as saying, “I will continue to speak out until all rabbis of the International Rabbinic Fellowship and the Rabbinical Council of America will be formally recognized for this purpose.”
Full disclosure – I am an Orthodox rabbi and a member of the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America (though I do not speak for the RCA). As such, I fully support the RCA’s conversion standards, and would only accept Orthodox standards of personal status. I also have great respect and admiration for Rabbi Weiss, who has been a beloved friend and mentor to various members of my family for over 40 years. While he and I disagree on a number of halachic issues, I recognize and appreciate that he has brought countless Jews to a life of affiliation to Torah.
However, I must respectfully take issue with my dear friend when he calls for expanding recognition beyond current standards.
I am not writing to argue the Modern Orthodox vs. Open Orthodox point of view. That is not the point of this article. I don’t expect to change anyone’s closely held religious beliefs in an op-ed piece. Rather, I want to explain why I think that even advocates of a more “open” standard of religious observance should also support the Rabbinate’s current position.
In some respects, nothing has changed. Rabbis whose letters the Chief Rabbinate accepted in the past will continue to be accepted.
If I, a presumably unknown entity to the Rabbinate, decide to write a letter stating that a person who is engaged to be married was born Jewish and has never been married, the RCA will endorse that letter and send it on to the Rabbinate.
If, however, I state in the letter that there is a divorce or conversion in that person’s background, the matter will be referred to the Beth Din of America (BDA) for further investigation. If that divorce and/or conversion are found to meet the high standards of the BDA, it will endorse the letter and send it on to the Rabbinate.
The main difference between the old system and the new one is that the investigations of these divorces and conversions will be handled by the BDA here in the U.S. rather than by the Rabbinate in Israel.
I am concerned by the suggestion that this agreement be extended to members of the International Rabbinic Fellowship.
Recently, Open Orthodox Rabbi Zev Farber of the IRF called for taking on the agunah problem by invalidating or retroactively annulling marriages. While it is admirable that he seeks to find creative ways to put an end to this terrible situation, he is making a very big mistake. The overwhelming majority of Orthodox experts (including the Chief Rabbinate) follow the rulings of Rabbis Feinstein and Soloveitchik and others who reject this approach. The end result could be that Modern Orthodox and haredi Jews will refuse to marry the children of women who remarry after receiving this annulment.
Some have suggested that we emulate Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel, who coexisted and even intermarried (with each other) in spite of differences of opinion of marital status. The way they did it was by informing each other about whom they could marry and whom they couldn’t.
But is Rabbi Farber really prepared to issue a certificate of divorce to a woman that states, “This woman may remarry according to Open Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist standards; however, her children will be mamzeirim according to Modern Orthodox and haredi standards”?
This will, in effect, create two Nations of Israel. (Now that a new bet din has been established to tackle the agunah problem, I hope it won’t make the mistake of following rulings that have been discredited by the Orthodox rabbinical community.)
Do we really want a situation in the state of Israel where there is more than one standard of divorce and conversion? Do we really want a situation where a man and a woman meet in college (or in the army) and are afraid to get to know each other better because they don’t know if the two of them will be able to marry according to all standards of Jewish law?
The current Chief Rabbinate paradigm is not perfect. There are flaws in every system. God is perfect and His Torah is perfect, but the rest of us have to work on it.
That being said, loosening standards of conversion, marriage, and divorce would run the risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
About the Author: Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz, a mohel (BrisRabbi.com) and chaplain in Monsey, NewYork, is a member of the executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. His blog on the weekly Torah portion can be read at TorahTalk.org.
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