The failure of Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett to enforce the election of Rabbi David Stav as Chief Rabbi is now coming to haunt Modern Orthodoxy both here and in America, on the very issue that’s most crucial to us: promoting immigration of Zionist, Orthodox American Jews to Israel.
Having a Haredi administration run our Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which almost never really caters to the Haredim and constitutes a kind of colonialist rule of the black hats over the knitted yarmulkes, is annoying most times of the year. But now, as it turns out, it is actually suppressing the aliyah of the very American Jews this country is hungry for: Modern Orthodox folks, with professions and values and money and religious sanity.
Dozens of American Modern Orthodox rabbis have been complaining that the rabbinate in Israel has been refusing to accept their letters of recommendation regarding members of their congregation preparing to make aliyah. This is because the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), mainstream Orthodox, has been telling the Israeli Rabbinate that the Modern Orthodox rabbis are the same as Conservative and Reform. So the Rabbinate, inherently suspicious of anyone in a colorful jacket, is no longer paying attention to the likes of Rabbi Avi Weiss.
“In recent days, I have been informed that letters I’ve written attesting to the Jewishness and personal status of congregants have been rejected by the office of the Chief Rabbinate,” Rabbi Weiss wrote recently. “I’m not the only Orthodox rabbi to have his letters rejected – there are others.”
Weiss reports that “the Chief Rabbinate have denied letters from me or other rabbis without input from select rabbis here in America who, I believe, are whispering into the Chief Rabbinate’s ears. For me, they’ll whisper one thing, for another they will find some other reason to cast aspersions.”
And so, the most vital aspect of Zionist Judaism – living in Zion – is now being handled by the RCA, which caters to Orthodox Jews who live comfortably in New Jersey and don’t dream of going anywhere else soon, except to visit, and the Haredi Rabbinate which has no influence at all on anti-Zionist Haredi Americans who do make aliyah.
Modern Orthodox Jews, Zionist Jews, pro-settlement Jews, have always suffered from an inability to communicate our case to the masses. Somehow, we always end up being defined by others, and those “others” more often than not don’t like us and are deeply ignorant of what we’re actually about.
Rabbi Avi Weiss, one of the most courageous and at the same time sweetest people I know, finds himself, after years of dedicating his life to Jews and to Judaism, being put in a kind of boycott by people who have done less than him and, in general, aren’t worthy of carrying his umbrella for him, if he had one.
Joel Brand, who risked his life to try and save Hungarian Jews from the Nazis only to become the victim of a despicable scandal, once said that there are three types of outcomes to every war: there are those who die in battle and they come home to great fanfare; then there are those who come back alive, and they’re most likely to face a court martial; and, finally, there are those who didn’t fight at all, and they’re most likely to be the judges in said court martial.
The largely anti-Zionist Rabbinate, in cahoots with the largely disinterested in aliyah RCA, are collaborating to keep the congregants of actively pro-Zionist shuls from immigrating to Israel, by treating shomer Shabbat Modern Orthodox rabbis as Reform.
Rabbi Avi Weiss has been a pioneer in using halachic tools to meet the challenges of the negative forces in the Jewish body politic, namely the Reform movement, and, to a lesser extent, the Conservative. I heard of him originally when he was busy chaining himself to various fences, protesting abuses against Soviet Jury, followed by rallies against the abuse of Israeli settlers by their own government.
But he has been as active in creating new, imaginative projects as in fighting old evils. Rabbi Weiss is the founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a rabbinical seminary he dubbed “Open Orthodoxy.” The term may sound dubious, but the rabbis his yeshiva has graduated are now the most sought after rabbinic prospects in America. He also founded Yeshivat Maharat for Orthodox women, dealing through halachic means with the changing gender roles in America. And then he co-founded the International Rabbinical Fellowship, an Orthodox rabbinical association that’s a liberal alternative to the Rabbinical Council of America.
Big mistakes, all three.
For the record: I support and embrace every one of Rabbi Weiss’ endeavors, I believe that they’re completely proper in terms of Jewish tradition, and I’ve had the honor of being part of a congregation that was led by a YCT graduate—and the experience was fabulous.
But each one of Rabbi Weiss’ endeavors have been so poorly presented to the Orthodox public, that he was practically begging for his current confrontation with the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and, in turn, with the Israeli Rabbinate.
I don’t believe the YCT movement is actually interested in a split from mainstream Orthodoxy. But at this point it is facing a terrible image issue with that mainstream. Complaining in heartfelt op-eds is fine, but there appears to be an existential problem today which a mere public relations effort will not fix. It concerns the ability of Zionist, Orthodox Jews to make aliyah quickly and without needless hassle.
Luckily, Minister of religious Services Naftali Bennett, the one who dropped the ball on our chances to revive the Chief Rabbinate, can still get involved with the RCA and explain to them in no uncertain terms the difference between the value of Zionist aliyah and the value of Rabbinic turf.
This outrage must be stopped. The RCA must be told, by a dedicated and Zionist Orthodox Israeli leader, the damage caused directly by their shenanigans. If they have bridges to mend with the YCT crowd–and Heaven knows those bridges could use mending–they mustn’t do it on the backs of American olim, and the best kind of olim at that.
About the Author: Yori Yanover has been a working journalist since age 17, before he enlisted and worked for Ba'Machane Nachal. Since then he has worked for Israel Shelanu, the US supplement of Yedioth, JCN18.com, USAJewish.com, Lubavitch News Service, Arutz 7 (as DJ on the high seas), and the Grand Street News. He has published Dancing and Crying, a colorful and intimate portrait of the last two years in the life of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, (in Hebrew), and two fun books in English: The Cabalist's Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption, and How Would God REALLY Vote.
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