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September 19, 2014 / 24 Elul, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Rabbi Avi Weiss’

Tefillin Controversy Latest Sign of Emerging Orthodox Schism

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

The announcement that SAR, a Modern Orthodox high school in New York, is allowing girls to lay tefillin, is helping expose an increasingly sharp fault line within Orthodoxy.

For decades, it has been difficult to sort out the precise dividing lines between the varieties of Orthodoxy – ultra, haredi, centrist, modern, liberal. Each category bled into others, and the movement has been broad enough to encompass everyone from black-hat-wearing rabbis with long beards to young women in jeans and T-shirts. What united them was a stated commitment to halacha, Jewish law traditionally defined, and, of course, self-definition as Orthodox.

In recent years, however, a visible divide has been emerging over a single issue: the role of women.

The decision by SAR high school, located in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, is just the latest development on this front. Before it came the decision by Rabbi Avi Weiss, an Orthodox rabbi in Riverdale, to ordain women clergy. Before that came the Orthodox minyans that decided allowing women to lead certain parts of worship did not violate the letter of the law.

It’s difficult to say when it all began. Was the original Bais Yaakov school for girls, opened in Poland in 1917, the first breach, breaking the traditional ban on giving girls a formalized Torah education? That school, which would be considered ultra-Orthodox by today’s standards, was then seen as groundbreaking. Only the imprimatur of the Chofetz Chaim helped stem the controversy that greeted its establishment.

In America, a key milestone came in the latter half of the 20th century when Orthodox schools began offering girls the same Jewish education offered to boys. When some Orthodox schools began allowing girls to study Talmud, under the authority of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik of the Maimonides School near Boston, it opened the door to a new way of thinking about the role of Orthodox women.

If an Orthodox girl could study Talmud in high school, why couldn’t she in college? By the early 1980s, Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy, was offering elective Talmud classes at its Stern College for Women, though it wasn’t until 2009 that Stern opened a master’s program in biblical and Talmudic interpretation to women.

In 1984, the Drisha Institute, a New York institution under Orthodox leadership, opened the first-ever full-time women’s kollel study program.

The glass ceiling of female Orthodox spiritual leaders began to shatter too. In 1992, Drisha began offering a three-year program “paralleling rabbinic ordination” to certify women scholars. A few years later, Nishmat, an institution in Jerusalem established in 1990 “to open the gates of higher Torah learning to women,” inaugurated a program to certify women as yoatzot halacha – consultants on Jewish law. The consultants mainly ministered to women on laws pertaining to sex, Shabbat and kashrut.

In 2009, Rabbi Weiss pushed the envelope even further by ordaining Sara Hurwitz, later conferring on her the title of “rabba,” a feminized version of rabbi. The move was immediately condemned, not just by haredim but by leaders of the centrist Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America.

“The ordination of women as rabbis represents a serious and inappropriate breach with our sacred tradition and is beyond the pale of Orthodox Judaism,” said Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, a Teaneck rabbi who was vice president of the RCA at the time.

For a long time, it had been unusual for one sector of American Orthodoxy to condemn another, despite differences in practice and even ideology. Many families span the various kinds of Orthodoxy, and it’s not unusual to find haredi Jews worshipping in Modern Orthodox shuls and vice versa.

But as liberal Orthodox Jews support new roles for women, particularly in the synagogue, it’s looking increasingly like Orthodoxy is undergoing a schism.

The more traditionalist elements of the Orthodox community view the reforms as beyond the pale, a threat to the integrity of their halachic community. This is why Weiss and the yeshivas he has established, including the liberal Orthodox rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, have faced so much Orthodox opposition – from the RCA, which does not recognize Chovevei ordination, to Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, which recently questioned Weiss’s Orthodox credentials.

While the more public battles have been over women’s ordination, laying tefillin or reading from the Torah, there are many other women-related issues both large and small with which Orthodoxy is grappling.

It’s not just about clergy but also women serving as synagogue presidents, making the blessing over bread or wine on Shabbat, or dancing with Torah scrolls on Simchat Torah.

Will the changes considered controversial today gradually gain mainstream acceptance too, or are they fated to remain a fringe Orthodox phenomenon? In a movement with no central governing authority or membership structure, it’s hard to say.

Clearly, the haredi Orthodox will stand against change. The question is which way the Modern Orthodox and the institutions associated with them – the RCA, Y.U., the Orthodox Union and the National Council of Young Israel, to name a few – will swing.

There is, perhaps, one factor that may play an outsize role in determining this: leadership. If the change agents within Orthodoxy become educators, role models and leaders of the next generation of Modern Orthodox Jews, successfully pass on their commitment to both halacha and egalitarianism, and continue to live a life committed to Jewish law, they could transform the face of Modern Orthodoxy.

But if they fail, then those who have been arguing all along that these changes have no place in Orthodoxy will see vindication in that failure.

Chief Rabbinate Backs Down, Accepts Rabbi Avi Weiss

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel has reversed its stand and said it will accept letters from Rabbi Avi Weiss confirming the Judaism of those who wish to wed in the country.

In a letter sent Wednesday to Weiss’ attorney in Israel, Assaf Ben-Melech, the Chief Rabbinate affirmed its position on the liberal Orthodox rabbi from New York.

In October, the Chief Rabbinate rejected a letter from Rabbi Weiss vouching for immigrants who wanted to marry in Israel pending an investigation into his adherence to traditional Jewish law. The move sparked widespread outrage that Rabbi Weiss, a longtime synagogue leader in New York who had vouched for the Jewishness of many Israeli immigrants in the past, was suddenly having his reliability called into question.

Naftali Bennett, Israel’s religious services minister and Diaspora Affairs minister, has been meeting since November with officials from the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America and the Chief Rabbinate to resolve the issue.

He reportedly sees the issue as one of prime importance based on the potential negative impact it could have on Israel-Diaspora relations.

Weiss founded the liberal Orthodox rabbinical seminary Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and has pioneered a number of controversial innovations in the Orthodox world, most recently his decision to ordain women as clergy through a new seminary called Yeshivat Maharat.

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

Engel Goes to Bat for Rabbi Avi Weiss in Letter to Netanyahu

Monday, January 13th, 2014

The New York congressman who represents Rabbi Avi Weiss expressed his concerns to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the Chief Rabbinate’s decision to reject Jewish status letters written by the rabbi.

Rep. Eliot Engel, the senior Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote in a letter to Netanyahu dated Jan. 10, “This trend of rejecting status letters written by Rabbi Weiss and others undermines the bond between Diaspora communities and the state of Israel, and I fear may ultimately lead to the wholesale prohibition on community rabbis in the Diaspora from participating in the religious life of Jewish people in Israel.”

Weiss not only lives in Engel’s congressional district, but the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale that Weiss led for nearly 40 years and the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical school he founded also are located there.

Late last year, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel rejected a letter vouching for the Jewishness of an American couple marrying in Israel written by Weiss, as well as the letters of at least 10 rabbis in other cases.

A letter vouching for a couple’s Jewishness and that each of the couple is single or divorced according to Jewish law, has been required for decades from couples wishing to marry in Israel.

The Chief Rabbinate decided several years ago that it would no longer automatically recognize conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora, and agreed to accept those of a limited number of approved rabbinical courts, or batei din.

Engel said he is concerned that the Chief Rabbinate’s decision to reject Weiss’ letter “is simply the latest instance of the broader marginalization of the many diverse streams of Judaism in Israel. If Rabbi Weiss’ credentials are rejected — an Orthodox leader with decades of experience — what does that portend for other strands of American Judaism?”

Engel left for Israel Sunday as part of Vice President Joe Biden’s delegation to the funeral for former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Jewish Congressman Concerned over Rabbinate Boycott of Avi Weiss Flock

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

New York Rep. Eliot L. Engel sent a letter to Benjamin Netanyahu to express his concern over the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s decision to reject Jewish status letters written by Rabbi Avi Weiss.

Engel, the senior Democratic member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote in the letter to Israel’s prime minister dated Jan. 10 that: “This trend of rejecting status letters written by Rabbi Weiss and others undermines the bond between Diaspora communities and the state of Israel, and I fear, may ultimately lead to the wholesale prohibition on community rabbis in the Diaspora from participating in the religious life of Jewish people in Israel.”

Weiss is one of Engel’s constituents. Both the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, which Weiss led for nearly 40 years, and the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, which Weiss founded, also are located in Engel’s congressional district.

Late last year, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel rejected a letter vouching for the Jewishness of an American couple marrying in Israel written by well-known Weiss, as well as the letters of at least 10 rabbis in other cases,

A letter vouching for a couple’s Jewishness and singlehood has been required for decades from every couple wishing to marry in Israel.

The Chief Rabbinate decided several years ago that it would no longer automatically recognize conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora, and agreed to accept those of a limited number of approved rabbinical courts, or batei din.

Engel said he is concerned that the Chief Rabbinate’s decision to reject Weiss’ letter “is simply the latest instance of the broader marginalization of the many diverse streams of Judaism in Israel. If Rabbi Weiss’ credentials are rejected – an Orthodox leader with decades of experience – what does that portend for other strands of American Judaism?”

Engel wrote that it is “profoundly inappropriate for the Chief Rabbinate to cast aspersions on any individual’s commitment to Jewish traditions simply because of differing religious customs and practices.”

Engel left for Israel Sunday as part of Vice President Joe Biden’s delegation to the funeral for former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Sharansky Supporting Rabbi Avi Weiss vs. Rabbinate, RCA

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

Chairman of the Executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel Natan Sharansky has released the following statement regarding the debate surrounding Rabbi Avi Weiss:

“Rabbi Avi Weiss is a prominent leader of the Modern Orthodox Jewish world. By his teachings and his personal example, he has inspired and raised generations of Jews in the spirit of kol yisra’el arevim zeh la-zeh (the principle that all Jews are responsible for one another) and with a deep commitment to the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

“Rabbi Weiss’s commitment and integrity are beyond reproach, which is why I find the ongoing discussion about his Rabbinic credentials absurd.

“As Chairman of the Executive of The Jewish Agency, I would like to state clearly that our shlichim (emissaries) will continue to honor Rabbi Weiss’s certifications and recommendations, as we have been proud to do up until now.”

Rabbi Weiss complained recently that the Israeli Chief rabbinate and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) were in cahoots to disqualify “Liberal Orthodox” rabbis by the Rabbinate refusing to honor their recommendation of their congregants as proper Jews.

As we wrote here earlier, this created a situation in which the largely anti-Zionist Rabbinate, comprised of wall-to-wall Haredim, was collaborating with the RCA, catering mostly to Orthodox Jews who are comfortable staying in New Jersey – to block Zionist Orthodox American Jews from making aliyah.

Hopefully, this madness will be corrected now, possibly with some additional help from Minister of Religious Services Naftali Bennett, who dropped the ball this year on electing a National Religious Chief Rabbi.

Only Bennett Can Solve the Avi Weiss Conundrum – He Caused It

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

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.

Steinberg’s Gay-Straight Agenda Taking JOFA to Unexpected Places

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

On Saturday, December 7 & Sunday, December 8, JOFA, Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, is having its 8th International Conference of Feminism and Orthodoxy (Voices of Change) in New York City. Being married to a feminist wife and having raised a feminist daughter, this writer has no problem with women seeking to merge their political and religious beliefs within Orthodox Judaism. I’m only leery of some voices within JOFA whose agenda has less to do with women’s joy of Judaism, as they do with forcing unacceptable values on liberal Orthodoxy which is, I believe, still a halachically-based movement.

This writer spent about five years davening at a very liberal synagogue on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and so my familiarity with Orthodox feminism is direct and personal. I’d like to share with you now the main reason for the fact that the majority of women in our shul did not participate in our study programs, and did not push for weekly women’s Torah reading: they didn’t care for it.

The shul is led by one of the most open minded and accepting rabbis I’ve met, a YU graduate who devotes his life to the shul and works day and night, quite literally, to increasing membership and member participation. The shul president is a woman and the shul leadership is comprised largely by women, and on Shabbat mornings, sometime between the end of Shachrit and beginning of the kiddush, many women show up. But there’s little interest on the part of the women in doing what has been a traditional men’s things in traditional Judaism.

For the record: twice a year or so, the women do conduct their own prayer service and read from the Torah, quite with the rabbi’s and the men’s positive support. And they read megillah together on Purim (only at night, though). Oh, and some years the women take out their own sefer Torah to the street on Simchat Torah night, to dance with (but not the next day, when they’re resting).

The study sessions offered by the rabbi and others are very popular, by which I mean they attract anywhere from five to ten participants. Same goes for the Shabbat third meal study and nosh sessions. And there’s always at least one woman there, and one transgender woman, the latter a fabulous Torah learner.

It’s rare for more than these two to show up. The rest of the women of the shul just aren’t so interested. It takes a lot of emailing and Facebook poking to get a more significant women’s presence. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.

It’s quite OK for women who are doctors and lawyers and writers in their professional lives, not to desire to be Torah students. They keep kashrut and Shabbat, they raise lovely, smart children, and when they finally make it to shul Shabbat morning, they prefer to lean back in their seats and let the men read from the Torah—rather than schlep a Torah downstairs, not to speak of preparing a week in advance for the proper reading.

In my opinion, there is no feminist issue in my old synagogue, no repression of women, no limits on what women may do in the shul—within the boundaries of halacha, which I assume they, by definition, have accepted before setting foot in the place.

The only function of feminism in today’s liberal faction of Orthodoxy—which is, more or less my place in the tradition—is to provide a fuel and a livelihood to organizations like JOFA: Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

There’s nothing wrong with Jews getting together and talking and setting agendas and issuing urgent messages. There’s certainly nothing wrong with it halachically. But an organization which devotes so much time, effort and treasure to promoting feminism in the most female-supportive sector of American Orthodox Judaism is tantamount to an organization that would launch a campaign to convince people to breathe. We’re there already.

In all of the liberal Orthodox shuls in America there is nothing but respect and encouragement to women’s participation. Gone are the days when an older generation would frown on letting women give a Dvar Torah or be shul president. Within halachic guidelines—which we all know can be stretched and then stretched some more—women are thriving in these congregations.

YCT, Rabbi Avi Weiss’ inspired creation, can’t produce graduates fast enough—they’re grabbed by shuls across America as soon as they receive their smicha. There are no enemies of feminism in any of our shuls, unless you consider my saying that most women don’t care so much for Torah study to position me as an enemy of feminism—and that means you seriously need a thicker skin.

JOFA has no battle to fight in promoting women’s rights in my neck of the Orthodox woods. Even on the issue of ordination for women, it’s YCT that lost its nerve, not the synagogues. I’ll bet you, if the Avi Weiss school acquires the brass equipment to ordain a woman rabbi—the shuls out there would bid high to hire her. (You’re welcome to debate me on this, but please do it honestly).

There is an area where JOFA is stretching the envelope thin: forcing liberal Orthodox synagogues to accept and integrate openly gay members, including openly gay families.

For the record: I wholly support accepting gay men and women in our congregations, single, married, whatever, based on my personal preference and personality. Also for the record: I vehemently object to conducting “Orthodox gay weddings” and to ordaining openly gay Orthodox rabbis, based on halacha.

Aaron Steinberg, JOFA’s Associate Director, said three years ago:

“What our community needs is a … forum for straights and gays to come together under a common cause of inclusion and equality in the Orthodox community…

“We need a Gay-Straight Alliance for the Orthodox Jewish community as a whole. There’s probably a better name for something like this, but we need a way to spread the message that many people in the Orthodox community want their synagogues to be safe, warm and welcoming places to same-sex families, and homosexual singles. This is the next step towards many more advances down the road.”

How do you read the line about our “common cause of inclusion and equality in the Orthodox community”? Openly gay Orthodox rabbis? Gay weddings in Orthodox synagogues?

It can’t possibly be about rejecting gays from shul, because we don’t. I have no doubt that all the liberal Orthodox shuls in America have homosexual members, and they probably feel comfortable there, judging by my own shul on the Lower East Side. That couldn’t be Steinberg’s “equality” agenda. Gays get aliyahs to the Torah, gays lead prayer services—because we’re open minded and inclusive, and that gives it the power of law!

Here’s where Steinberg misunderstands Jewish law: there is no such thing as a homosexual person, man or woman, in halacha. There are only homosexual acts, which are punishable based on a very detailed set of rules, except nowadays we simply don’t have the rabbinical court with the authority to even entertain such a case, much less rule on it.

And as long as any shul member does not practice his or her predilections in the pews—and that goes for all the straight adulterous, covetous and embezzleous members as well—they are just Jews, deserving of all the honors and obligations of a Jewish person. See? The Torah is far more liberal than JOFA, which suggests there’s a special class of gay Jews. It makes no difference if you point me out as someone to love or to hate—it’s the pointing out that is unacceptable.

Steinberg’s “Gay-Straight Alliance for the Orthodox Jewish community as a whole” is using the terminology of the civil rights movement to alter the liberal Orthodox congregation, so it gives its blessings to same sex marriages and to openly gay rabbis. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but Aaron Steinberg has a dream.

“It’s been too long that homosexuality remains a taboo only within the Orthodox community,” he wrote on his blog, continuing a little later on: “The gay Jew is not living an immoral life. We as a community need to openly discuss how to find an understanding of the Torah’s attitude on homosexual intercourse, but the welcoming of openly gay individuals should not be delayed until that is achieved.”

That statement is outright bizarre, coming from a man living a halachic life. First, halachically there’s no such thing as a gay Jew, only homosexual acts. Second, our lives are morally fluid, not “moral” or “immoral.” We move from mistakes to atonement and repair, to trying again — it’s the very foundation of our teachings. And, finally, who is not welcoming openly gay individuals? It’s not the welcoming he’s shooting for, it’s the incorporation of values.

Here’s another Steinberg gay values statement, disguised as Kumbaya gobbledygook: “We need to make our synagogues and schools safe places for gay Jews to associate themselves, and exercise the beautiful values of community, unity and togetherness that we have otherwise valued so greatly.”

In what liberal Orthodox synagogue are gays unsafe? In what progressive Orthodox school are gay Jews being bullied? Ah, but it’s the gay “beautiful values” Steinberg is promoting here: sex is holy, whether it’s between a man and a woman or between two guys. Well, it isn’t. It may be necessary, every human being needs intimacy, and there may be ways for Orthodox gay men to hold on to some form of intimacy and remain within the boundaries of halacha – but by forcing the “beautiful values” thing, he’s not having a discussion, he’s advocating passionately for a distinctly anti-halachic view. In other words, he’s being dishonest.

The notion that JOFA as a whole can have serious influence outside the liberal Orthodox circles is plain silly. If anything, more and more of Orthodoxy is moving in the opposite direction—to my chagrin, too. So no one is paying attention to JOFA other than liberal Orthodox Jews, and we’ve already handed women our leadership positions and embraced gays in our midst.

What Aaron Steinberg is trying to do—on behalf of JOFA—is alter liberal Orthodoxy by embracing the gay agenda; again, not the gays, but the agenda. I’m against it.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/news/breaking-news/steinbergs-gay-straight-agenda-taking-jofa-to-unexpected-places/2013/11/22/

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