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It Was Never About Rabbi Avi Weiss

What the recent controversy over one rabbi’s legitimacy really represents

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(Alex Grimm/Getty Images)

My social networks are celebrating the turnabout by the Israeli Rabbinate about the legitimacy of Rabbi Avi Weiss as a halachic decisor on matters of Jewish identity for issues of personal status in Israel, and with good reason. Rabbi Weiss is a person of great integrity and a longtime advocate on behalf of the Jewish people; the idea that he would be an invalid witness on someone’s Jewish status makes a mockery of the idea of klal Israel and of rabbinic leadership. Judaism needs more Rabbi Weisses, and we are all the beneficiaries of his commitments to make this happen through his training of men and women who will lead the next generation of Jewish life with similar values.

In their joy, though, many are mistakenly interpreting the reversal as having to do with issues of Jewish law and the parameters of liberalism. This is to be expected in a clash between the essentially ultra-Orthodox rabbinate and the ultra-Open Orthodox Rabbi Weiss, wherein due to his principled stances towards the ordination of women, among other issues, he stands outside the parameters of traditional Orthodoxy.

But this issue is not about Jewish law at all. Jewish law is merely the playing field. This contest is no less than a major power struggle between Israel and American Jewry, in which ironically some of the efforts on behalf of Rabbi Weiss are actually playing into the very structures they purport to be contesting.

This tension has been mounting for quite some time. At an earlier stage of Israeli history, the idea that the rabbinate would so brazenly mock a widely regarded religious leader of the American Jewish community would have been counterintuitive. American Jews and the state of Israel have lived in a kind of awkward interdependency for a long time, a relationship greased by philanthropy in one direction and a kind of legitimization in the family of nations on the other; advocacy in Washington and at the U.N. on this end, shlichim on behalf of the Jewish cultural renaissance on the other. It has been an existential necessity for the State of Israel—as part of its own self-understanding as a Jewish state—for the state to be involved in issues of identity, but never before would there have erupted this kind of controversy. It would have seemed, on its face, strategically unwise.

This is not to say that all rabbis have heretofore benefited from this relationship. Non-Orthodox Jews have had to endure this delegitimization and condescension for some time, in cases before the Israeli Supreme Court about the Jewishness of non-Orthodox converts which could prevent aliyah, and in the arbitrary capriciousness that sometimes manifests in the Rabbinate bureaucracy which can overturn or question weddings, conversions, or Jewish ancestry at its whim.

The Rabbinate’s recent efforts to discredit Rabbi Weiss strike me as an effort to dip their toe in these (unholy) waters, part of a larger seizure as the decisive authorities on Judaism more broadly. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews dislike and distrust the office of the chief rabbinate, but it sees itself nevertheless akin ideologically to this base: and as the numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews grows, with the accompanying political power, why not push the envelope in using the mechanism of the state to change the parameters of Jewish legitimacy? In response, Rabbi Weiss mounted an extraordinary political and legal claim, with interventions through the classic mechanisms of Jewish power in America (the Anti Defamation League, the Federation system), as well as turning to elected officials and a wide range of political and personal networks. It was a power struggle, and when the American Jewish community decided to fight, it won.

It is hard to believe, however, that this portends a change in culture. It seems much more likely that the Rabbinate will act even more brazenly with respect to the legitimacy of American rabbis now that it sees that it requires this kind of superhuman effort to overturn its decision regarding one particular rabbi. They happened to have picked on a rabbi with extraordinary gifts when it comes to public protest and community organizing. What chance does the next guy stand?

What’s more, the efforts by the Jewish establishment in this case belied its willingness to endure all sorts of this kind of abuse by the rabbinic establishment in Israel in recent years. While surely there have been quieter campaigns by American Jewish leaders to change this status quo—some more successful than others—the willingness by ostensibly non-denominational institutions like the ADL to advocate for Rabbi Weiss when they have been more silent in the past suggests that we here too either have a double-standard with respect to our own community, or that we are aware of how perilously thin our influence is becoming and increasingly cautious about how to exercise it.

This is a sad story, much sadder than the particular case of Rabbi Weiss’ testimony that inspires us to act on the issue. The main experiment of Jewish life over the past half-century was an attempt to play out the possibility of two extraordinary, vibrant Jewish centers that did not look the same, that confronted radically different Jewish challenges in navigating Jewish identity and ascensions to power, and that—most important—needed and depended on each other. This was a great experiment because diaspora becomes something different for Jews when we have the gift of sovereignty: it becomes a willful exercise of Jews to live outside of Israel when they have the option not to. This unique condition afforded Jews living in both places the benefit of two different laboratories for Jewishness—in the private and public spheres—with possibilities for cross-pollination that would benefit Jewish society in each place.

This crisis suggests that this healthy, interdependent dualism is threatened. For most American Jews, pluralism and the right to choose an affiliation or a sub-brand of Judaism is an intrinsic feature of the Judaism we have fostered in America. Yes, this creates a host of challenges we are navigating internally, but we expect civility; our co-religionists in Israel may think our choices strange, but ultimately we expect them to sign on the dotted line when it actually comes to mutual legitimization. We don’t need Israeli Judaism, in all its manifestations, to look identical to American Judaism, in all its manifestations, though we benefit when we learn from one another. But the future of this relationship is dependent on seeing one another as legitimate character witnesses when it comes to the authenticity of our Jewishness—literally, in this case, and figuratively, as communal embodiments of the future and past of the Jewish people.

I hope that American Jewish leaders, and the Israeli Jewish leaders who share this sensitivity, will hear the implicit rumblings that are actually emerging from this “success” story. The majority of Jews in both America and Israel want this increasingly complex, sometimes distant relationship to continue working between these two communities. Our leaders have a moral and strategic responsibility to listen to their constituencies and to exercise their power in service of crafting an atmosphere of trust that benefits us all. Even a good resolution in the short term can otherwise be catastrophic precedent.

Yehuda Kurtzer is the President of The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.

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It Was Never About Rabbi Avi Weiss

What the recent controversy over one rabbi’s legitimacy really represents

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