Times: Rabbi Avi Weiss Says he Was a Victim of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.

I should like Avi Weiss because he stands for openness in Orthodoxy - a strange idea indeed - but I think, perhaps better than the closed kind.

Apparently Weiss stands also for opining opinionated Orthodoxy and he has taken his current gripes to the Times.

I have justified gripes about the rabbinate in Israel. We all do. What rabbi doesn't? But really who believes that, "Coercion and religion do not mix"? Take a look around the world. It is essential that they mix. The notion that they do not mix is a strange one.

Ultimately the Rabbinate in Israel may fail; it may be neutered or it may be be disbanded. But it will be because the institution implodes from within, not because an American rabbi thinks it must be fixed.

Rabbi Weiss must understand the judgement of some of his colleagues that "open" rabbis are not sufficiently "tribal" to testify about the Jewishness of unknown persons who claim to be members of the tribe. The chief rabbinate has a good argument that you can't be "open" and credibly "tribal" at the same time.

Indeed, "Systemic problems persist." But I don't see evidence that Weiss understands much about what they are. Here is his op-ed in the Times.
Rein in Israel’s Rabbinate

NEW YORK — Recently, I was a victim of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. As an Orthodox rabbi, one who advocates for a more open and inclusive Orthodoxy, I’ve often attested to the Jewish status of congregants who wish to marry in Israel, as required by the Chief Rabbinate. I’ve been doing so for 45 years, but in October, one of my letters was rejected. Suddenly, my judgment had been found unacceptable.

Eventually, protests about that rejection moved the Chief Rabbinate to change its mind and restore my ability to attest for candidates for marriage. But the episode has propelled me to raise a larger issue: the Chief Rabbinate’s far-reaching and exclusive control in Israel over personal matters like marriage, and its intrusion into the affairs of the Diaspora. It is time to decentralize the Chief Rabbinate’s power and to give Jewish communities greater say in what is acceptable for their members.

The modern institution of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate was created for the Jewish community in Palestine by the British during the Mandate period and kept in place when the independent state of Israel was established in 1948. The Chief Rabbinate controls the foundations of Jewish life in Israel: conversion, marriage, burial, food and more.

In a democratic state like Israel, it might seem anomalous for a centralized body appointed by the government to be invested with so much power over individual affairs. For a time, the Chief Rabbinate was perceived to serve all the Jewish people. Today it is largely seen and experienced by many Jews in Israel and abroad as an intrusive and coercive religious body. Not only does it impose Orthodox religious law on all Jews, but it also demands ultra-strict standards in most areas it oversees.

The recent events are just one manifestation of this. Since there is no civil marriage for Jews in Israel, those wishing to marry must prove, to the satisfaction of the Chief Rabbinate, that they are Jewish. In the past, a statement provided by an Orthodox rabbi had been sufficient. Without warning, I and some other Orthodox rabbis found ourselves on a “blacklist” last October; our testimony was no longer considered reliable.

It would have been easier to remain quiet and avoid the embarrassment that rejection had caused me. I realized, however, that the issue had serious consequences for Jews in Israel and abroad. I therefore went public by challenging the Chief Rabbinate in the press in the hope that community awareness and involvement would lead to a solution. I was ready to bring the matter before the Israeli Supreme Court.

The Chief Rabbinate’s reversal in my case, earlier this month, was an encouraging sign, but the issue is far from resolved. Systemic problems persist.

In the late ’90s, I published an essay articulating a vision of Open Orthodoxy. Those who identify with this vision believe in the divinity of the Torah and are committed to the detailed observance of the practices of Jewish law. But commitment does not have to mean rigidity. We believe in an Orthodoxy that empowers women to be more involved in Jewish ritual and spiritual leadership; invites religious questioning; promotes dialogue across the Jewish denominations; welcomes all people regardless of sexual orientation or level of religious observance; and looks outward, driven by a sense of responsibility to all people.

The Chief Rabbinate, in contrast, has been turning inward, taking religiously extreme positions, consolidating and extending its power. In 2008, in one sweeping move, it limited the right to participate in American conversions to a short list of handpicked rabbis and rabbinical courts. It did so by enlisting the full cooperation of a major American rabbinical association that ceded its autonomy and capitulated rather than stand up for all of its members in the field.

This was a major step backward. One of the most vibrant aspects of Orthodoxy in America has been its decentralization and proliferation of many voices. It would be particularly distressing for Orthodoxy in America to reverse course and adopt the stifling hierarchical model of the Israeli Rabbinate.

In a democratic Jewish state, options must be available. For example, an Orthodox group in Israel, Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, has proposed that communities elect their own religious leadership and receive state funding. In matters like marriage and conversion, communal standards would be taken into consideration instead of dictates imposed from above.

This does not mean that individual Orthodox rabbis in Israel would be obliged to go against their conscience by accepting all conversions or marriages as valid. No rabbi should be asked to compromise personal standards of Jewish law. But Israel is a state for all the Jewish people. As such, it should allow for the option of secular as well as religious marriage.

Coercion and religion do not mix. Religious choice would benefit all. When choice is available, religion in general and Orthodoxy in particular will fare better because people will have the freedom to embrace faith willingly. An imposed religion is a disservice to the people and a disservice to religion.

Avi Weiss,an Orthodox rabbi, is the spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, in the Bronx.

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