Non-Orthodox Orthodoxy: Playing With Fire
by Avrohom Gordimer
When an Orthodox rabbi’s actions cross into the realm of the non-Orthodox, the rabbi’s actions are typically defended by his sympathizers as being “within the outer bounds of Orthodoxy”. And when an Orthodox rabbi’s actions cross into the realm of the non-Orthodox, those actions only affect the rabbi and those who wittingly or unwittingly stray after him. But when an Orthodox rabbi’s actions are indefensibly non-Orthodox and can potentially impact thousands if not millions of Jews who have nothing to do with the rabbi, we are at a point of crisis. My friends, we are at that point of crisis.
Rabbi Avi Weiss has for years been on the periphery of Orthodoxy. His ordination of women and countless other activities typically associated with the non-Orthodox movements have placed him on the edge, yet with a small group of people consistently defending the innovations as being “within the broad tent of Orthodoxy”, to borrow another catchphrase of the Far Left.
Shockingly, Rabbi Weiss has now come forth with a plea that non-Orthodox, halachically invalid conversions be considered for recognition in the State of Israel. Rabbi Weiss posits that
Israel as a state should give equal opportunities to the Conservative and Reform movements. Their rabbis should be able to conduct weddings and conversions. For that matter, civil weddings should also be recognized by the State. As in America, it should be left to the general public – if they wish, in consultation with their local rabbis – to decide whether to accept or reject these conversions and wedding ceremonies.
Please pardon me for being blunt, but is this not the epitome of recklessness? Does Rabbi Weiss seek for the thousands upon thousands of non-Jews who each year undergo non-halachic, invalid conversions to now be recognized as Jews in Israeli society, such that they will inevitably marry Israelis who are halachically Jewish, eventually resulting in myriads or even millions of Israeli “non-Jewish Jews” and a massive intermarriage epidemic in the State of Israel, as we have here in America?
How can Rabbi Weiss, as an Orthodox rabbi, in good conscience promote the performance and potential recognition of non-halachic conversions, even putting aside for a moment the concomitant large-scale and disastrous consequences for Israeli Jewry? How is this different than a rabbi suggesting to other Jews that they may eat on Yom Kippur or that they may consume pork? Again, pardon the bluntness, but is Rabbi Weiss’ proposal not the height of rabbinic malpractice?
Rabbi Weiss also has some choice words for the Rabbinical Council of America:
When the Chief Rabbinate years back questioned American Orthodox conversions, an Orthodox rabbinic organization, the Rabbinical Council of America, (RCA), rather than challenge the Chief Rabbinate and say clearly we have faith and trust in our rabbis in the field, capitulated to the Chief Rabbinate, and imported Israel’s failed rabbinic centralized format to the US.
The backdrop to Rabbi Weiss’ new quest to Reform (quite literally!) the marriage and conversion standards of the State of Israel and to strip control of such from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate is the Rabbanut’s rejection of a letter penned by Rabbi Weiss attesting to the Jewish and single status of an American couple who sought to be married in the State of Israel. While the Rabbanut did not explain its exact reason for rejecting Rabbi Weiss’ letter, it is widely felt that Rabbi Weiss’ quite non-traditional activities and affiliations, which have been roundly criticized as being quite out of the bounds of Orthodoxy, have placed him in poor standing with the Rabbanut.
Although Rabbi Weiss has every right to appeal and argue, his method of taking the issue to the non-Orthodox Jewish media and thereby invoking the sympathy of those who care not about halachic standards is regrettable and disingenuous. It is also a chillul Hashem, as Rabbi Weiss alleges to a non-Orthodox audience unfairness and heavy-handed, exclusionary protocol on the part of major and quite authoritative Orthodox rabbinical bodies. Equally disturbing is the fact that this internal rabbinical issue is being pushed in Rabbi Weiss’ favor through secular political channels. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, who has broken new ground in Open Orthodoxy with feminist innovations and is closely affiliated with Rabbi Weiss, contacted the American ambassador to Israel with a veiled (and quite inappropriate) diplomatic and communal threat, in an effort to pressure the American government to intervene with the issue between Rabbi Weiss and the Rabbanut (!).
Rabbi Zev Farber, prominently featured in Cross-Currents articles most notably for his claims that the Torah was not given by God to Moshe and that the Torah is the historically untrue, flawed work of men who tapped into a divine wave, still serves as a board member of International Rabbinic Forum (IRF) and is the editor and coordinator of its Vaad Hagiyur; Rabbi Farber is also on the advisory board of Yeshivat Maharat. Rabbi Farber, who is a staff writer for Morethodoxy, the Open Orthodox website, is now developing and promoting a new protocol and network for marriage and divorce that includes utilizing the discredited procedure of Rabbi Emanuel Rackman to unilaterally annul marriages without a Get based on later developments in marriage. Per Rabbi Farber’s program, every single claim for divorce that cannot be resolved through a traditional Get would be resolved without a Get by annulling the marriage or declaring it invalid – something considered by almost all poskim to be illegitimate under the usual circumstances.
Rabbi Farber writes of his proposed program:
I imagine that this will mean a radical shift in the divorce process in our communities.
And, well aware that the standards of this program would not be accepted in the more traditional Orthodox communities, Rabbi Farber comments:
The best is the enemy of the good here, and total consensus is impossible in the current climate…With a large base, hopefully, this pesaq will quickly become minhag yisrael in the Open Orthodox world.
The only word that comes to mind here is “Whoa!” A prominent Open Orthodox rabbi is pursuing a large-scale halachic personal status agenda of seismic magnitude with the realization that according to the larger Orthodox consensus, the product of the agenda will be a proliferation of mamzerim!? If this does not threaten to irreparably split the Jewish community, with repercussions that are eternal, then nothing will.
It is hard to imagine a greater rift within Orthodoxy than that which would be born of the agendas currently being pursued by Rabbis Weiss and Farber. And it is hard to imagine a greater departure from Halacha and from Orthodoxy than that of Rabbi Weiss promoting the performance and suggested recognition of halachically invalid conversions. If this is not non-Orthodox, then nothing really is.
In a comment to his newest Morethodoxy article, Rabbi David Wolkenfeld writes, “In this blog-post Rabbi Avraham Gordimer has profoundly misunderstood Rabbi Weiss’ position. Rabbi Weiss in no way “promotes the performance or potential acceptance” of non-halakhic life-cycle events. He called for an end to the State rabbinate’s monopoly over these religious services. Orthodoxy in America manages without this monopoly.”
I did not misunderstand Rabbi Weiss at all; Rabbi Weiss’ suggestion is quite clear. Rabbi Weiss does not merely call for an end to the Rabbanut’s exclusive authority on marriage and conversion, arguing that Orthodox/halachic conversions should be allowed by autonomous Orthodox rabbis who are not registered with the Rabbanut; had Rabbi Weiss argued this, as much as it may cause concern for a lack of enforceable and unified standards, it would not be objectionable per se. Rather, instead of positing that all conversions in the State of Israel need to remain Orthodox/halachic, albeit under a free choice of autonomous Orthodox rabbinical authorities, Rabbi Weiss argues that non-Orthodox (invalid) conversions should be legally authorized to occur in the State and that Israelis should have the option of undergoing and accepting these conversions as valid. (The resultant non-Jewish “converts” of the protocol promoted by Rabbi Weiss obviously will then be known as Jews and will marry people who are real, halachic Jews, and before we know it, Israeli society will have a major intermarriage epidemic.)
This point of Rabbi Weiss goes way, way beyond an argument about centralization versus decentralization of Orthodox rabbinic services. On the contrary, Rabbi Weiss makes a sweeping plea for the authorization to perform invalid conversions and for these invalid conversions to be subject to recognition by those who so desire. This is a radical approach that contravenes fealty to the binding nature of Halacha on every Jew.
For all of its failings, the current Rabbanut system, which maintains strict standards for Jewish identity and personal status, has maintained and preserved the halachic integrity of Israeli Jewry and much of Jewry in the Diaspora. Innumerable cases of mamzeirus and intermarriage (due to lack of verified halachic single and Jewish status) have been prevented. Unless an equivalent system is implemented, so as to enforce unified halachic standards, be it by one centralized entity or by autonomous Orthodox rabbis whose services must conform to one halachic standard in areas of Jewish and personal status, the halachic integrity of Jewish and personal status of Israeli citizenry and much of Jewry in the Diaspora will suffer. Rabbi Weiss’ plan, which argues against any required halachic standards, would result in untold and mass tragedy regarding Jewish and personal status.
There is for sure an element of kefiyah (compulsion) involved here; submitting Israeli society to halachic marriage, divorce and conversion requirements (be it of the Rabbanut or of autonomous Orthodox rabbis who must adhere to one unified standard) is obviously not something that everyone embraces. Yet, the positive yield of this system, which is the preservation of yuchsin (the integrity of Jewish lineage), is for sure worth the price of the imposition. The current system, despite its inadequacies, has undeniably served us well and has protected and secured the legitimacy of our yuchsin; in fact, the system is a no-compromise must, without which the Jewish People cannot endure and perpetuate.
Rabbi Weiss has placed his universalist values before the values of the Torah. Pluralistic religious approaches such as Open Orthodoxy diametrically clash with halachic values; Rabbi Weiss’ proposal certainly proves this point. When push comes to shove, egalitarianism must surrender to halachic authority and objective halachic standards. Otherwise, a true national churban, with uncontrolled mass mamzeirus, intermarriage and the destruction of yuchsin inevitably will ensue.
Does Rabbi Weiss seek this national churban? His proposal, which embodies the best of Open Orthodox religious pluralism, will ensure that this churban of our people occurs, God forbid.
Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer is a member of the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and is a member of the New York Bar. The opinions expressed above do not necessarily represent either of these entities.