Rabbi Avi Weiss is an unabashed iconoclast. Understandably, this makes some people uneasy, and others downright fearful. However, given the current state of the institutions that govern Jewish religious life, I would like to suggest that a little iconoclasm might not be such a bad thing.
Our people’s story begins with another Avraham, the first one, the very person who brought sacred iconoclasm to the world. Yet survival and the fulfillment of our mission demands diversity, and we are not all Avrahams.
His son Yitzchak, seems to be the very opposite of his revolutionary father. Avraham, after smashing his father’s idols, left his home and all that it represented to follow the Divine Call. Yitzchak was called to stay put in the same place he was born, and to pass on what he learned from his father. Yitzchak re-dug the wells his father dug; he made treaties with the same leaders and like his father he also made the mistake of not disclosing his wife’s true identity while sojourning in the land of Gerar.
Our tradition teaches that the positive aspects of both Avraham and Yitzchak were synthesized into the third Patriarch, Yaakov, or Yisrael, the father of our people, after whom we are named. Yisrael embodied a healthy synergy between these forces, and manifesting that synergy is our task to this day.
Do we need institutions? Yes. But can we stand idly by as they rot from the inside out? It is painful to say out loud, but it is well known and widely accepted that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate does not represent the interests of the Jewish People, be they in Israel or the Diaspora.
Tragically, its behavior serves to discredit our tradition and to distance our people from it. It is well documented that the rabbinate is run by a narrow clique of haredi rabbis, solely for the interests of that clique. The calibre of the last person who filled the role of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi speaks for itself – he stands accused of sexual assault, bribery, fraud and money laundering. He was appointed to weaken and discredit the rabbinate so that it offers no threat to this cabal’s own leadership.
It is therefore unsurprising that none of the many Israeli or Diaspora Jews I have met who have interacted with the rabbinate have reported the experience to be one that sanctified the Name of our Creator. The Israeli rabbinate teaches most to regard Judaism not as a wellspring of Divine meaning, but as an unpleasant bureaucracy, and hence to reduce their contact with it as much as they can. For example, many Israeli couples preparing to be married by the rabbinate will not meet their rabbi before the ceremony itself, much less establish any kind of personal relationship with him. He is simply a bureaucratic functionary, who performs his services, often for an illegal fee, and without any opportunity for meaningful interaction.
Because of this and countless other absurdities, a group of Israeli Orthodox rabbis founded the organization Tzohar, in 1995, which oversees Orthodox weddings, for no charge. Tzohar’s leaders have been attacked and harassed for helping 3,000 couples a year wed according to Jewish law. After much struggle, their weddings are now begrudgingly accepted by the rabbinate. A couple getting married through Tzohar can expect to meet their rabbi before the wedding, and to be treated with respect throughout the process.
Tzohar is not perfect but it is trying to serve the Jewish people through a healthy synthesis of iconoclasm and institution-building. Tzohar’s Executive Vice President Nachman Rosenberg has weighed in strongly on the recent controversy around Rabbi Weiss, lamenting that the rabbinate has “no practical respect for the halachic authority of local rabbinic organizations.” He has also chided the American Orthodox establishment for its complicity, stating that Diaspora Orthodox leadership “need to rise above their inferiority complex and put an end to this scandalous abuse.”
Unfortunately, this is not yet happening, and we, the entire Jewish People, will continue to pay the price for this state of affairs, until our institutions reflect who we actually are. The rabbinate claims that it has received “various communications from rabbis… some of whom hold positions in the [Rabbinical Council of America], claiming that Rabbi Weiss’s halachic positions… raise doubts as to his level of commitment to Jewish law as is customarily accepted.” The council has issued a statement dismissing the rabbinate’s claims as “categorically untrue.” Sadly, it seems that somebody in one of these two institutions of religious governance, is not telling the whole truth.
Rabbi Weiss’ iconoclasm has given other Orthodox leaders plenty of headaches, but perhaps his unwillingness to play along with an intolerable status quo is exactly what we need, given the stakes involved. Despite not seeing eye-to-eye with him, the council’s Executive Vice President, Rabbi Mark Dratch, has acknowledged that Rabbi Weiss is “person of integrity” and “a person who is committed to halachah.” The issue is Rabbi Weiss’ refusal to be a spectator to the scandal of the rabbinate, a scandal that threatens Israeli-Diaspora relations and the unity of the Jewish People.
Daniel Raphael Silverstein is a third year rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, currently studying at Yeshivat Maale Gilboa in Israel. He is a spoken word artist and creative educator who has performed and facilitated for Jewish and other communities around the world.