Rabbi Avi Weiss, the maverick Modern Orthodox spiritual leader who has distanced himself from that movement in recent decades by forming his own “Open Orthodox” rabbinical school and ordaining women, this week cut his ties with Modern Orthodoxy’s mainstream rabbinical group in protest.
In a message he emailed on Monday to the media, Rabbi Weiss stated that he has not paid his dues to the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest association of Orthodox rabbis, and “allowed my membership to lapse.
Rabbi Weiss, who has served at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, in the Bronx since 1973, and founded the Chovevei Torah Yeshiva in 2000, said he was taking the step “as an act of protest” because the RCA has not admitted rabbis ordained by his institution into membership.
“If YCT rabbis – with YCT semicha [ordination] only – cannot join the RCA, neither can I be part of this rabbinic group,” stated Rabbi Weiss, who is stepping down from his pulpit this year.
“In recent years … I have struggled with many positions the RCA has taken,” Rabbi Weiss said in an email message to The Jewish Week. “To name several: its centralization of rabbinic authority vis-a-vis conversion; its opposition to women’s semicha; its failure to issue a public statement on behalf of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin in his recent brouhaha with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.” The latter is a reference to the Chief Rabbinate’s recent implied threat to decertify Rabbi Riskin as Chief Rabbi of Efrat for his liberal positions on several religious issues.
“But the primary reason I am leaving is the Chovevei issue,” Rabbi Weiss wrote. “With almost 100 rabbis in the field, in major synagogues, Hillels, and day schools all over the world … one would imagine that the RCA would proactively visit Chovevei to help facilitate its entry into their rabbinical association. Tragically, that has not happened — and it’s the RCA’s great loss.
“The vast majority of institutional semicha programs approved by the RCA are haredi and non-Zionist … It seems that the RCA tent is wide enough for the haredi right, but there is no place for the only rabbinic school that proudly identifies itself as modern Orthodox – YCT.”
The RCA was considering expelling Rabbi Weiss in 2010 after he granted semicha, rabbinical ordination, to Sara Hurwitz, who now serves as a “rabba” on the Hebrew Institute rabbinical staff, The Jewish Week reported then.
The RCA did not respond to a request for comment on this issue from The Jewish Week.
Rabbi Weiss wrote that he will “devot[e] full attention” to the International Rabbinic Fellowship, an alternative Modern Orthodox rabbinical organization he co-founded with Rabbi Marc Angel, emeritus spiritual leader of Congregation Shearith Israel on the Upper West Side. “If one is seeking out the positions of an Orthodoxy which is modern and open,” he wrote, “I suggest turning to the IRF.”
In past years Rabbi Weiss and the RCA have publicly disagreed over such issues as the rabbi’s ordination of women, an act barred by mainstream Modern Orthodox Judaism, and what the rabbi viewed as insufficient support from the RCA when his standards for conversion to Judaism came under criticism from Israel’s haredi religious establishment.
“I believe Avi made every effort to work from within, but as Orthodoxy has drifted rightward, he, like Yitz Greenberg before him, felt increasingly marginalized,” Steven Bayme, national director of the American Jewish Committee’s contemporary Jewish life department, told The Jewish Week. Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg is a Modern Orthodox scholar whose positions have often differed with the rightwing of Orthodox Judaism.
“The Modern Orthodox, or as Avi prefers, the ‘Open Orthodox,’ have had the courage to establish institutions and stake out positions on modern scholarship, women in Judaism, conversion, and intra-Jewish denominational cooperation that the Centrist Orthodox either have shied away from embracing, or, all too often, read out of the camp of the faithful as not being truly Orthodox,” Bayme said.