Count me among the admirers of Rabbi Avi Weiss (“Time To Stand Up To Israel’s Chief Rabbis,” Jan. 10). I have profound respect and admiration for him as a rabbi and a mensch. If he tells me that a person is Jewish, his word is good enough for me.
If it is any consolation to colleagues of the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, I, too, am disqualified by the Chief Rabbinate to determine who is a Jew. Most American rabbis are. Welcome to our club.
For the past 20 years we in the Reform movement have raised this problem with Orthodox colleagues and the broader American Jewish establishment. We warned repeatedly and vociferously of the damage to Israel-diaspora relations inflicted by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate — an unrepresentative, often extreme element of the Jewish people. We clarified that the real issue is not “who is a Jew,” but who is a rabbi. We urged Orthodox colleagues to join us in our struggle. We cautioned that the Chief Rabbinate will not stop with non-Orthodox rabbis. Sooner or later they will disqualify Orthodox rabbis [on a large-scale basis] as well.
Alas, few joined us, and needless to say, neither the OU, nor the RCA, expressed any support whatsoever. In fact, the opposite: as long as their status was preserved, they wanted nothing to do with the struggle for religious pluralism in Israel. But now that the credentials of Orthodox rabbis, themselves, are questioned, Orthodox colleagues — and others — are expressing indignant outrage.
The core of the problem is not this or that bureaucrat who disqualifies this or that Orthodox rabbi from determining who is a Jew. The real problem is the Chief Rabbinate itself. It is foreign to Judaism. For most of Jewish history we never had chief rabbis. We are too contentious a people to have a “chief” over us. Judaism’s essential religious pluralism has been the source of our enormous vitality and a central reason for our longevity.
American Jews, most of whom are not Orthodox, have a real stake in the outcome of this struggle. It is not a question of persuading some rabbis in Israel to qualify Rabbi Weiss and a few more American Orthodox rabbis. That won’t solve the problem. We should all unite to break the haredi monopoly once and for all.
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch is the Senior Rabbi of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan.