Sunday, December 23, 2007

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished - My Take on Avi Weiss' Latest Controversy

Chovevei Torah (Hebrew for lovers of Torah), the first major Modern Orthodox rabbinical training center established in this country since Yeshiva University more than a century ago, is the creation of Rabbi Avi Weiss, spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, better known in many circles for his liberal brand of Orthodoxy and his decades of political activism on behalf of Soviet Jewry, Israel and other causes.

YCT rabbis in some cities report opposition when they try to join local rabbinical boards. The yeshiva withdrew its application for its ordainees to join the Rabbinical Council of America, the central rabbinical group of the Modern Orthodox movement, when it became apparent that the application would be denied. And the National Council of Young Israel recently ruled that any candidates to head its 150 congregations had to submit to a screening by a National Council-appointed committee; the decision was seen as an attempt to keep Chovevei Torah rabbis out of Young Israel synagogues.
(New York Jewish Week, December 12, 2007)

Poor Rabbi Weiss. I’ve met him a few times. Passionate about the Jewish people. A real leader.
But he has a problem. In 1989, he marched in Auschwitz/Oswiecim in opposition to the presence of a convent on the site of the concentration camp and alleges that buckets filled with water, paint and urine were poured over his head by those in the convent (http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html%20res=950DE7D81031F931A2575AC0A96F948260), and now he gets peed on my his fellow Jews and fellow rabbis.

Rejection by one Jew to another is an interesting instrument. It takes on different forms and often seems to have the same result: it validates the individual whose opinions are being vilified. Indeed, in many cases, these types rejection often catapult the individual being rejected to the top of the charts. Ta sh’ma (Aramaic for “check this out, dude!):
  • According to the Talmud, Rabbi Joshua disagreed with Rabbi Gamliel about whether testimony about the correct date on which the New Moon, and actually the New Year, was to be proclaimed. For his efforts, Gamliel demanded that Joshua come to him on the very day that, according to Joshua’s view, was Yom Kippur, carrying his walking stick in clear violation of what would have been the holiday (Rosh Hashana 25a). Outcome: Rabbi Gamliel wins his battle, but Joshua’s dissent remains in the Talmud for us to learn about to this day.
  • In ancient Israel, King Jehoiakim of Judah burns the writings of Jeremiah. Outcome: Jehoiakim faced an ignoble death, while Jeremiah continues his prophecy and is eventually immortalized by Three Dog Night.
  • In 1233, the rabbis of Paris burn Maimonides’ Moreh Nevuchim (Guide to the Perplexed) publicly in protest against some of the ideas that he advocates. Outcome: Have you read anything written by any 13th century French rabbis? Enough said.
  • In 1772, the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, excommunicates the members of the nascent Hasidic movement. Outcome: There are a handful of synagogues named after the Gaon. But Hasidic groups like Chabad and Bratislav continue to open new franchises worldwide.
  • In 1945, after years of publicly criticizing Mordecai Kaplan, a group called the Agudas Harabbanim excommunicate him and burn copies of his siddur (prayer book). Outcome: If any rabbinical leader of the 20th century has had a more profound influence on the American synagogue it’s news to me. The man was involved in the creation of the Young Israel movement, the Reconstructionist movement, taught for decades at Jewish Theological Seminary, and “invented” the Bat Mitzvah ceremony.

Because, as much as anyone, I see the world through my own lens, this got me to thinking about professional rejection as a rabbi and Jewish professional. In a form that was much less dramatic than any of the above historical events, a noted rabbinical organization of the movement in which I received semicha (ordination) rejected my membership application, citing “synagogue standards,” which it refused to identify (at the time, many of its members were doing the same things that our synagogue was doing. As it turned out, this rejection letter ended up freeing me to think in much different ways about Judaism and the rabbinate.


My hypothesis: There is a hierarchy of innovation and rebellion that leads to a “push back”, which in turn leads to immortalization. All these are somehow in proportion to one another (Jewish tradition calls this midda k’neged midda)


Here’s how it may work on a highest to lowest level:
Alleged crime: Angering a king
Push Back: Scrolls burnt; Prophet thrown in the slammer
Reward: Three Dog Night Song

Alleged crime: Writing a challenging book
Push Back: Books burnt; excommunication
Reward: Books get noticed; show up on amazon.com within a few years or, at most, centuries

Alleged crime: Starting a new movement
Push Back: Excommunication
Reward: Movements led by dead rabbis.

Alleged crime: Serving as rabbi in a synagogue that pushes the envelope (for its day)
Push Back: Rejection
Reward: Receiving dues check back uncashed & getting to write about it in a blog decades later

In the final analysis, Rabbi Weiss is following in some pretty notable footsteps (not including mine, which are relatively insignificant). Getting the “push back” he’s gotten is proof that he’s doing something that is different at a time when Judaism needs “different.”


I just wouldn’t want to be his dry cleaner (“Rabbi, how come you’re always bringing suits that have been peed on”).