TORONTO — Rabbi Avi Weiss believes that the best dvar Torah a rabbi can give consists of “not so much what you say, but what you do.”
Elliott Malamet, left, and Rabbi Avi Weiss [Frances Kraft photo]
Speaking at a Torah in Motion (TIM) program held March 13 at Shaarei Shomayim Congregation, Rabbi Weiss said he believes that non-violent civil disobedience is as important as quiet diplomacy.
A longtime activist – who became widely known for Soviet Jewry advocacy, and who suffered two heart attacks during protests and was arrested numerous times – he made headlines more recently for ordaining Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the first female to be ordained as an Orthodox spiritual leader, last year.
Rabbi Weiss – senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and founder of the “open Orthodox” rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and its counterpart for women, Yeshivat Maharat – was interviewed by TIM co-founder Elliott Malamet in a program titled Activism and Advocacy: A Lifelong Commitment to the Jewish People.
The rabbi said he did not believe he was doing anything radical by ordaining Rabba Hurwitz, and added that he was surprised by the level of rhetoric that ensued.
He said he felt there had been an evolution in the Orthodox world over the past 100 years in terms of women and Jewish learning, citing the Chafetz Chaim’s endorsement of women learning Torah, and the advanced Kolel program for women at Stern College. As well, he noted, women are now serving as yoatzot Halachah (halachic advisers) and in spiritual leadership positions in Orthodox synagogues.
“What I did that was different was to give it a title,” Rabbi Weiss said. “That’s where I took a step and went where others have not gone, but functionally, there literally was no difference.”
He added that, for him, “rabba” is not the same as “rabbi.” Orthodoxy is not egalitarian, he explained. “Ninety per cent of what a rabbi can do, women can do. A very significant 10 per cent, women can’t do.”
He noted, as well, that there are some things women can do as spiritual leaders that men cannot. Rabba Hurwitz can’t be on a beit din for conversion, but she can counsel a woman who is converting and “literally” take her into the mikvah, Rabbi Weiss said. “That’s a very powerful move, in my opinion.
“We desperately need spiritual leadership,” he added. “For me, to limit spiritual leadership to 50 per cent of the pool doesn’t make sense.”
Rabbi Weiss, who was born in 1944 and ordained by Yeshiva University in 1966, attended a haredi school as a youngster and also studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh in Israel.
His first pulpit, a year-long stint in St. Louis, was “the first time a yeshiva boy was seeing the real world,” he said.
The rabbi credits his Polish-born father – who was raised a Chassid and went on to become a rabbi at Yeshiva University – for instilling in him “a sense of Jewish activism.” However, he said, it took time to manifest.
Although Rabbi Weiss was involved in the Soviet Jewry movement early in his career in the 1960s, he was not yet attending rallies. “I feel somewhat shamed that I was not out there protesting with them.”
At one time, he added, he was also “very inspired” by Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the extremist Kach party and the Jewish Defence League. They “broke on a variety of issues,” Rabbi Weiss said – to the extent that the two were scheduled to debate on the night that followed Rabbi Kahane’s assassination in 1990.
Rabbi Weiss founded Chovevei Torah in large part because of “a precipitous move to the right” in Orthodoxy.
“There is latitude and flexibility” in Halachah, but within parameters, he said.