Avi Weiss on living the ‘dream of seeing an Orthodoxy that’s open’

Rabbi Avi Weiss, the man who coined the phrase “Open Orthodoxy” — referring to a more inclusive and liberal version of Orthodox Judaism — is no stranger to controversy.
September 8, 2015

Rabbi Avi Weiss, the man who coined the phrase “Open Orthodoxy” — referring to a more inclusive and liberal version of Orthodox Judaism — is no stranger to controversy. 

He left his post at Yeshiva University in 1999 and founded Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a liberal Orthodox yeshiva in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx, N.Y. And when the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest group of Orthodox rabbis in the country, didn’t budge from its refusal to accept rabbis ordained solely by his school, Weiss allowed his membership to lapse. 

Ten years after opening Chovevei, Weiss founded Yeshivat Maharat, a female Orthodox seminary that trains women as Jewish spiritual leaders. When he gave Sara Hurwitz the title “rabba” in 2010, the right wing of the Orthodox world sharply criticized Weiss. He has since stopped using the title, but the school’s graduates continue to take up clergy positions at Orthodox synagogues across the country. In May, B’nai David-Judea Congregation announced the appointment of Morateinu (“our teacher”) Alissa Thomas-Newborn, a Maharat graduate, to the synagogue’s clergy. 

Weiss, 71, also has been an outspoken pro-Israel activist, even getting arrested in 2011 when he protested a Palestinian statehood bid outside the United Nations building. Like many Jews of his generation, his activism began with the movement to free Soviet Jewry in the 1960s; Weiss recently published a memoir of his work during that era, “Open Up the Iron Door: Memoirs of a Soviet Jewry Activist.”

Although he no longer runs either Chovevei or the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, the synagogue he led from 1973 until this past July, don’t ask Weiss if he’s in retirement. “I don’t think of myself as retired,” he said. “I’d like to retire the word ‘retire.’ ” 

Weiss, who lives in New York, met with the Journal during a recent visit to Los Angeles and spoke about the evolution of Orthodox Judaism as well as where he thinks things are headed. An edited version of that conversation follows.

Jewish Journal: You said you’re living a dream come true. What is it?

Rabbi Avi Weiss: The dream of seeing an Orthodoxy that’s open, that’s inclusive, that on the one hand is Orthodox, but [also] open and nonjudgmental and pluralistic. In 1990, if somebody asked me what would the scene look like 25 years later, I couldn’t have imagined the growth that we’ve had.

JJ: What does “open” mean as it pertains to Orthodox Judaism? Yeshiva University (Y.U.) is Modern Orthodox — isn’t it pretty open?

AW: The term “Modern Orthodox” has not been used by Y.U. for a long time. Y.U., since 1978, has been using the term “Centrist Orthodox.” … Modern Orthodoxy was created in the ’50s and the ’60s to make a statement that you could be Orthodox and yet modern — you could embrace secular studies. … I think there are different strains within Orthodoxy. There’s Chasidic Orthodoxy, there’s Agudah Orthodoxy, there’s this and that Orthodoxy, and I think, for me, what an Orthodoxy that’s open is about now, the primary issue is inclusiveness. That’s what it’s about — who is in and who is not in. 

And for me, Open Orthodoxy … is Orthodoxy [that] is uncompromising in its Orthodox commitment. I believe in what’s called Torah min hashamayim. I believe the Torah was written by God. I believe in the process of development of the way halachah evolves based on prior binding law and how change comes about. When we gave the Torah to women to carry throughout the women’s section, I wrote … a very carefully thought-through halachic piece on the right of women to carry the Torah, to read the megillah, to engage in prayer services. 

So I can’t talk about “open” without talking about doing it within the ambit of Orthodoxy. It’s often the case that when you say “Orthodox,” the last thing you think is “open,” and when you say “open,” the last thing you think about is “Orthodox.” Normally, Orthodoxy is associated with “closed.” To me, that’s the challenge. Can I be uncompromising in my halachic commitment and yet open and inclusive of women in spiritual leadership? Notwithstanding … what the Torah says about homosexuality — inclusive of the gay community, [too]. 

JJ: Some leaders in the right wing of the Orthodox movement would say that you’re deviating from tradition too much to be called Orthodox. What would you say to them?

AW: Look, the leadership within the RCA is made up of some of my dear friends. I was a member of the RCA, until recently, for 47 years. I can only tell you that the RCA never once visited Chovevei Torah, and it’s irresponsible on their part. They lose out. They’re losing out on some of the finest rabbis who are now serving in the Orthodox Jewish community in America. … It’s more political than anything else. The RCA’s got a voice and I’m glad there are other voices, like the voice of the IRF [International Rabbinical Fellowship, co-founded by Weiss] and Chovevei Torah.

JJ: How do you respond to the argument that having women play a larger spiritual role in shul is a deviation from tradition and therefore not Orthodox?

AW: There are many women who are serving in spiritual leadership positions who have come out of Maharat, and the school is growing and there are more leaders who are going to come out. And it’s not just Yeshivat Maharat. … The truth of the matter is, in the RCA itself and in the Charedi world, there are many women … who serve as spiritual leaders and it’s a matter of, what do you call it? … There is no barrier that would prevent a woman from studying what a man studies for semichah [ordination], and unapologetically we grant semichah; we ordain women. What they’re called? That’s a matter that communities have to decide.

JJ: Could this be construed as watering down halachic standards?

AW: Quite the contrary. I think it’s sanctifying halachic standards. Halachah is not a noun; it’s a verb. Halachah comes from the word halach, which means it’s supposed to take us somewhere and it’s supposed to take us to living a life of kedushah [holiness], living a life of tzedakah and mishpat, righteousness and justice. … And without compromising halachah, I think one can and must live halachah within that larger context.

I think it’s going to be left up to historians to look back and see and decide what happened. … We’re right in the midst of something that’s evolving. Something is clearly happening. … When Rabbi Mark Dratch of the RCA appears at a memorial service held in memory of the young woman who was murdered at that gay pride parade [in Jerusalem], that’s an enormous step forward. It’s something the RCA never did. … There’s no doubt that we’re having [a] larger impact. …

The reason there’s such a pushback is because the ideas really resonate. … Around the country, I find that Jews are looking for a Judaism that’s anchored, that has tradition, that has history as long as it’s not frozen, as long as it’s not stagnant. And the flip side of that is people want something open, as long as it has parameters. They’re looking for that balance, and that, for me, is what we’re about.

JJ: What do you predict is the future of Orthodox Judaism and denominational Judaism in the United States?

AW: I think that Yeshiva University Orthodoxy — let me call it that for a moment — over the years has been moving precipitously to the right. … That’s why Chovevei was created. At the same time, I do think that the Conservative movement has moved left and I think Reform is moving right, certainly in the area of ritual. And I’m one of those who does believe that Conservative and Reform [are] coming closer and closer, and in the breach I think lies what I call “Open Orthodoxy.” 

It’s not easy to create a new rabbinic institution. It’s not easy to create a Chovevei, a Maharat — especially when one considers the politics of our community. And what we’ve done in 15 years, you could only have had the success that, thank God we have had, if the ideas resonate. It struck a chord.

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