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The Rabbi and the Rabba

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Rabbi Weiss in 1982, on his fourth day of a hunger strike on behalf of the Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, comforting Sharansky's wife, Avital.   

Weiss, however, had chosen not to attend the meetings. This was not altogether surprising. His close congregants describe—with affection and exasperation—a man who claims to invite opinions but ultimately listens to his own. “Everyone who joins the shul knows it’s not a democracy,” says a former president, Howard Jonas. “He’s ‘the Rebbe.’” And perhaps he decided to discard the group’s recommendation for the same reason: He doesn’t like to feel nudged.

Weiss may not have welcomed hashing things out by committee, but in the months following the announcement of Hurwitz’s maharat title, he started to come around to their conclusion. Many found the word clumsy. It never really took hold in the wider Jewish community. Some people had even taken to mocking it, stressing the last syllable, rat. Perhaps most important, what had felt like a momentous ordination had, in less than a year, lost air. No one really knew what maharat meant, which suggested that little had really changed.

And so, in January, to the surprise of his congregation, his board, and his yeshiva, Weiss announced from the pulpit that he was changing Hurwitz’s title to rabba. Now, finally, came the response he’d been used to—though the extent of the vitriol left even Weiss shaken. As he confided to Rabbi Dov Linzer, the dean of Weiss’s yeshiva, “The way people are reacting, you would think I killed somebody.”

“These developments represent a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition,” declared Agudath Israel of America, ultra-Orthodoxy’s most authoritative rabbinic body. “Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.” Weiss, never a favorite among the hard-liners, was accused of sabotaging his community. Steven Pruzansky, a rabbi in Teaneck, New Jersey, wrote on his popular blog, “Those who seek to infiltrate the Torah with the three pillars of modern Western life—feminism, egalitarianism, and humanism—corrupt the Torah, cheapen the word of G-d.”

Even many who cheered Hurwitz’s initial ordination thought it a blunder. “My immediate advice to Avi was just, ‘Apologize and go back to maharat,’ ” says a friend. The announcement looked reckless and unconsidered, and it threatened to destroy the momentum Weiss had built up over the years: As rabbi, he had insisted on constructing a synagogue space that ensured equal access to the bimah for both genders, passed the Torah to both sides unlike in other Orthodox shuls, introduced women’s prayer groups despite caustic warnings that he was violating Halacha, and found a way for women to say Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, which normally requires a quorum of ten men. And for a few months, he had even managed to ordain a woman to what was effectively (if not precisely) the highest position within a synagogue. “After he got away with the maharat thing, he should have cooled it,” says Lawrence Schiffman, chair of NYU’s Judaic-studies department.

“I didn’t understand,” says one rabbi who had studied next to Weiss, “why, after Rabbi Weiss invented a word for what Sara Hurwitz was—a word that didn’t mean anything and didn’t drive anybody crazy—why he’d switch to a word that he knew would drive everybody up the wall.” That was the question everyone was asking: Why did Weiss change his mind? “I wish he didn’t do it,” says his friend Howard Jonas. “But he loves the Jewish people. And he’s a child of the sixties. He doesn’t have the gene to back down.”

When Weiss was 28, a few years out of rabbinical training at Yeshiva University, he and 29 families founded a shul in a boiler room of the Whitehall Building off the Henry Hudson Parkway. The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale has grown over the years—it now has 850 families—and has served as a platform for Weiss’s rabbinical advocacy. From the start, he has voiced a commitment to a larger “congregation” of Jews beyond his Orthodox brethren. In 1989, during a controversy over a convent at the site of Auschwitz, Weiss climbed the fence in protest, and was beaten by Polish workers and dragged out by police. He repeatedly faulted Mayor David Dinkins for doing too little to protect Jews during the Crown Heights conflagration, at one point carrying a coffin to Gracie Mansion. He shouted down President Carter at a Queens synagogue; chased accused Nazi war criminal Kurt Waldheim around the world; and held up a sign next to David Duke’s face that read nazi of the ’90s.

“There are a few who feel that ‘God has put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I need you to be an ambassador to the Jewish world,”” says Marc D. Angel, Weiss’s classmate at Yeshiva University and now rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel on Central Park West. “Avi is one of those kinds of rabbis. He sees himself not just as a rabbi of a synagogue but as a rabbi responsible for the whole Jewish people.” In his 2008 book Spiritual Activism, Weiss wrote, “I was once involved in activism because I enjoyed it, but now I have come to believe that a true activist is one who takes no pleasure from it. Now I’m an activist because I feel I have no choice; there are things I believe I simply must do.”


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