Weiss has had two heart attacks. He never enjoys a vacation and rarely sits still, except to watch the Yankees. His wife, Toby, who comes from a Haredi (right-wing Orthodox) family, says her husband is particularly preoccupied when he knows someone is suffering—be it a congregant going through a divorce or the victims of a terrorist attack. After a Jewish community center was bombed in Buenos Aires in 1994, Toby recalls, Weiss was walking on his treadmill and asked her, “Should I go? I’m thinking I should go.” “What time is your flight?” she replied. He said, “Seven o’clock.” When she called the cardiologist for his advice, he told her, “Toby, you know he’ll have more stress if I tell him he can’t go.”
Like any Jewish wife, Toby worries. But her husband gives her good reason. After Meir Kahane was killed, in 1990, Weiss received a letter that said, “Kahane’s dead; you’re next.” Another time, a hand grenade arrived in an envelope. There were several nights that required an NYPD security detail parked outside their apartment. “My daughter once said, ‘I cannot wait to get married and get out of here,’ ” Toby says with a trace of amusement. “It was scary to sleep in our house.”
Toby calls her husband “the Rabbi” and chauffeurs him to endless shivah calls and sickbed visits. He is not a careful dresser, and he can’t cook a simple meal. He forgets to exercise, has never written a check, and loses everything. It’s not that Weiss is entirely selfless—he has a robust ego, savvy press instincts, and high-profile friendships. (Mayor Bloomberg has joined the Weisses for Shabbat, and Natan Sharansky, the Soviet refusenik, made a beeline from Israel to the Weiss home in Riverdale after his release from nine years in the Gulag.) But Weiss mostly spends his time with those decidedly on the margins: the elderly, the widowed, the infirm, the disabled.
Weiss believes many Jews eschew activism because they’re convinced it will create an anti-Semitic backlash—that rabbis are supposed to be religious, not political. But he defiantly wears his prayer shawl to most protests. “The greatest sin is not to act,” he says. “When people used to ask me, ‘Where was God during the Holocaust?’ my response was, ‘Where were we?’ ”
This is Weiss’s core: He feels deeply and acts unself-consciously—sometimes impetuously, despite eye-rolls from skeptics or chiding from critics, and despite the impact on his family. During his early fatherhood, he was away constantly. He now says he regrets having skipped his son Dov’s eighth-grade graduation to fly to Rome to protest Pope John Paul II’s reception of Kurt Waldheim. “My family paid a price,” Weiss says quietly. “There is no doubt.”
“I wish he didn’t do it,” says a friend. “But … he’s a child of the sixties. He doesn’t have the gene to back down.”
Dov Weiss, currently working toward his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, says he’s made peace with his father’s choices. “My father has apologized on many, many occasions, and he feels bad about it,” Dov says of his childhood. “My response was, ‘Abba, you were doing important work.’” But Dov doesn’t sugarcoat his father’s absences, and remembers having to compete for his attention. “We always had 25 guests on Shabbat,” Dov recalls. He remembers those crowded suppers fondly because they were the only nights he could be sure his father would be present.
In April, Weiss decided to skip this year’s annual convention of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Orthodox rabbinic organization. Still, he was a powerful presence in the room. An amendment was circulated that proposed the RCA expel any member who ordained a woman. It failed in the first round of voting by a margin of one, but another resolution passed unanimously. After going out of its way to extol strides in women’s scholarship, it shot down any notion of women rabbis: “We cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.”
Weiss has had private conversations with the Rabbinical Council, and they have managed to reach an unstable compromise. Rabbi Moshe Kletenik, the council’s president, says that the matter of women rabbis has been settled. “We’ve established firmly as a matter of public policy that a woman cannot be an Orthodox rabbi,” he says, “and he has made a commitment that he will not ordain women in the future.”
“I’ve said I will not do it,” Weiss says wearily. And yet, Hurwitz is still rabba. (“To take back a title,” Weiss says, “that’s a very serious matter.”) More to the point, she remains dean of a new women’s yeshiva, Yeshivat Maharat, which Weiss created last year and whose mission, according to its website, is “to train women to be fully integrated into the Orthodox community as spiritual leaders.” There are four students in the inaugural class, and Weiss has made it clear that he will continue to educate women for leadership, though he is now vague about what their title would be.