The fundamentals of leadership are very simply stated by Rabbi Avi Weiss. “Leadership is, in fact, the recognition of a need and responding to that need with change,” he says.“The second step is people resist change, and leadership is navigating that resistance and trying to find consensus, a collective whole that comes along with you.”
Implementing that second step is where he has fueled headlines that make “Spiritual Activism: Leadership in the 21st Century,” a telling title for his April 17 lecture, which will close Valley Beit Midrash’s season (see details box), at Temple Chai.
The rabbi – whose synagogue is the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and who founded Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (the school where VBM’s Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz was ordained) and Yeshivat Maharat (a rabbinical school for women) and whose early spiritual activist history included leadership in the Student Struggle for Soviety Jewry – coined the term “open Orthodoxy” to describe what has become a movement that is controversial in other Orthodox circles.
Agudath Israel of America late last year rejected open Orthodoxy saying that it is not Torah Judaism at all, and rejecting ordinations from its schools.
Weiss resigned last year from the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Orthodox rabbinic body in the U.S., over its failure to allow men ordained by YCT to join the body. The RCA voted late in the year to ban the hiring of clergywomen by its members.
He helped establish the International Rabbinic Fellowship, an open Orthodox rabbinic group that has 250 members.
“My sense is that the Orthodox community is moving to the right, the Conservative movement is moving to the left and in the breach, we’ve had the success that we’ve had because we’re responding to a need,” Weiss says. “People are looking for a Judaism that is rooted as long as it’s not stagnant, and people want a fluidity as long as it has parameters, and that’s what inclusive modern Orthodoxy or open Orthodoxy is all about. The term, for me, is really secondary to the substance of what it is.”
He says that the male and female seminaries he founded are doing well, and “the facts on the ground will be that by this June, there’ll be probably 140 rabbis who are out of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah or who served in my synagogue before there was a YCT and there will be about 20 women who also would have been ordained. So, thank God, there’s been tremendous progress made.”
Asked to define open Orthodoxy, he says, “It’s an Orthodoxy that believes in the divinity of the Torah and meticulous observance of Halacha, but because one has those beliefs doesn’t mean that Orthodoxy has to be rigid. It’s an Orthodoxy, which is open, which is inclusive, which is pluralistic, which welcomes people of all affiliations, all commitments, all backgrounds and is nonjudgmental and recognizes we have so much to learn [from] each other, welcoming of women, welcoming of people in religious struggle, welcoming to dialogue with our colleagues in other Jewish denominations. It has that sense of a very beautiful inclusivity.”
Ask this spiritual activist who has been willing to risk arrest on the front lines of protests, why he is a rabbi, and he says, “Being a rabbi is my greatest joy. It’s not only my vocation, it’s my avocation. It’s my joy. ...
“I think that the highest honor is to serve the Jewish people, and that’s what the rabbinate is about ... on an intellectual level, writing, offering classes, and even more importantly on the human level, on a pastoral level, being there for people, doing whatever one can and in times of need, when people are especially vulnerable, the sick, the bereaved, those who are struggling. ...
“For me, it’s been a great, great ride, and every day, I’m learning. I’m not only teaching, I’m learning much more than I’m teaching from the most wonderful people I’ve had the chance to interact with.”
Who: Rabbi Avi Weiss
What: “Spiritual Activism: Leadership in the 21st Century,” the closing lecture of the Valley Beit Midrash season.
When: 7 p.m. Sunday, April 17
Where: Temple Chai, 4645 E. Marilyn Road, Phoenix
Suggested donation: $18