Avi Weiss

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Avi Weiss
Rabbi Weiss Speaking.JPG
Rabbi Weiss, 2007
Avraham Weiss
אברהם חיים יוסף הכהן ווייס

(1944-06-24) June 24, 1944 (age 75)
DenominationOpen Orthodox
Alma materYeshiva University, RIETS
OccupationRabbi, author
SynagogueHebrew Institute of Riverdale
YeshivaYeshivat Chovevei Torah
Yeshivat Maharat
SemichaRabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, 1968

Avraham Haim Yosef (Avi) haCohen Weiss (Hebrew: אברהם חיים יוסף הכהן ווייס; born June 24, 1944) is an American open Orthodox ordained rabbi, author, teacher, lecturer, and activist who heads the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in The Bronx, New York, from which he retired in 2015.[1] He is the founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a rabbinical seminary he refers to as "Open Orthodox", a term he coined to describe an offshoot of Orthodoxy, founder of Yeshivat Maharat for Orthodox women,[2] co-founder of the International Rabbinical Fellowship, an Open Orthodox rabbinical association founded as a liberal alternative to the Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America,[3] and founder of the grassroots organization Coalition for Jewish Concerns – Amcha. He received his rabbinical ordination at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (Yeshiva University) in 1968.

In 2013, Newsweek ranked him the 10th most prominent rabbi in the United States,[4] climbing from number 11 in 2012 and number 12 in 2011,[5] after being ranked number 18 in 2010.[6]

On June 29, 2015, Weiss resigned from the Rabbinical Council of America.[7][8][9][10]

On November 3, 2015, the Moetzes of Agudath Israel of America declared Open Orthodoxy, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Yeshivat Maharat and other affiliated entities to be similar to other dissident movements throughout Jewish history in having rejected basic tenets of Judaism.[11][12][13]

Hebrew Institute of Riverdale[edit]

The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale was founded in 1971 in a boiler room of the Whitehall Building off the Henry Hudson Parkway by former members of the Hebrew Institute of University Heights in the Bronx who had moved to Riverdale. Weiss, who had finished his training at Yeshiva University a few years earlier, became the synagogue's rabbi in 1973.[14] The congregation has grown to 850 families, and has served as a platform for Weiss's rabbinical advocacy.[2] In October 2014, Weiss announced that he would step down from his pulpit effective mid-2015. In July 2015 Rabbi Steven Exler became HIR's senior rabbi and Rabbi Weiss continues on its staff.[15]

Open Orthodoxy[edit]

Weiss coined the term "Open Orthodoxy" in 1997 to describe a form of Modern Orthodoxy that emphasizes halakha, the collective body of Jewish law, intellectual openness, a spiritual dimension, a broad concern for all Jews, and a more expansive role for women.[16] He views halakha as being more flexible and open to innovation than his more traditional counterparts in Orthodox Judaism. He states that all Orthodox Judaism, including Open Orthodoxy, fundamentally differs from Conservative Judaism in three areas. First, unlike Conservative Judaism,

  • Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah was given by God at Mount Sinai in its current form. Second,
  • Orthodoxy believes that "legal authority is cumulative, and that a contemporary posek [decider] can only issue judgments based on a full history of Jewish legal precedent", whereas Conservative Jews believe "precedent provides illustrations of possible positions rather than binding law. Conservatism, therefore, remains free to select whichever position within the prior history appeals to it". Third,
  • Orthodoxy is characterized by ritually-observant members who "meticulously keep Shabbat (the Sabbath), Kashrut (the Dietary Laws), Taharat ha-Mishpaha (the Laws of Family Purity), and pray three times a day", whereas Conservative Judaism "is generally not composed of ritually observant Jews. Thus, only in our community if a 'permissive custom' is accepted, can it be meaningful."[17]

More traditional rabbis have opposed this approach. Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, a trustee of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) on the Board of the Beth Din of America,[18] argues that Weiss' approach closely resembles early 20th century American Conservative Judaism and in his opinion would more aptly be called "Neo-Conservative" rather than "Orthodox" Judaism. Concluding an opinion piece in Matzav.com he states:

clarity and honesty at least demand that we recognize before our eyes the creation of a new movement in Jewish life outside the Orthodox world, one that we have seen before. It can be termed ... Neo-Conservatism. 'Open Orthodoxy' is a deceptive brand name, an advertising slogan, and an attempt to remain tethered to the Torah world to re-shape it from within, but far from the reality. The reality is that we are living through the rise of the Neo-Conservatives.

[19] Chicago Rabbi Moshe Averick, a columnist for the Jewish magazine The Algemeiner Journal and author of Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist, agrees with Pruzansky that Weiss has created a new Jewish movement in America, comparing him with Isaac Mayer Wise (founder of Reform Judaism) and Solomon Schechter (founder of Conservative Judaism in the United States). He compares Weiss's ordination of three women as Maharat on June 16, 2013, with the so-called Trefa Banquet of 1883, which marked the split between Reform and Traditional Judaism in America. Says Averick: "Weiss' movement, a form of Judaism that enthusiastically embraces the ideologies of feminism and liberal-progressive-modernism while coating it with a strong Orthodox flavor, could accurately be labeled as Ortho-Feminist Progressive Judaism," but "the term coined by Rabbi Steven Pruzansky ... Neo-Conservative Judaism ... has managed to fit neatly into the slot to the left of Orthodox Judaism and to the right of Conservative Judaism."[20] In October 2013, dozens of rabbis who defined themselves as "members in good standing or [who] identify with the Rabbinical Council of America", signed a letter arguing that Open Orthodoxy has "plunged ahead, again and again, across the border that divides Orthodoxy from neo-Conservatism"[21]

In November 2015, The Conference of European Rabbis stated "The Conference views with great pain the deviations from religious foundations emanating from the movement called 'Open Orthodoxy', and warns that those who act in this spirit, alumni of the aforementioned movement... will not be recognized by us as rabbis, with all that entails." Rabbi Jonathan Guttentag of Manchester, UK, explained that by systematically testing the boundaries of normative Jewish practice, Open Orthodoxy "has pushed the envelope that bit far, and... led to positions which take its proponents outside the Orthodox umbrella."[22]

Similarly, also in the fall of that year, the Agudath Israel of America denounced moves to ordain women, and went even further, declaring Open Orthodoxy, Yeshivat Maharat, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and other affiliated entities to be similar to other dissident movements throughout Jewish history in having rejected basic tenets of Judaism.[11][12][13]

In contrast, Dr. Steven Bayme, National Director of Jewish Communal Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, sees Open Orthodoxy as the most authentic form of Modern Orthodoxy. In reference to the installation of Rabbi Asher Lopatin as incoming president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, Dr. Bayme said: "The event demonstrated the power of an Orthodoxy that is truly modern, in the sense of synthesizing modern scholarship and culture with Judaic tradition and learning, and an 'Open Orthodoxy', open to all Jews and open to hearing other viewpoints."[23]

Yeshivat Chovevei Torah[edit]

In 1999 Weiss founded Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), a rabbinic seminary in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx after resigning from Yeshiva University, where he had taught at Stern College for Women for decades.[24] The school's graduates work as rabbis in synagogues, college Hillels and schools,[25] but the Rabbinical Council of America does not permit membership to the school's graduates unless they have also been ordained by a traditional Orthodox rabbinical school.[26] In June 2013, Weiss handed over the presidency of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah to Chicago rabbi Asher Lopatin.[25]

Ordination of Women[edit]

In May 2009, Weiss announced the opening of Yeshivat Maharat, a new school to train women as maharat, an acronym for the Hebrew מנהיגה הלכתית רוחנית תורנית (halakhic, spiritual, and Torah leader), a title he created for a female version of a rabbi.[27] The school's mission, according to its website, is "to train Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and halakhic authorities" in a four-year full-time course.[28] Sara Hurwitz was appointed dean of Yeshivat Maharat.[29] On June 16, 2013 the first class of female maharats graduated from Yeshivat Maharat.[30]

Sara Hurwitz[edit]

In June 2009 Weiss ordained Sara Hurwitz as rabbi, giving her the title of "Maharat".[16] She was the first formally ordained Orthodox woman.[31]

In February 2010 Weiss announced that Hurwitz would henceforth be known by the title of "Rabba". The move sparked widespread criticism in the Orthodox world.[32] The Agudath Israel Council of Torah Sages issued a public statement suggesting that Weiss should no longer be considered Orthodox declaring that "these developments represent a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition and the mesoras haTorah, and must be condemned in the strongest terms. Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox."[33] Rumors circulated in the Jewish press that RCA considered expelling Weiss. Under pressure from the RCA, Weiss pledged not to ordain anybody else "rabba", although Hurwitz retains the title.[34] Shortly afterwards, the RCA passed a resolution praising the increased Torah education of women in the Orthodox world encouraging "halachically and communally appropriate professional opportunities" for them, but stating: "We cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of title."[35] In 2015 Yaffa Epstein was ordained as Rabba by the Yeshivat Maharat, which Weiss founded.[36] Also in 2015, Rabbi Lila Kagedan was ordained as Rabbi by that same organization, making her their first graduate to take the title Rabbi.[37]

Criticism By Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer[edit]

According to Dr. Marc Shapiro, Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer "has assumed the mantle of defender of the faith" and "sees his goal as exposing the non-Orthodox nature of Open Orthodoxy".[38] Rabbi Gordimer responded in an article in Cross Currents.[39] Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, Chair, Department of Talmud, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, has also threatened legal action against Cross Currents despite claims on Facebook that he was open to these debates, if they "continue to publish Avrohom Gordimer’s libelous and unfounded accusations against me."[40] In August 2015 Gordimer announced that "After three years of documenting and critiquing various aspects of Open Orthodoxy, I am taking a break...My decision to temporarily withdraw from the discourse is purely volitional. It is unrelated to the countless personal attacks on me and my becoming basically a persona non grata among some. It is certainly not due to the exertion of external pressure. Rather, I am stepping aside for the short term in order to encourage those who are best suited to speak up to do so – nothing more than that." [41]


Weiss has been vocal on many issues, including emigration and absorption of Soviet Jews, clemency for Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, opposing terrorism, supporting Israel, preserving Holocaust memorials, and exposing anti-semitism. In 1992 he founded Amcha – the Coalition for Jewish Concerns, a grassroots coalition engaging in pro-Jewish activism.[42]

Soviet Jewry[edit]

Weiss was an early leader of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, founded in 1964. It was one of the first American organizations working to free Russian Jews, who were not allowed to emigrate during the Soviet era. The group used demonstrations, lobbying, and education to pressure the Soviet authorities into allowing Jews to leave the country.[43][44] In 2015, he published his memoir detailing his efforts to liberate Soviet Jews, Open Up the Iron Door: Memoirs of a Soviet Jewry Activist. The book focuses on how grassroots activism and acts of civil disobedience led to important policy changes for the Soviet Jews.[45]

In the United States[edit]

Weiss was an official emissary of former New York Governor Mario Cuomo and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.[42]

Weiss has served as personal rabbi to Jonathan Pollard, an American who spied for Israel sentenced to life in prison in 1987.[42] In 1992 Weiss was one of the signators to a full-page ad in The New York Times calling for the release of Pollard.[46] In 1989 Weiss conducted a "freedom Seder" in front of the prison where Pollard was incarcerated.[47]

At a speech at New York City Hall in 2001 Weiss criticized President George W. Bush for not making a clearer distinction between Arab acts of terrorism and Israeli acts of self-defense. "The trap that he's falling into is that he's drawn a moral equivalency between cold-blooded murder and acts of self-defense," Weiss said. [48]

In April 2002 Weiss organized a pro-Israel rally on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.[49] and a boycott of several large newspapers perceived as having an anti-Israeli bias.[50]

In 2006 Weiss organized a protest in front of Syria's UN mission to denounce a Hezbollah offensive in the Middle East.[51]

In September 2011, Weiss was arrested in front of the U.N. building in New York while protesting the Palestinian statehood bid.[5]

In a July 15, 2015, Haaretz opinion piece, Weiss applauded the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, which he saw as a part of maintaining the separation of church and state and protecting his right to refuse to perform gay weddings. He stated that he would not participate in same-sex weddings, because doing so would run contrary to his religious commitments, but that he had met countless gay individuals and couples, some of whom were members of his synagogue, who lived loving, exemplary lives. "If I welcome with open arms those who do not observe Sabbath, Kashrut or family purity laws, I must welcome, even more so, homosexual Jews, as they are born with their orientation."[52]

In Europe[edit]

Weiss has travelled worldwide as an activist in various causes.[53] In 1989 Weiss and others protested at a Carmelite convent that had been established at Auschwitz. The group—dressed in concentration camp clothing—scaled the walls of the convent, blew a shofar, and screamed anti-Nazi slogans. Workers evicted them from the site.[54] In 1993 Pope John Paul II ordered the closure of the convent, which had been located in a converted building that had stored Zyklon B gas used to kill prisoners at the camp during World War II.[55]

He protested President Ronald Reagan's visit to an SS cemetery in 1985.[42] He was arrested in 1990 while protesting Kurt Waldheim's visit to the Salzburg Festival,[56] and again in 1994, when he protested in Oslo, Norway, when PLO chief Yasser Arafat received the Nobel Peace Prize.[57]

Along with Rosa Sacharin of Glasgow, Scotland, Weiss sued the American Jewish Committee in New York state court in 2003 to stop the construction of a path through the Belzec extermination camp in Poland. They were concerned that mass graves at the site would be disturbed by the work.[58]



  • Weiss, Avi (2000). Haggadah for the Yom HaShoah Seder. Hackensack, NJ: Jonas Pub. ISBN 0-615-11519-5.
  • Weiss, Avi (2001). Principles of Spiritual Activism. Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Publishing House. ISBN 0-88125-737-0.
  • Weiss, Avi (2001). Women at Prayer: A Halakhic Analysis of Women's Prayer Groups. Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Publishing House. ISBN 0-88125-719-2.
  • Weiss, Avi (2006). "Avigayil: Savior of David". In Helfgot, Nathaniel (ed.). The Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Tanakh Companion to the Book of Samuel. Teaneck, NJ: Ben Yehuda Press. ISBN 0-9769862-4-8.
  • Weiss, Avi (2014). Holistic Prayer: A Guide to Jewish Spirituality. Jerusalem: Maggid Books. ISBN 978-1-592-64334-9.
  • Weiss, Avi (2015). Open Up the Iron Door: Memoirs of a Soviet Jewry Activist. Jerusalem: The Toby Press. ISBN 978-1-592-64385-1.
Articles in Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility


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  8. ^ "Newly minted female Orthodox rabbis to be called 'rabba' - Jewish World News".
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  15. ^ Rabbi Avi Weiss to step down as rabbi of Hebrew Institute of Riverdale
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  28. ^ "Yeshivat Maharat".
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  31. ^ StevenM (March 10, 2010). ""Rabba" Sara Hurwitz Rocks the Orthodox". Heeb. Retrieved March 21, 2013.
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  34. ^ Eden, Ami (March 5, 2010). "Avi Weiss: No more rabbas". JTA. Archived from the original on April 20, 2010. Retrieved April 6, 2013.
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  36. ^ "Class of 2015". Yeshivat Maharat. Archived from the original on 2015-12-05. Retrieved 2016-01-05.
  37. ^ Rabbi Lila Kagedan (25 November 2015). "Why Orthodox Judaism needs female rabbis". The Canadian Jewish News.
  38. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2016-04-05. Retrieved 2016-02-26.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  39. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2016-06-03. Retrieved 2016-02-26.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  40. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2016-08-12. Retrieved 2016-02-26.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  41. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2016-09-20. Retrieved 2016-09-16.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
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  45. ^ "Social Justice With Roots: What The Memoirs of a Soviet Jewry Activist Can Teach Us About Today". Huffington Post. Retrieved May 5, 2015.
  46. ^ "American Rabbis Ask Bush to Give Pollard Clemency". The Jerusalem Post. October 25, 1992. Archived from the original on June 14, 2006. Retrieved June 10, 2006.
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  48. ^ "It's Self-Defense, Rabbi Tells Bush". Daily News. New York. June 2, 2001. Archived from the original on June 29, 2011. Retrieved April 17, 2011.
  49. ^ McFadden, Robert D. (April 8, 2002). "Demonstrators Roar Support for Israel". The New York Times. Retrieved April 17, 2011.
  50. ^ Fost, Dan (May 2, 2002). "Jewish Groups Battle Media Over Perceived Bias". San Francisco Chronicle. Archived from the original on May 24, 2011. Retrieved April 17, 2011.
  51. ^ Egbert, Bill (July 17, 2006). "Dozens Protest At Un Mission". Daily News. New York. Retrieved April 17, 2011.[permanent dead link]
  52. ^ Weiss, Avi (July 15, 2015). "Why I, as an Orthodox Rabbi, Support Legalizing Same-sex Marriage". Haaretz. Retrieved 14 December 2015.
  53. ^ Weiss, Avi. "Principles of Spiritual Activist". amchacjc.org. Retrieved April 17, 2011.
  54. ^ "Auschwitz Convent". Jewish Virtual Library. Archived from the original on May 14, 2011. Retrieved April 16, 2011.
  55. ^ Perlez, Jane (April 15, 1993). "Pope Orders Nuns Out of Auschwitz". The New York Times. Retrieved April 16, 2011.
  56. ^ "Austria: The Trojan Guest". Time. August 6, 1990. Retrieved April 17, 2011.
  57. ^ "Peace Prize Triumvirate Denounced". Times Union. Albany. Associated Press. December 10, 1994. p. A2. Archived from the original on July 23, 2011. Retrieved April 17, 2011.
  58. ^ Berkofsky, Joe (July 25, 2003). "Avi Weiss rekindles battle to block camp memorial". The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California. Retrieved June 10, 2006.

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