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Avi Weiss has always been known as an unapologetic revolutionary. As a young Orthodox rabbi in the 1960s and ’70s, he was instrumental in helping build the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, a movement predicated on the idea that established Jewish institutions were doing too little to help their brethren behind the Iron Curtain. In 1985, he led a group of Jews in a guerrilla Shabbat service at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, a historic and intentionally symbolic episode organized in protest of President Reagan’s visit to a war cemetery at Bitburg, where members of the SS were buried, during a state visit to Germany. Four years later, months before the collapse of communism across Eastern Europe, Weiss and six others were physically attacked after they scaled the walls of a Carmelite convent that had been built at Auschwitz and conducted an impromptu Torah study session in objection to the Catholic presence at the site of so much Jewish death. Weiss’ arrest record is legendary and stretches from New York to Oslo, Norway, where he was detained in 1994 while demonstrating against Yasser Arafat’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1999, Weiss broke with Yeshiva University, his intellectual home and the headquarters of Modern Orthodoxy, to start his own rabbinic seminary in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, under the banner of what Weiss termed Open Orthodoxy: the view that stringent observance of Jewish religious law in the modern world should co-exist with ideological flexibility on a range of questions, particularly concerning the role of women and Jewish denominational pluralism. Four years ago, Weiss took his rebellion one step further and founded Yeshivat Maharat, a women’s seminary, headed by his protégé Sara Hurwitz, the first American Orthodox woman to be ordained. In January 2010, Weiss caused the biggest uproar of his career by changing Hurwitz’s title from maharat—an acronym for the Hebrew phrase denoting a teacher of Jewish law and spirituality—to the far more straightforward rabba, the feminized version of rabbi. The move drew an immediate outcry, including a statement from the Agudath Israel, a leading central authority of American Ultra-Orthodoxy, declaring that Weiss could no longer be considered part of the Orthodox fold: “These developments represent a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition and the mesoras haTorah and must be condemned in the strongest terms.” Continue reading.
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