The following speech represents Rabbi Avi Weiss’s full statement which he delivered at Hebrew Institute of Riverdale on Thursday during Shemini Atzeret services:
To my beloved congregants,
I penned this open letter a few days before Shmini Atzeret. It represents the culmination of much thinking, reflection, and conversation. As a holiday, Shmini Atzeret, is somewhat of an anomaly. Most holidays are associated with ritual symbols. Pesach with matza, Shavuot with the Torah, Rosh Hashana with the shofar, Sukkot with the sukkah, lulav and etrog. Shmini Atzeret is the exception – it is void of any special ritual symbol.
Not only is it void of this, but unlike other holidays it is not associated with any historical occurrence. Pesach commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, Shavuot the giving of the Torah, and Rosh Hashana the creation of the world, Yom Kippur the giving of the second luchot, Sukkot, the time we travelled in the desert in booths. Shmini Atzeret is not connected to any historical event.
The key to understanding why Shmini Atzeret is without ritual or historical meaning is to recognize that every time the holidays are recorded in the Torah, they begin with Pesach, and end with Sukkot. Shmini Atzeret falls immediately after the last day of Sukkot and before the Shabbat we begin to read the Torah again, setting us on course to celebrate a new holiday year. As such, Shmini Atzeret is not a holiday of history, but one of transition. It is a time to reflect upon the past holiday year while contemplating the meaning of the new one. So powerful is this theme of transition that it supplants ritual.
Understanding Shmini Atzeret in this way teaches several lessons about transition:
First, transitions are necessary – that’s why there is a distinct Shmini Atzeret holiday. Most people resist change. But change is built into the very fabric of life. What was is not what will always be. With all due respect to Kohelet, sometimes there is something new under the sun.
Second, transitions require careful planning – so much so that ritual objects take a backseat on Shmini Atzeret – so we can give the challenge of transition the full attention it deserves.
Third, transition should be joyous. That’s why Shmini Atzeret meshes with Simchat Torah, one of the most joyous holidays of the year. Assessing where one has been while contemplating where one is going should be an uplifting process.
It’s been over forty years since Toby and I came to Riverdale with our family. It’s been a great ride. The Bayit has grown and we’ve shared so much of our lives together, developing friendships that will forever remain. We are more than a community, we are a Bayit – a family.
But in the spirit of Shmini Atzeret transition, we are announcing that as of July 2015, I will be stepping back from the senior rabbinic position at the Bayit. The coming months will be ones to continue a process that is already underway, and to hear your voices, as we assess and plan for a future that will take our community well beyond whatever we have, in a small way, been able to achieve.
I’m not stepping back from the senior rabbinic position because of my health. My health is very good. In fact, I am feeling better these days than I have felt in many years. I’m not stepping back because I’m retiring. That’s a word I do not like. I’d like to retire the word retire.
Toby and I intend to remain in Riverdale, where I will continue serving at the Bayit. I will, however, be shifting roles in the shul to one of rabbi in residence--teaching, speaking, counseling and writing. Beyond the Bayit, I will go on teaching and mentoring at Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat. I also plan on joining others in establishing an umbrella organization which will hopefully encompass the myriad of today’s modern and open orthodox voices.
I’m stepping back from the senior rabbinic position because Toby and I would like to spend more time with our children and grandchildren, and more time in Israel.
I’m stepping back from the senior rabbinic role because it’s time. The spiritual workload of the senior rabbi of the Bayit – setting its vision and mission and halakhic direction, running its very complex multi-faceted programs, joining the board in fundraising, being the professional to whom staff is responsible, working with the lay leadership – requires stronger and younger rabbinic leadership.
The ultimate decision of appointing the next senior rabbi to the Bayit lies, of course, with the board and membership. But it is my strong opinion that the best candidate is already here.
Indeed, we have the opportunity to appoint as our next senior rabbi, Rav Steven (Rabbi Steven Exler), who is already one of the truly great modern and open Orthodox rabbis in America today. Truth be told, I only feel comfortable stepping back because of Rav Steven. He is immensely talented as he uniquely combines brilliance of mind with sensitivity of heart. He is a speaker, a soul counselor and a leader extraordinaire. As a young man, he has already served our Bayit singlemindedly and lovingly for more than 6 years. In recent years, he has, in fact, filled many of the senior rabbi duties, and his best years are yet to come. I, for one, would be proud to say that Rabbi Steven Exler is my rabbi. Rav Steven with Shira and family will take us to new levels. He will make a great, great senior rabbi. Our Bayit is in the best of hands with him.
Rav Steven – and our Bayit – are blessed to have an unparalleled rabbinic team:
I encourage the Bayit to hold on tight to Rav Ari (Rabbi Ari Hart) to work as part of Rav Steven’s team. Rav Ari is creative and charismatic, and he brings a great energy and dynamism to our Bayit.
And Rabba Sara (Rabba Sara Hurwitz), my hero: although Rabba Sara is spending more time as the dean of Yeshivat Maharat, an institution which grants semikha to women, her contribution in the Bayit has been historic, and it continues to be indispensable. A woman’s voice in the spiritual leadership of our Bayit as a full member of our rabbinic team is crucial to our future success.
For years, I have considered myself the most blessed rabbi in America. I am the most blessed because of you. There is no congregation like here at the Bayit. Whatever we have been able to achieve -- is yours.
I have spoken often of the difference between functional, and mission-driven, synagogues. With your help, the Bayit has chosen the path of being mission-driven. We are a community – a Bayit – whose tefillot and learning opportunities are part of a larger mission to impact all of Am Yisrael and do our share to improve the world.
With such incredible rabbinic leadership at the helm, I feel confident that we will reach even greater heights. I believe this can be a time to recommit ourselves to our Bayit’s mission, to developing it, and to enacting it – higher and higher.
There is natural sadness that I feel as I step back, but it is overwhelmed by feelings of hoda’ah la-kel, of gratitude to God, and of simchah – joy, a simchah shel mitzvah.
And so, as we embark on this necessary and critical transition phase, let’s do so with joy that as wonderful as it has been, the best is yet to come.
With respect and deep love,
Rav Avi Weiss