In a recent study session, Rabbi Joseph Dweck, senior rabbi at London’s S&P Sephardi Community, offered a fresh engagement with sexuality in a religious context that is rare in Orthodox circles. His teaching, which is available online here, remains faithful to halakhic norms, while opening up a more human sentiment around loving, similar to the work of Rabbi Chaim Rapoport before him. A public attack soon followed.
But the insistence of Rabbi S. F. Zimmerman of Gateshead and others to oust Rabbi Joseph Dweck in light of his openness should be seen in a larger context. It is a political, spiritual and intellectual failure that must be called out. Along with the vicious witch-hunting diatribes, the desire to publicly delegitimate any statement that offers a chidush (innovation) or raises fair questions or even voices experiences that don’t fit expectations, as “not Orthodox”, is incredibly destructive. Even if a rabbi is deemed to have made an error, it is no reason to drive him from his post. Inviting him to share his views and to listen to a critique of colleagues would have been a far more sound way to conduct communal business. We cannot let a politics of mutual delegitimization come to dominate our disagreements.
However, perhaps the most salient issue is both a refusal of bounty and a failure to honestly represent halakhic methodologies and purposes with rigor. The counterfactual denial that there are multiple forms of pious Orthodox life and thought is a deadening force in contemporary Orthodoxy. Rabbi Nathan Lopez Cardoza in a letter to Rabbi Zimmerman reminds us that methodologies in studying, understanding and applying halakha are not singular. There are diverse approaches that are authentic and legitimate. One finds a more pragmatically engaged approach to halakha in the responsa of Israel’s Chief Rabbi, Ben-Zion Hai Uziel in Mishpatei Uziel, Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner in Dor Revi’i, Rabbi Chaim Hershensohn in Malki Ba-Kodesh, Rabbi Yosef Mashash in Mayim Tehorim, Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz (the student of the Sredei Aish, Rabbi Yechiel Yakov Weinberg) who wrote a powerful portrayal of halakhic philosophy, Ha-Halakha, Kocha V’Tafkida.
What is key here is that a young rabbi dared to attend to human beings with an open heart and mind. Rabbi Dweck’s enemies may have been looking for a reason to attack him for any number of his thoughtful opinions. The reason this may have seemed like a ripe opportunity is that they felt that his own congregants would join in their outrage. Mercifully, for the most part, they did not.
This young leader was willing to admit that human beings need to be loved, that affection between men can be overly constrained and that perhaps a more tolerant approach would make us less fearful of tenderness. While he upheld normative prohibitions he simply refused to demonize same gender relationships, even sexual ones.
The Gateshead leadership was hoping that the old cultural taboos would be enough to destroy a young, fearless and innovative leader. I truly hope that they are wrong. His aim, as I understand it, was simply to respond to a challenging contemporary question, to admit the human truths as he sees them, and perhaps, while he does not quite articulate this: to help the gay and lesbian Jews and their families in his community to grasp that a person’s desire for companionship, love, affection and yes, even a normal sex life…is simply not abhorrent.
Dweck was clear in his lecture that while the prohibitions remain, they are not cause for shock and horror. This was enough to pillory him. We must call upon Orthodox Jews of all stripes, including the Chief Rabbi of England, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, to protect Rabbi Dweck (and others) from this witch hunting madness, to engender a politics of curiosity rather than diatribe and to nourish a more robust portrayal of the varieties of Orthodox beliefs, norms, customs, and sensibilities.
Rabbi Steven Greenberg is the author of Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition, (University of Wisconsin Press) and co-director of Eshel, an Orthodox LGBT community support, education and advocacy organization.