I took detached yet close interest in the recent controversy that rocked the Sephardi community. Detached, since I’m not a member of that community. Close, because a vital  issue of orthodoxy was at stake.

As the teachings of the S&P’s Sephardi Community senior rabbi gathered coverage in weekly reportage, it seemed  increasingly likely his continuation  as  its  leader had become untenable.

Having  pronounced  on a highly sensitive aspect of sexual behaviour  in a way that suggested a degree of sympathy for a relationship totally forbidden by the Torah, he had crossed a red line rendering him seemingly irredeemable.

Additionally,  views and judgments emerged  on other subjects, which cast aspersions on  his  broader theological outlook.

When the  Review Committee was set up to decide on the rabbi’s future, it was difficult to envisage how it could conclude otherwise  than – in the politest of terms – that he would have to go. The dayanim comprising  that committee were  recognised halachic experts.  They were not going to compromise proper  judgment for political expediency.

Then, following the committee’s deliberations, the  unexpected appeared – a long, impassioned published statement from the rabbi.

It was one of the most regretful, self- denying  declarations ever issued  by such a senior clergyman.

He retracted much of his teaching, admitted he had misled listeners, apologised for  disrespecting other rabbis, confirmed his  detachment from the Sephardi Beth Din and promised to  submit future lectures for scrutiny.

It read like a catalogue  of Al Chait confessions. It was hard not to be moved by it. I imagine members of  the review committee, despite its  strict profile,  were likewise  touched. Faced with such  contrition,  the committee evidently felt  this was a case where it was appropriate to grant  a reprieve.

Hence he survived in office.

Of course, those previously imparted teachings met with wholehearted  enthusiasm from certain quarters.

Apart from  personal support the rabbi had  within his own community, there was  a predictable  onslaught of leftists and reformists rushing to defend the teachings in the name of tolerance.

Ample column space was reserved for those  who revel in inter-orthodox controversy and  Charedi-bashing,  which a certain journal  has for long chronicled as its  weekly sport.

Beyond  the  polemic, however, some world rabbinical figures vehemently condemned the rabbi’s  teachings. Most in his predicament  would have resigned to avoid further division and embarrassment or  stood  their ground, fighting to defend their statements.

To his credit, the rabbi did neither. He performed a dramatic U–turn, begged forgiveness and ate humble pie.

So the outcome is probably the best that could be hoped for. Had he not apologised and  likely been ousted, it could  have caused a major split among the Sephardim – a sad scenario  for a kehilla noted for its deep respect for its rabbis, and faithful adherence
to authentic Judaism

There may be  wider positive consequences from the affair. First, the public realisation that no matter how clever and charismatic,
a religious teacher cannot be allowed to stray beyond established halachic boundaries.

Second, that forbidden personal relationships are no more acceptable in Judaism now than when the Torah was given,  just because general society has decided to  view things differently.

Third, that repentance and forgiveness are key principles within Judaism  – a  topical message for us all as Rosh Hashanah approaches.