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.