Rabbi Joseph Dwek and Heresy Hunters

The distressing, illogical, political, and personal attacks on Rabbi Joseph Dweck , rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in London, have been really disturbing to those moderates, who wish to see Torah appealing to a broader spectrum of Jews than those safely ensconced in their private, closed ghettos.

He has had to endure a torrent of abuse simply because he dared to examine the issue of homosexuality with a degree of sympathy and understanding. Once the flood gates have been opened a further series of claims of heresy, betrayal of Torah values have been added to the mix. Not one of them passes the sniff test. Or actually has any basis in halacha or masorah. The most he can be legitimately accused of is some original thinking (and independence). But of course, as with most rabbinic storms in teacups, this is not about religion as much as a power play for turf control and ambition, with a few personal vendettas thrown in for good measure.

The vicious campaign has already had the effect of his taking a leave of absence from the Sephardi Beth Din in London. The Sephardi Beth Din is made up of several different constituencies. Some are unduly influenced by Ashkenazi pressure, and many are not as enlightened or open minded as the Spanish and Portuguese community. Which so far seems to be holding the line and standing by him, thank goodness.

The Spanish and Portuguese trace back their unique customs, liturgy, and pronunciation to Jews who fled Iberia for Northern Europe and the New World some 500 years ago. They established their communities first in Amsterdam, where their originally candle-lit masterpiece of a synagogue survives in all its glory to this day.

Then they entered Britain illegally. Cromwell, despite his willingness and the arguments of Amsterdam’s brilliant and enlightened Rabbi Manasseh Ben Israel, couldn’t get Parliament to agree to overturn Edward the First’s ban on Jewish settlement. Anti-Semitism has a long and despicable history in the UK. But he turned a blind eye, and in fact it was the S&P who reestablished the modern Jewish presence in London. Its first synagogue, Bevis Marks, was completed in 1701. With beams, it is said, donated by Queen Anne herself. Other S&P synagogues opened up in the Caribbean, from Curacao to Mexico. In the USA they were first in Newport, Rhode Island and Philadelphia. With more in the southern States.

Today it’s the New York branch that carries the banner in the USA. Like many, its original S&P membership has all but disappeared. For years now they have drawn on other communities, Sephardi and even Ashkenazi, for membership and religious leadership. Rabbi Marc Angel, who graced its pulpit for many years, came originally from Rhodes. He always did and still does fly the flag of tolerance and moderation. The present rabbi is an Ashkenazi, highly educated and open minded, from the Soloveitchik family.

In London the S&P was once the power and the authority of the Anglo-Jewish community.  In the nineteenth century the influx of Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe changed the character of Anglo-Jewry. Eventually they took over. The United Synagogue and its Chief Rabbinate became the decisive force in Anglo-Jewry for the next hundred years. But slowly the United Synagogue, like the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, came under pressure from a different breed—more aggressive, expansionist, and fundamentalist. Anglo-Jewry, like all communities, like Israel indeed, is becoming polarized.

For many years, the Haham of the S&P stood and sat next to the Chief Rabbi, first as a senior and then as an equal. In my youth, the Haham Gaon presided over the S&P with dignity, tolerance, a sense of humor, and an understanding of human nature. He was Chief Rabbi Brodie’s equal. His successor, Rabbi Abraham Levy, became the spiritual head of the community. But the title of Haham was no longer used. Nevertheless he too continued the tradition of tolerance and moderation.

Meanwhile the influx of more Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews, first from Germany and then Eastern Europe, began to erode the moderate middle of Anglo-Jewry and is now growing, flexing its muscles, and commandeering the agenda, as indeed they are in Israel and elsewhere. You might recall that a few years ago they insisted on a Chief Rabbi censoring his own words. A similar process is taking place within the Sephardi community now.

Although UK mainstream Orthodoxy was never that strictly Orthodox, it prided itself on its inclusiveness and its toleration. But as the Charedi world grew, the Chief Rabbinate of the United Synagogue failed to stand up for its constituency and insist that it was not designed for nor subject to the Charedi model. Its Chief Rabbis tended to fail in their obligation to preserve this iatmosphere of open tolerance and moderation that Chief Rabbi Hertz fought for. Although I am glad to say that at last Chief Rabbi Mirvis has intervened and said how the anti Dweck campaign has been a Chillul HaShem and has called for civility in the community.

I have no problem with Charedi rabbis running their own affairs. They have every right to preserve their paradigm of orthodoxy. But it is not the only one. It is when they think they have the right to interfere with others of a different degree, when they try to bully those they disagree with, when they seek to change a community of a different tradition that knows its own mind, then I say they have overstepped their mark and should be put firmly back in their place. Not only, the behavior of some of them invalidates their own Orthodoxy. For the calumnies they have spread are clear violations of Jewish law.

Both Sephardi and Ashkenazi worlds have their extremes and their varieties. I am not saying one is right and the other is wrong. There is a lot to be said for closed communities as there is for open ones. They both have their dangers. If I had to choose, I would be on the side of the Charedi world. I am simply arguing for variety, for choice, and to let others live the way they want to. Within Jewish law, within its constitution, there is room for variety and civilized disagreement. There is a strict side and a lenient one. A rational and a mystical. Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Chasidic, Lithuanian, open and closed, nationalist and anti-nationalist. Each constituency is different. This is the glory of Torah. Let us not demean it.

It is so important that the S&P stands firm as a bastion of Torah sanity and moderation. I congratulate them on their support for Rabbi Dweck. I hope they will continue to resist the fanatics and the Beth Din will have the good sense to ask Rabbi Dweck back. Anglo Jewry, indeed world Jewry needs more rabbis like him.

About the Author
Jeremy Rosen is an English born Orthodox rabbi, graduate of Mir Yeshivah and Cambridge University. He was a lecturer at WUJS Arad, and former headmaster of Carmel College, Professor and Chairman of the faculty for Comparative Religion in Antwerp and Rabbi in Scotland London and now in New York. His weekly blog is at jeremyrosen.blogspot.com
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