At first blush, one might assume that Rabbi Aaron Bassous, the strictly-Orthodox minister of the Sephardi congregation in Golders Green and the celebrated Australian tennis champion Margaret Court have little in common. But both the rabbi and the former Wimbledon champion have stolen headlines for holding views outside of the current secular mainstream.
Bassous in effect declared war on Rabbi Joseph Dweck, Britain’s senior Sephardi community spiritual head, for his allegedly lax views on homosexuality when he argued that while the Torah may forbid sexual relations between consenting men, there are other ways for men to love each other. My own barmitzvah Haftarah Machar Chodesh tells the moving story of love between Israel’s greatest psalmist David and Jonathan.
Dweck’s views drew the fire of Bassous, who suggested that he was “even more poisonous than Louis Jacobs” and added that the Beth Din should “remove his Orthodox hat”.
In similar fashion, Margaret Court, a strict fundamentalist Christian, has incurred the wrath of the tennis establishment for her suggestion that for too long the women’s game has been dominated by lesbians. And, she said, it was time someone spoke out and the stables were cleansed. Both Bassous and Court form part of the irredentist school of bible study, which seeks to take the teachings of the testaments at their word.
We know that in Britain the Beth Din does its best to draw a line in the sand when it comes to orthodoxy. Faced within Anglo-Jewry with the threat of American-style assimilation through intermarriage, it has chosen to make it as difficult as possible for even the most knowledgeable convert, with a strong Jewish upbringing but a gap in genealogy, to become an accepted part of the community.
Most of us have experience of the personal heartache this can cause. What makes this even more frustrating for those involved is the recognition that there are routes in Anglo-Jewry, including the Sephardi Rabbinate, which can, if the circumstances are right, be far more
understanding. There are no hard and fast rules.
The Book of Ruth, which was read so recently over Shavuot, is filled with examples of how, with the right amount of chesed (lovingkindness), even the greatest obstacles for Moabite women could be overcome.
Bassous makes reference to the Louis Jacobs affair, which so divided our community a generation ago and has left a glorious legacy in the shape of Masorti Judaism, which proved such an attractive option for secular, egalitarian Jews in Britain.
Given the way in which attitudes in traditional Judaism towards women, among other things, have been changing in modern times, one wonders whether Jacobs’ controversial views on Torah were heard now they would cause the same schism.
Judaism is nothing if not a continuing and changing debate among the rabbis. In recent decades, the voices of the irredentists have gained ground on the right. I remember listening to a recent modern Orthodox sermon in Washington DC, where the rabbi bemoaned the fact that the bitterest curses in Metzora, the portion dealing with disease, have been hardened up by some rabbis over the decades so that a curse delivered for being an apostate in a past age was now delivered by some on the right of women who wear skirts that are too short.
Fortunately, there are rabbis such as Dweck who are willing to embrace more modern interpretations of Torah. The sexuality of Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova et al are of no consequence. It is the brilliance of their tennis that made them global brands and they will remain treasured icons long after Court is forgotten.
Change among the rabbinate may be glacial, and in parts of the community it has moved in the wrong direction. Thankfully, there are new thinkers such as Dweck within Orthodoxy willing take a stand for good reasons of biblical interpretation. That is very different from knee-jerk political correctness.