One doesn’t usually expect to hear too much from the British, especially on religious matters, unless, of course, it happens to be the most eloquently inspired former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
But a little more than two months ago, at a seemingly innocent lecture given in the New Israel Center in Hendon on the theme of homosexuality, and the need for Orthodox Judaism to re-appraise its attitude of the subject, as well as those claiming to be gay, the Orthodox establishment erupted into a volcanic explosion, the after effects of which are only slowly calming down.
Here are the facts: the senior rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in London, Rabbi Joseph Dweck, which makes him the titular head of British Sephardic Jewry, had been invited to give a lecture at the prestigious New Israel Synagogue Center, whose spiritual leader is Rabbi Kimche. Rabbi Dweck’s talk lasted almost two hours, during which he attempted to re-interpret, quoting proofs and texts, the traditional orthodox views of homosexuality.
Rabbi Dweck is an American implant to London. Previously, he had been the spiritual leader of the Sephardic Congregation Shaarei Shalom in Brooklyn as well as the principal of a large Jewish day school there called Barkai Yeshivah. He certainly arrived in London well-credentialed. But now things get very interesting. In accepting the position in London, he bested the other main competitor, Rabbi Bassous, whose brother, Rabbi Aaron Bassous has become the loudest critique and denouncer of Rabbi Dweck not only for the talk he gave, but regarding all of the former’s halachic decisions since having arrived in the UK. Rabbi Dweck’s character has been trashed, as well as everything about his rabbinic leadership.
Furthermore, Rabbi Dweck’s wife happens to be none other than the grand-daughter of the former Rishon Le Zion, Ovadiah Yossef. Her uncle, Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef, has led the verbal attacks from Israel against his own nephew, demanding he be replaced from his position in London.
Eager to join in the lynching has been the head of the prestigious British yeshivah in Gateshead, Rabbi Zimmerman, who declared that Rabbi Dweck was not fit to serve due to his limited knowledge, weak halachic skills, and lack of training.
A long list off British orthodox Rabbis wrote to the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, insisting that Rabbi Dweck must be removed from office, failure to do so having tragic ramifications for Anglo-Jewry.
And here we are just before Tisha B’Av fasting not only for the destruction of the Temples, but also for the cause that brought those tragedies to a head, sinat chinom, baseless hatred by Jews against Jews.
Not only do we ever fail to learn this lesson, but it always seems that the Haredi community around the world sees itself as the only body having the right to disregard this concern when they hold that they have the sole and abiding right to maintain Judaism’s horse-blinkered inflexibility to anything nearing a fresh and new approach to an age-old attitude. The world changes and so can the halachic tradition of responding to these changes. There are enough volumes of halachic literature written by great authorities to bring to bear in this attempt.
Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo responded as follows to this self-inflicted British convulsion as follows:
“The great danger of this unfortunate affair is not just the controversy surrounding Rabbi Dweck. More than anything else, it is an indication of where British or perhaps all of European orthodoxy is heading. When Orthodox rabbis are told that they are no longer able to speak their minds, offer new insights into Orthodox Judaism, our try to find solutions to serious problems by using innovative ideas, we are faced with a rabbinical world that is wearing blinders, is comprised of yes-looking people looking over their shoulders, and is generating a hazardous small-mindedness that has far-reaching effects … One of the biggest problems of current mainstream Orthodoxy is that it believes it is always right, knows all the sources, and doesn’t need to be appraised of new information coming from our traditional sources. The consequences are that it is rewriting Orthodoxy in ways that sometimes make authentic Judaism unrecognizable.”
I think Orthodox leaders have forgotten what their forebears did to the Rambam when he write something uniquely new, demanding how people re-think their attitudes to Judaism. It was called the “More Nevuchim,” his grand philosophical masterwork, which the then Haredi community demanded all copies be publicly burnt. That was what they did to the Rambam, and they continue in this destructive attitude to anyone who dares speak out with a refreshing voice that challenges Orthodoxy to rethink and re-analyze some of its centuries’ long attitudes and behavioral tendencies.
As the dust settles across the continents that joined the fray into this matter, it is time for the religious leadership to seriously think about the words of their Tisha B’Av and Kinnot prayers as they recite them slowly, thinking about what they are truly saying, and wondering if anything will ever change, or whether we are only guaranteeing the fact that we really do not deserve the Temples to be built in our times.
Rabbi Chaim Landau is rabbi emeritus at Ner Tamid Congregation.