In the three years since he arrived in the UK, Rabbi Joseph Dweck, the senior rabbi of the S & P Sephardi Community, has established a reputation as an eloquent speaker, with an enviable ability to reach young people in particular. The lecture he gave on male homosexuality earlier this month shows he is also a courageous one.
There are many Orthodox rabbis who would shy away from an issue that has become increasingly complicated for the traditional religious world to grapple with. Rabbi Dweck’s 97-minute lecture is a sophisticated attempt to offer a view which is both faithful to an Orthodox understanding of the Torah and at the same time open to new ways of thinking.
To summarise his perspective – at least as I understand it – human sexuality is complex. Sex and love may be connected, but they are not the same thing. Our relationships are conditioned by social norms, which may change over time. And social attitudes at any one time should not be confused with what the Torah actually says.
For example, he makes the point that “most sex in the ancient world had nothing to do with love, certainly not with marriage”. The romantic idea that people marry for love is a relatively modern phenomenon. But the Torah was way ahead of the times in stipulating that a man should spend time emotionally with his wife.
In the ancient world, he argues, homosexual practice was associated with one of two things – what he refers to as “pederasty” or “domination”. In classical society, a boy would be mentored by an older man and the mentoring might include sexual relations. There was a belief that the semen was a source of virility and hence the older man was imparting some of his strength to the youth.
A different instance was male rape, used to dominate or humiliate a captive or someone regarded inferior. It was linked with the xenophobic city of Sodom (thus, the word sodomy).
The Torah explicitly prohibits male homosexual intercourse in any situation and also the participation in cult prostitution linked to idol-worship.
While Rabbi Dweck is clear that the act of intercourse between two men remains prohibited, he argues that the biblical world used to refer to it toevah is mistranslated as “abomination”: it refers to something that must be rejected, but the word itself does not necessarily entail moral disgust.
Rabbi Dweck holds out the possibility there may be expressions of affection between men that may be permissible. And he also suggests that there can be bonds of love between men that are not sexual.
He cites the biblical example of David and Jonathan. When David lamenting his dead friend, says “Your love for me was more extraordinary than love of women”, Rabbi Dweck argues, that does not mean they had a homosexual relationship: the emphasis is on “extraordinary”. It denotes a pure, spiritual love, above “the basal elements of sexuality”.
Rabbi Dweck goes on argue that social conventions still limit the capacity of men to show emotion. Such is the taboo that many fathers even find it difficult to tell their sons they love them.
In a society “starved of love”, a change in social attitudes opens the possibility for its greater expression.
That is why he argues that the revolution of “feminism and even homosexuality in our society… is a fantastic development for humanity”. It may have resulted in “many things that aren’t good and that we are not happy with” but it has created the potential for a more loving society.
The use of the word “gay” is fine, he concludes, because it allows for the possibility of “mutual love. It’s no longer domination and pederasty. It’s opened the door to human beings being able to love each other… And we’re moving in the right direction.
“So we have to see ultimately how it is we deal with it in terms of Torah and society. If we do not hang our prejudices at the door when we deal with it, and don’t look at Torah as it is and what it is saying to us, and stop with the insane bigotry and prejudice we’ve got, we will be on the out and society will move forward because Hakodesh Baruch Hu [The Holy One Blessed Be He] doesn’t wait for anybody. He is taking His world into love.”