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Orthodoxy should be able to evolve

The condemnation of Rabbi Dweck is a grotesque insult to many of our friends and family who are gay and an attack on civic equality, writes Daniel Finkelstein

    Rabbis Joseph Dweck and Ephraim Mirvis, pictured at the Sephardi Rabbis Conference at Lauderdale Road Synagogue in 2015
    Rabbis Joseph Dweck and Ephraim Mirvis, pictured at the Sephardi Rabbis Conference at Lauderdale Road Synagogue in 2015 (Blake Ezra Photography)

    We all know that joke about the captain who saved Robinson Crusoe being shown around his island. Crusoe shows him his two synagogues. Two synagogues? For one person? “Yes. That one, that one I don’t go to”. As I say, you know the joke.

    We laugh because it describes our community so well.

    But amusing and true though it is, I have always been on guard against this attitude becoming mere sectarianism. As far as I’m concerned we are all Jews and every synagogue has its own eccentricity.

    This is particularly the case where it comes to mainstream Orthodoxy. I am a Liberal Jew, and find this more persuasive and congenial, but I have huge respect and affection for the many United congregations, for instance, that I have joined with in worship and celebration.

    I also recognise the heavy lifting done by many members of these congregations in, say, the provision of Jewish education, and I am grateful for their selection, in Rabbi Sacks and Rabbi Mirvis, of Chief Rabbis that I can be proud to be associated with.

    And if this sometimes involves just letting other congregations get on with practices that I don’t accept myself, well so be it. A spirit of compromise allows us all to live together as Jews. I can’t be critical of the occasional sectarianism of others if I show it myself.

    But this thing with Rabbi Dweck? I think that’s a different matter.

    Rabbi Dweck’s position on homosexuality is not mine. For those of us who insist on equality for gay people and their love for each other, it is unacceptable to argue that they should not have sexual relations.

    But to argue, as many rabbis have now done, that his words of respect and affection for gay people were worthy of condemnation and must be withdrawn? That is simply amazing.

    It can’t just be ignored or dismissed as a quirk. The condemnation of Rabbi Dweck is a grotesque insult to many of our friends and family who are gay and is an attack on the civic equality that we Jews rely upon for our safety and advancement.

    It is also delusional. The idea that a modern, Orthodox Judaism can thrive while asking young people to discriminate against their friends, perhaps reject their own sexual identity, and cut themselves off entirely from mainstream social attitudes is hopeless. Such a position won’t last, it won’t succeed, it really won’t.

    I don’t believe that adhering to Orthodoxy makes it impossible to evolve. Indeed, Rabbi Dweck was showing that this was the case, even if his landing-point was still some way short of the beach.

    We have prayed for thousands of years for what? To gain wisdom. To understand the commandments and interpret the teachings of the great thinkers and leaders of our religion in the light of our learning and experience.

    If this doesn’t allow us to accord to fellow citizens the equality they have a right to, then all our praying? It hasn’t been good enough. All our teaching? It has fallen short.

    And, by the way, there couldn’t be more at stake. If Judaism evolves through study, argument and interpretation, then a degree of freedom of expression in religious discourse is essential. Otherwise how can anyone tell whose interpretation of the law is correct?

    I say this with diffidence, even if with firmness. The dispute over Rabbi Dweck’s words is a public embarrassment, and more than that is profoundly wrong.

    I am pleased that Rabbi Dweck is able to remain in post. I also wish to respond positively to the injunction of Rabbi Mirvis — well expressed and meant — that we Jews treat each other with affection and strive toward unity.

    I have no desire to be schismatic. Indeed my motivation is the opposite. In order that we Jews can all live and work and join together, and I can continue to look for leadership and moral teaching and nourishment from rabbis and leaders across the community, it is necessary to speak out now.

    I also thought it might be helpful. I know I’m on the outside, and its easy on the outside not to quite grasp the issue. But on the inside it is easy to lose perspective.

     

    Daniel Finkelstein is Associate Editor of The Times

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