Every morning, the rabbi would leave Fustat for Cairo. Every morning, the rabbi was under orders to the Sultan’s Palace. He was a physician. And, in the galleries and chambers, in the gilded harem, he would heal the sick princes, viziers, concubines — the rabbi would attend to them all.
Every afternoon, almost dying with hunger, he would return to Fustat, to find the common people — friends, foes, artisans, beggars, slaves — begging him, imploring him, in the courtyard for help. “When night falls I am so exhausted I can barely speak,” wrote the great Maimonides. And this is how he worked until Shabbat.
Only when he could catch a few hours, would the rabbi write — letters to Iraq, Spain, Syria, France, Yemen — his work adding up to the Mishneh Torah — his codifying of Jewish religious law.
Reading these letters now is inspiring, because you hear a voice who wanted to unify, to raise up and expand the Torah world, and not the rulings of one wanting to exclude and root out. But reading them is to feel sad about our Judaism, too.
Watching over the past few weeks, the hounding, bullying, the attempts to silence, to frighten, to intimidate and to push out Rabbi Joseph Dweck, the Senior Rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation in London, ostensibly over a lecture to do with gay love — but really to do with his whole approach to Torah — has been to watch dozens of vindictive Orthodox rabbis trip over themselves to betray both the spirit and the writings of Maimonides.
Those wanting to silence Rabbi Dweck want him to read Torah only as they want him to — not as he sees it. This is about power and not about Judaism. This is the exact opposite of what the rabbi healing the sick requested.
Maimonides teaches us that when the time comes to interpret the Torah a rabbi must interpret it as he sees it in front of his eyes — and not repeat errors, even though they may have been already repeated, even canonised. The rabbi-doctor wrote, perhaps after hours spent treating lepers: “A man should never cast his reason behind him, for his eyes are set in the front not in the back”.
Those wanting to silence Rabbi Dweck want the Jews of the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation, which my family has belonged to since they first set foot in this country three generations ago, to be silent too. And this, I refuse. Those who belong to the community have seen Rabbi Dweck bring more knowledge, more connection, and more Torah into our synagogues. His is the Rambam’s Torah in the world: one that raises up, strengthens and includes. Those that call it liberal do not understand it — it is strict but it is also open.
This is why the petition in support of Rabbi Dweck has over 2,500 signatures and the detailed statement of support has almost 800 signatures. Yet we are not seeing this support reflected in the actions of the Chief Rabbinate, which has the moral authority to call for those skipping excitedly to shout “heresy” from their YouTube pulpits to stop.
This is why I am asking for the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, and his Beth Din, unequivocally to condemn those attacking Rabbi Dweck and stand staunchly behind him, and why I am asking for Emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks to join him and to call halt on those betraying the values of Maimonides.
Doing nothing, allowing a campaign of barbs, smears and personal insults to build would not only be a spiritual betrayal. It would be a very personal one. The betrayal of my generation, seeking Torah, in favour of the grudges of those who already have it, and have long failed us in their sacred task to truly share.