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The Dweck affair and the Islamic influence on Orthodox thinking

Last summer's Dweck affair raised deeper questions about the direction of Orthodoxy which aren't going to go away

    Debate rather than dogma is the hallmark of Jewish thinking (painting: Carl Schleicher/Wikimedia Commmons)
    Debate rather than dogma is the hallmark of Jewish thinking (painting: Carl Schleicher/Wikimedia Commmons)

    When Rabbi Aharon Bassous branded Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis with the stigma of selling “the United Synagogue to Reform” last month, it was a sure sign that the Dweck affair will continue to rear its head for some time.

    It was Rabbi Bassous, head of a Sephardi synagogue in Golders Green affiliated to the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, who last summer initiated the attack on Rabbi Joseph Dweck, senior rabbi of the S & P Sephardi Community, after the latter gave a lecture on gay love.

    Some would prefer to consign the whole Dweck affair to the past and believe the best way to respond to Rabbi Bassous’s outburst is simply to ignore it. But that only perpetuates the failure to engage with the issues raised by Rabbi Dweck.

    Despite the fierce criticism of him from various rabbis, Rabbi Dweck retained his post, following the adjudication of a rabbinic panel chaired by Chief Rabbi Mirvis to review his teachings. However, Rabbi Dweck’s published admission that he had at times spoken in an “inappropriate and imprudent” fashion left some people uneasy about the Chief Rabbi’s agreement; they fear it has sustained an environment in which those of a modern Orthodox persuasion can no longer express their opinions without the anxiety of being labelled a heretic.

    It is Rabbi Bassous’s die-hard attitude towards Jewish law which forms the basis of his attacks. Yet, from one perspective it does appear his line of argument might well owe more to traditional Islamic thinking than to an historical Jewish approach. This is particularly so as regards his castigation of Rabbi Dweck for “giving his own interpretations” of Torah rather than following its literal meaning.  

    The late Ignaz Maybaum, a former student of the renowned theologian Franz Rosenzweig, coined the term “the Islamic gown of Jewish Orthodoxy”. Having escaped Nazi Germany to Britain, he first served under Chief Rabbi Hertz in the United Synagogue and later as a Reform rabbi. He carefully shows that the attitude towards Jewish law as eternal and in which innovation is neither possible nor desirable is, in fact ,an appropriation from Islam.

    Maybaum points to the emergence of this trend as taking place between the Jewish expulsion from Spain and the rise of Chasidism. It was during this period, for example, that we see the codification of the Shulchan Aruch, the 16th-century law code, which with unquestioning allegiance one was expected to obey, rather like a Muslim accepting the dogma of the sunna (or unchangeable path to be trodden). 

    The tradition at this time begins to conflate an understanding of mitzvah, or commandment, and law and, just as in Islam, this distinction in Judaism too is no longer applicable. Rather than seeing Judaism as a dynamic force for shaping the law, it becomes synonymous with it, making any adaptation to a new situation impossible. 
    Such an environment has only seemed to intensify among the ultra-Orthodox in recent times. The authority assumed by rabbis in certain quarters, even in matters which the tradition itself has normally reserved as areas of personal autonomy, is deeply troubling. Indeed, Rabbi Bassous, in claiming that the Chief Rabbi was “in denial or defiance of the word of God” by not condemning JW3 for its celebration of non-heterosexual Jewry, does seems to be taking a leaf out of Islam’s ulema (body of scholars).

    This is not to knock the rich and diverse tradition that is Islam. Islam has enabled some of Judaism’s own important reflections particularly in the area of theology. Saadia Gaon’s 10-th century Book of Beliefs and Opinions  owes many stylistic features to the Islamic kalam (theologly). Turning to the legal influence, however, we need to remember that the underpinnings of each tradition are different. Whereas Islamic law is born out of an attitude of submission before God, Jewish law arises out of the ferment of conflicting arguments for the sake of heaven.

    It is this spirit of discussion and debate which, Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, the Dutch philosopher of Judaism, reminded a packed audience at last month’s Limmud festival, was so central to capturing the imagination of the swathes of people so disenchanted by the religious establishment. He was appalled that future lectures of Rabbi Dweck should be vetted in advance by other rabbis, as part of the agreement brokered by the Chief Rabbi in the summer. He even contended this was completely anathema to Jewish tradition. 

    In studying some of the motivations behind the great halachists of the past, we may discern that many were concerned not with what the law is but what it should be. Those who currently feel inhibited from speaking out and reinterpreting the law when it no longer serves those values where they have changed can draw significant strength from historical investigation.

    Some may argue that modern critical study is not congruous with a proper commitment to Jewish law. However, once the flexibility and capacity for adaptation of the tradition is unearthed, it can become a powerful tool for its very preservation. Without such an approach, the reigning fundamentalism will continue to quash all hope.

    The Chief Rabbi, then, clearly has a choice. Rather than continue to kowtow to right-wing Orthodoxy, who cling tight to their timeless and unyielding approach, he could help shake off the gown woven by Islam and truly address the living concerns, spiritual, social and theological, of Jews in an ever-changing world. It is surely the latter path which has the best chance of preserving the divinely-given Torah for the next generation.

    Simon Eder is director of the Friends of Louis Jacobs