One religious story, above all, dominated coverage this year — the controversy that erupted around the charismatic head of the S & P Sephardi Community, Rabbi Joseph Dweck, over the summer.
His growing reputation as a speaker, particularly among the under-35s, regularly attracted three-figure audiences to a weekly Torah lecture in Hendon. But when an audio of one talk in particular, on homosexuality, began to circulate, British Orthodoxy was plunged into one of its worst conflicts for years.
While maintaining he had said nothing which departed from traditional Jewish law, he was accused of being too sympathetic towards those who experienced feelings of gay love. Leading the charge against him was Rabbi Aharon Bassous, head of a Charedi-leaning Sephardi stibl in Golders Green. Bigger rabbinic guns were soon being discharged from, among others, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel — a relative of Rabbi Dweck’s wife — and the Gateshead Rav. As supporters and antagonists of the SPSC leader battled it out on social media, his position seemed increasingly at risk.
Some critics insisted it was not so much his stance on same-sex relations that bothered them as what they saw as a sometimes dismissive attitude towards other rabbis and cavalier use of halachic sources. As the debate grew ever more fractious, it was hard for the general public to know precisely what was at issue since, with one or two exceptions, the detail of complaints were not published.
Finally, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis stepped in and negotiated a compromise, convening a panel which reviewed the content of Rabbi Dweck’s talks and pronounced him fit to retain office. At the same time, Rabbi Dweck expressed regret for (unspecified) “incorrect” teachings and promised to submit the text of future lectures to a senior colleague in advance. He had already stepped down from the Sephardi Beth Din.
Appalled by the “vitriol” that he had observed, Rabbi Mirvis called for arguments in future to be conducted in a “more dignified and responsible manner”.
For the time being, Rabbi Dweck has kept his head down. His weekly Hendon lecture series did not return after its suspension in the summer, although the first talk of a new series for his own SPSC community in Maida Vale was well-attended. But few believe he will remain out of the spotlight for long.
While the treatment of LGBT+ people was increasingly discussed in wider society, a number of rabbis from the right of the Orthodox spectrum decided to draw a line in the sand, attacking JW3, the cross-communal arts and community centre over some of its LGBT+ activities, which they considered “contrary” to Torah and eventually urging their followers to boycott the centre altogether.
Meanwhile, a transgender father of five, who left the Charedi community and now lives as a woman, won her appeal against a ruling preventing face-to-face contact with her children for fear they might be ostracised by members of their community as a result.
On a lighter note, the sale of cut-price kosher doughnuts in Morrisons in Stamford Hill for Chanukah has fuelled hopes of more cheap kosher products to come.
Simon Rocker edits the JC’s Judaism page.