The hounding of Rabbi Dweck masks a fear of open debate

'The Anglo-Jewish Orthodox community has a long history of shutting down debate on contentious issues by levelling personal attacks on the individuals who hold them'


Over the past few weeks the Orthodox community has witnessed an unedifying spectacle in the character assassination of the senior rabbi of the S & P Sephardi Community, Rabbi Joseph Dweck. 

While his detractors have poured scorn on his person, impugned his piety, questioned his judgment and called for his expulsion from the Orthodox rabbinate, they have not put forward any intelligent argument in response to the issue he raised.

Rabbi Dweck made a bold statement distinguishing between homosexual lovemaking and homosexual love. While the Torah prohibits the former, it is silent on the latter.

This distinction is significant, if for no other reason, it reframes communal attitudes towards same- sex love and destigmatises gay relationships. 

Some may find such a reframing positive, others will say it does not go far enough, and others may feel it goes too far. It is certainly the prerogative of Rabbi Dweck’s rabbinic colleagues to take issue with the content of his talk, by challenging his interpretation of the sources and putting forth an alternative understanding. This is par for the course in halachic development. Such arguments “for the sake of heaven” ensure that ideas are robustly and honestly critiqued. No one is diminished by such argumentation, everyone involved is enlarged.

Sadly, this is not the route chosen by Rabbi Dweck’s detractors. Rather than critique his ideas, they set out to destroy his reputation. Apparently, it is easier to level an ad hominem attack than it is to rebut ideas. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. The Anglo-Jewish Orthodox community has a long history of shutting down debate on contentious issues by levelling personal attacks on the individuals who hold them. 

When such attacks are successful, and the ferocious ones often are, the entire community is impoverished. Anyone with really important things to say goes underground.

No one says what they really think. Instead of introducing stimulating and novel ideas, creative rabbis and educators play it safe by proffering comforting banalities. And who can blame them? The public savaging of Rabbi Dweck is a reminder of the price one must pay for integrity.

It is ironic that this shameful spectacle played out alongside the general election. Theresa May squandered a double-digit lead against Labour and almost got evicted from Downing Street, in large part because she failed to respond to the issues raised by Jeremy Corbyn. Her strategy was to attack Mr Corbyn personally rather than respond to the ideas he put forth. It demonstrated a paradoxical combination of smugness and insecurity on her part. She patronised and infantilised the electorate, and they punished her for it at the polls. 

When rabbis resort to personal attacks, they display the same combination of smugness and insecurity. There is an implicit assumption that the average Jew in the pew is too simple-minded to follow an intelligent debate about important issues. And there is, at the same time, a fear that the Jew in the pew might be insightful enough to sense a weak argument when presented with one. If social media is anything to go by, an increasing number of Orthodox Jews are deeply offended by this attitude and feel that elements of the Orthodox rabbinate are out of touch.

There is also an element of hypocrisy in all this. Recently, two of Israel’s former Chief Rabbis have been indicted for fraud, and one is serving a custodial sentence. If ever there was a need for rabbis to question the moral rectitude of a colleague, this is a prime example. And yet to my knowledge, no public hue or cry was raised by any of the rabbis currently attacking Rabbi Dweck.

The obvious conclusion to be drawn from this is that committing fraud is compatible with the qualities of being an Orthodox rabbi, while exploring  theory that might bring dignity to homosexuals is not. Is there any wonder that so many young Orthodox Jews feel betrayed and alienated? 

It is poignant, if not ironic, that last week, in the midst of the Rabbi Dweck scandal, the Montefiore Endowment hosted at Rabbi Dweck’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue an evening dedicated to discussing in an open, honest and transparent way the role of women within halachah. 

All credit is due to Rabbi Dr Abraham Levy, who courageously brought together a panel consisting of a wide spectrum of leading voices on this important and often contentious issue. It was a sell-out. For two hours a rapt audience listened to scholars disagree fundamentally with each other.

It is hard to know the extent to which the speakers reinforced or challenged the views of individuals in the audience, but that is almost beside the point. The point is, an intelligent conversation was held in which views were exchanged freely and respectfully without fear. In the current climate, this is no small achievement. 

Rabbi Brawer is co-founder of Mishkan: The Jewish Community Beyond Borders

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