Chanan Atlas

The Dweck affair highlights Orthodoxy's identity crisis

The rabbinic melodrama surrounding Rabbi Dweck does not come as a surprise. It is, however, a painful reminder of the poor state of British Orthodox Jewry.

July 06, 2017 11:21

Bearing in mind there is nothing that gives immunity to a rabbi from the ills of folly, the latest rabbinic melodrama surrounding Rabbi Dweck does not come as a surprise. 

It is, however, a painful reminder of the poor state of British Orthodox Jewry. 

Roughly speaking, there are two main Orthodox communities in Britain: the one commonly referred to as “Charedi” or “Strictly Orthodox” and the second as “mainstream” or “middle-of-the-road” Orthodoxy. 

The two communities are institutionally separate, each having its own schools, synagogues, Beth Din, kashrut authorities etc. Each community also carries its own pathology.

The problem of the Charedi community is that it is narrow-minded and backward-looking. Its conscious decision to shield itself from the outside world makes it unaware of almost any of the great philosophical developments over the past 300 years and it is still speaking, even in its most highly intellectual circles, the language of yesteryear. 

Furthermore, its interest in Jewish knowledge is confined to the narrow field of halachah, leaving out the rich literature of Jewish philosophy, theology and history, which remains a closed book to this community.

The problem of “mainstream” Orthodoxy is, in a nutshell, its inadequate religious devotion. This is enhanced by the loss of many of its more devoted members who leave to make aliyah. In this sense, the community is defeated by its own success. As a result, both Jewish literacy and observance are in a fairly poor state in this community. 

In fact, there is an inherent contradiction built into the matrices of this community whereby it does not live up to its own standards; communal religious institutions run according to principles which most members of the community do not adhere to in their personal life. 

This contradiction leads to a whole range of problems which are outside the scope of this article. The essential problem, in addition to being damaging in itself, makes it difficult for the “mainstream” Orthodox community to produce its own spiritual leadership, forcing it to import it from the Charedi community. This in turn leads, in many cases, to a schism between the community and its religious leadership. 

British “mainstream” Orthodoxy finds itself in a serious identity crisis whereby, on the one hand it does not identify with the vision laid down by its own religious leaders, yet on the other hand, is unable to form a legitimate vision of its own. The sad story — well demonstrated by the Rabbi Dweck affair — is that even in those few cases where a rabbi attempts to lead the way for forward-thinking Orthodoxy, his community’s inability to back him effectively dooms this attempt to failure. 

The Chief Rabbi is to be commended for his conduct in this saga so far. He has no doubt displayed political wisdom and, so it seems, might even manage to bring it to a satisfactory ending. However, there remains concern that he may have felt compelled to keep quiet for so long and act only behind the scenes, due to Charedi political pressure. 

The latest letter published by a group of rabbis, threatening a split in the community if the Chief Rabbi does not reach the conclusion they sought, reinforces this concern. In this sense, the spiritual leaders of both the S&P and United Synagogue find themselves in the same boat; both do not have the ability to act publicly according to their true convictions and not for the first time. It was not long ago that former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks was put under pressure by his own Beth Din to amend what he had written in one of his books.

What makes this particular story even worse is the fact that it happened in the Ner Yisrael community in Hendon. This community is one of the very few in Britain that does not fit into the aforesaid broad-stroke painting of British Orthodox Jewry. 

Ner Yisrael is an example of what British “mainstream” Orthodoxy could become. It is the closest to what might be called Modern Orthodoxy; an independent forward thinking yet relatively religiously devoted community. One would expect such a community to stand by Rabbi Dweck. Instead, all mention of him and the many shiurim given by him in this community were removed from the Ner Yisrael website. 

Whatever one’s opinion may be of Rabbi Dweck’s statements is irrelevant. If he is in the wrong, he is not the first, nor last, rabbi to be there. A substantive debate would have been welcomed. However, a gaping gulf lies between civilised debate and malevolent character assassination — a gulf crossed by some of Rabbi Dweck’s opponents. 

Notwithstanding, neither the Strictly Orthodox community nor the “mainstream” Orthodox community should be condemned for their shortcomings. It is both unhelpful and wrong to speak of communities in terms of guilt and blame. Rather, historical circumstances have led matters to where they are and individuals simply act within whatever frame of reference they find themselves. 

The question I ask myself as a Modern Orthodox rabbi is, what should be the way forward for me and those who think like me? My answer is twofold: first, an alliance should be formed between like-minded modern-thinking rabbis to back each other in circumstances such as the one Rabbi Dweck currently finds himself in. 

Second, these rabbis should think together how to encourage their communities to be more religiously devoted as well as learned and observant to a greater extent. 

We should spiritually develop our communities so that they will be able to assert proudly their own path within Orthodoxy. Perhaps, this unfortunate incident can be a trigger to a positive movement in this direction.

Chanan Atlas is Rabbi of Yeshurun Hebrew Congregation in Cheadle

July 06, 2017 11:21

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