Simon Rocker

The Pursuit of Rabbi Dweck

Controversy engulfing senior rabbi of the S & P Sephardi Community needs to be resolved quickly

June 16, 2017 12:57

On Wednesday night, a panel of international experts met in the hall of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Maida Vale to discuss women in Jewish law. They tackled subjects such as partnership minyanim and the ordination of women, representing different views across the Orthodox spectrum.

“Thank you for disagreeing so nicely,” said the chairman of the event, which was organised by the Montefiore Endowment, the charity which runs the only mainstream Orthodox rabbinic training programme in the country.

It was all perfectly civil and amicable - in marked contrast to the vitriol of the controversy that has exploded over the synagogue’s senior rabbi, Rabbi Joseph Dweck. Rabbi Dweck had been due to appear at the event himself, to offer a word of welcome, but sent his apologies.

What became apparent this week is that the attack on Rabbi Dweck goes wider than the lecture he gave on gay love a month ago. He is under scrutiny more generally from fellow rabbis for his methodology and approach to Torah interpretation.

But it is hard to explain what the objections are because precious little detail has emerged – which, understandably, has hardly created the impression of fair play.

One critic, at least, has tried to inform the public what is bothering him and colleagues about Rabbi Dweck. Last week, Rabbi Dov Levy, of Porat Yosef, the Moroccan synagogue in Hendon, gave a class (which is available on YouTube) in which he set out the case against Rabbi Dweck,

Rabbi Levy accused Rabbi Dweck of being cavalier with rabbinic sources when talking about matters such as of kashrut and Shabbat observance. Some of the instances are quite technical – but Rabbi Levy went further.

When the Torah says “an eye for an eye”, the Talmud explains this is not taken literally but means monetary compensation must be paid for an injury.  When the Torah specifies the death penalty of stoning, the Talmud explains it meant the offender was hurled down from a high place – rather than pelted with stones.

According to Rabbi Levy, what Rabbi Dweck has suggested is that in both instances the biblical meaning was literal, but the rabbis felt this was too harsh and modified the law – rather than that the non-literal interpretation was part of the tradition from Sinai.

Whether Rabbi Dweck actually said that, I don’t know as I have not heard the original lecture. But it raises an important point: how far halachah was responsive to developments in society.

Rabbi Levy also takes Rabbi Dweck to task over his lecture on homosexuality. When the Bible prohibits a man from sleeping with another man “as with a woman”, it refers to the act as a “toevah”, usually translated as an “abomination.”

Rabbi Dweck argues that the word is misleading and the Hebrew term means something to be rejected but without the connotations of moral disgust.

Rabbi Dweck draws on his explanation of “toevah” from a source in the Talmud. But Rabbi Levy argues that he is misapplying it in this case and is simply brushing aside the weight of rabbinic opinion down the ages, which does indeed see “toevah” as conveying disgust.

“I’m not saying the person is disgusting,” Rabbi Levy said in his class, “but the act… we have to look at as disgusting.”

What Rabbi Dweck was trying to do in his lecture, it seems to me, was put clear blue water between the Torah and the use of the Bible to justify homophobia. Even if his gloss is too novel for some colleagues, should he really be condemned for trying?

In the meantime, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has appealed for calm and for Rabbi Dweck to be given the chance to respond to his critics “away from the glare of publicity”.

There will be many in the community who hope this unfortunate episode is over sooner than later and Rabbi Dweck will return to the lecture hall very shortly.


June 16, 2017 12:57

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