Chief’s concern over ‘divisive’ Dweck affair

Crisis has deepened as more voices have been drawn into the debate


The crisis surrounding the senior rabbi of the S&P Sephardi Community, Rabbi Joseph Dweck, deepened this week after one of the UK’s most influential strictly Orthodox figures questioned his fitness to serve as a rabbi.

The intervention by Rabbi Shraga Feivel Zimmerman, the spiritual head of the Gateshead Community, follows last week’s denunciation of Rabbi Dweck’s “empty and heretical” words by Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Yitzchak Yosef.

As SPSC leaders tried to find a way to deal with the escalating dispute over their rabbinic leader, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis — who has been advising them — broke his silence to say he was “extremely concerned”, describing the affair as “divisive and damaging”.

Rabbi Dweck has been at the centre of a controversy since giving a lecture on homosexuality last month, in which he said that while the Torah forbade sexual intercourse between two men, there were ways in which two men could love each other.

He also said that he believed society’s acceptance of homosexuality was a “fantastic development for humanity.”

On Wednesday the SPSC said that Rabbi Dweck enjoyed the full support of its board but that he had decided to step aside from the day-to-day activity of the Sephardi Beth Din.

In a letter in Hebrew to rabbinic colleagues, Rabbi Zimmerman said after listening to many recordings of lectures given by Rabbi Dweck “it is clear he is not equipped to rule on halachah, due to his limited knowledge, weak halachic reasoning skills and lack of training.”

One could not rely on his rulings in Jewish law, the Gateshead leader said, “and he is not fit to serve as a rabbi”.

Another critic said concerns about Rabbi Dweck went beyond the lecture and centred more generally on his approach to Jewish law and interpretation of the Torah. “There is a whole plethora of problems,” said Rabbi Dov Levy, of Porat Yosef, a synagogue set up by Moroccan Jews in London which is unaffiliated to the SPSC. He accused Rabbi Dweck of “not really understanding” rabbinic sources and failing to check them properly in his lectures on issues such as Shabbat observance.

Last week Rabbi Dweck travelled to Israel to intercede with Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef — who is the uncle of his wife, Margalit — following a letter from the Sephardi Chief Rabbi which criticised ideas “in opposition to the foundations of our faith in the holy Torah”.

But the Israeli Chief Rabbinate said Rabbi Yosef had not met Rabbi Dweck.

In a lecture at his synagogue last Thursday, Rabbi Levy said “if that letter is not retracted, it’s no longer viable for him to be in his position”. The letter was “like a headshot”, he said. If it stood, “it finishes the whole business.”

Rabbi Yosef is understood to have asked a leading rabbi in London to convene a panel to review the criticism of Rabbi Dweck and decide if any action should be taken.

That rabbi is believed to be Dayan Yisroel Lichtenstein, head of the Federation Beth Din, but the Federation did not respond to requests for confirmation.

Meanwhile, Chief Rabbi Mirvis met SPSC leaders earlier this week to advise on how to resolve the crisis. He has also been in contact with Rabbi Dweck.

In his first public statement on the affair, Rabbi Mirvis voiced concern “about the public fallout from the dispute concerning Rabbi Joseph Dweck which has been deeply divisive and damaging for our community”.

It was for the executive of the SPSC to “appropriately examine the broad range of issues which have arisen, whilst giving Rabbi Dweck the opportunity to address all matters directly and they must try to do this away from the glare of publicity which has already proved so harmful”. He called on “all concerned to approach this issue with all due sensitivity and dignity, and to exercise responsible leadership in the best interests of the Jewish community”.

The dispute over Rabbi Dweck has been fuelled by vitriolic attacks on him from abroad which have been broadcast on social media.

This week he announced that he was pulling out of his annual summer engagement in New Jersey as scholar-in-residence of the Sephardi Community Alliance because of the controversy.

In a letter to SPSC members on Wednesday, Sabah Zubeida, its Parnas Presidente (chairman), said “a great deal of the criticism has been based on misunderstandings, some deliberate and some not.

“However, Rabbi Dweck accepts that some of the criticism is justified and needs to be addressed within the wider rabbinical world.”

He included a statement from Rabbi Dweck, which welcomed “the fact that I am able to work with the wider rabbinic community to clarify my halachic teachings and I feel it is important that this process takes place.

“The continuing activity of our Sephardi Beth Din is of the utmost importance to me and I will step aside while we resolve the matter.”

Mr Zubeida said Rabbi Dweck continued to “enjoy the full support of the Board and our community and we all look forward to a resolution of this issue to mutual satisfaction”.

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