Rabbi Joseph Dweck, the senior rabbi of the S&P Sephardi Community (SPSC), flew to Israel this week in a bid to defuse the international row raging over his views on gay love.
His move came after Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Yitzchak Yosef, stepped into the dispute by denouncing Rabbi Dweck’s “empty and heretical words”.
The SPSC would release no details of his mission other than a brief statement on Tuesday that Rabbi Dweck was “now abroad, meeting with rabbinical authorities and colleagues in order to resolve outstanding differences”.
Earlier Rabbi Dweck issued a clarification of remarks, made in a lecture last month, that social acceptance of homosexuality had been a “fantastic development for humanity”.
Chief Rabbi Yosef — who is the uncle of Rabbi Dweck’s wife Margalit — described the comments as “in opposition to the foundations of our faith in the holy Torah”.
In a letter to a group of rabbis from New York’s Sephardi community who had raised concerns with him, he wrote: “One must distance oneself from all these distorted opinions and attitudes”.
An even harsher letter from Rabbi Yosef’s brother David, chief rabbi of the Jerusalem suburb of Har Nof, lambasted Rabbi Dweck, accusing him of “complete heresy” from someone “who pretends to be a rabbi”.
He counselled the American rabbis to do “whatever you can to prevent him entering your holy camp, and without question he cannot be allowed to serve in any communal capacity”.
Rabbi Dweck, who grew up in California in a family originally from Syria, has regularly taught in New York’s Syrian community during the summer. But one source in New York said the rabbis who had attacked him represented only one strand of opinion in the broader Sephardi community.
Supporters and opponents of Rabbi Dweck across the Atlantic outlined their positions in rival online petitions. By mid-Wednesday, the pro-Dweck camp had attracted more than 2,000 signatories in contrast to 700 by his adversaries.
In a statement published on the SPSC website last Friday, Rabbi Dweck said his lecture, delivered last month at the independent Orthodox Ner Israel Synagogue in Hendon, had been “misunderstood and misinterpreted”.
In particular, he clarified his comment that “the entire revolution of feminism and even homosexuality in our society… is a fantastic development for humanity.”
He explained: “I did not say that homosexual acts were fantastic. I said that the development in society had residual benefits much in the same way that Islam and Christianity did as the Rambam [Maimonides] pointed out. These residual effects in my opinion are that it has helped society be more open to the expression of love between men… Admittedly, ‘fantastic’ was an exaggerated word.”
He made it clear he had not said in his lecture that only the act of male homosexual intercourse was prohibited. But a distinction was to be drawn between that act, proscribed in the Bible, and what the Talmud referred to as “peripheral acts”, which were equally forbidden by the rabbis whether between members of the same sex or between men and women.
The clarification did not pacify Rabbi Aaron Bassous, head of a strictly Orthodox Sephardi synagogue in Golders Green, who last week branded Rabbi Dweck’s views as “dangerous” in a two-hour lecture.
Dismissing Rabbi Dweck’s statement this week as “not worth the paper it’s written on”, he said: “If someone has to make six-plus clarifications for one talk, it means his talk was rubbish.”
Other Orthodox bodies have maintained a diplomatic silence following the intervention of the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel.
A spokesperson for Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis declined to comment on what he said was as an internal debate in the Sephardi community. A spokesman for the London Beth Din said: “We understand that, as is correct for this type of matter, the Sephardi community is dealing with this internally. It would therefore be quite inappropriate for us to comment further.”
On Tuesday night last week, Rabbi Dweck taught at a nocturnal Shavuot study programme, hosted by St John’s Wood United Synagogue, whose rabbi is Dayan Ivan Binstock, a member of the London Beth Din.
In a statement, Keshet UK, the campaign group for LGBT+ Jews, said its members had “been moved by Rabbi Dweck’s words, and what shone through was his passion for inclusion and his compassion towards all Jews, regardless of their gender or sexuality.”