Rabbi Joseph Dweck, the senior rabbi of the S&P Sephardi Community, has expressed regret for speaking in an “inappropriate and imprudent” manner in an official statement following a review of his teachings by a rabbinic panel convened by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.
He will step aside from his role as a dayan on the Sephardi Beth Din following a two-month controversy which flared up after a lecture he gave on the Torah and homosexuality.
The rabbinic panel, which has reviewed his teachings, said Rabbi Dweck should remain as the senior leader of the SPSC.
But it accepted his suggestion in future to go through the contents of future lectures with another rabbi in advance of delivery.
In a statement, the panel - chaired by Chief Rabbi Mirvis and comprising also Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu, former head of the London Beth Din, Dayan Menachem Gelley, current LBD head, and Dayan Abraham David of the Sephardi Beth Din – noted Rabbi Dweck’s “sincere expressions of contrition” during discussions with him.
Rabbi Dweck apologised for making disparaging remarks about other rabbis.
In a statement, released with the findings of the rabbinic panel, Rabbi Dweck said. “Many of my recent shiurim have been scuritinised with a view to identifying errors in them. While this has been a painful experience for me, it has also given me an opportunity to reflect.
“There is always merit and much to learn from the words of one’s critics and detractors. While some of the criticism was justified, the vitriolic tone and ad hominem nature of some, of the attacks made substantive engagement with the issues all but impossible.”
He said after a great deal of soul-searching, it became clear there were “instances where I spoke in a fashion that was inappropriate and imprudent. There were times in the flow of discussion, when I irresponsibly applied halachic rulings and hashkafic [philosophic] views. I also, at times, did not fully explain their context, which risked confusing or misleading people”.
There were times when he had referred irreverently to talmudic sages, which led some to question his commitment to rabbinic tradition. “I would not wish to do anything that would divert people from their quest to follow a true Torah way of life.”
He regretted having made disparaging remarks about rabbinic colleagues- which was “inappropriate and, given my position, quite damaging. I apologise wholeheartedly and publicly ask mehila (“forgiveness”) from my esteemed colleagues for those statements.”
Describing Chief Rabbi Mirvis as “a source of strength and leadership throughout,” he said he had been grateful to have the opportunity to review his teachings with the panel of rabbis “on a range of topics which went beyond my shiur [lecture] on homosexuality.”
Sabah Zubaida, the lay head of the SPSC, called Rabbi Dweck “a truly inspirational leader for our community” and said the matter had now been brought to a close.
The review panel observed that Rabbi Dweck had “inspired many to be proud of their Judaism and to embrace a more committed way of life”.
The controversy was triggered by a lecture given by Rabbi Dweck at the independent Orthodox Ner Israel Synagogue in early May in which he described aspects of the feminist revolution and greater social acceptance of homosexuality as a “fantastic development for humanity”.
While the Torah prohibited sexual intercourse between two men, he stressed, it did not prohibit homosexual feelings.
As murmurs began to grow, the attack on Rabbi Dweck was led by Rabbi Aaron Bassous, head of a small Sephardi synagogue in Golders Green affiliated to the Charedi Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations. He denounced the SPSC leader’s words as “twisted, misguided and mistaken” and in a public lecture denounced him as “dangerous”.
A group of rabbis from America’s Syrian Jewish community, from which Rabbi Dweck originated, lobbied the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yitzhak Yosef, his uncle by marriage, who issued a statement decrying his “empty and heretical” words.
Pressure on the SPSC increased when one of the UK’s most influential Charedi rabbis, the Gateshead Rav, Shraga Feivel Zimmerman, said Rabbi Dweck was not fit to serve as a rabbi in a letter to colleagues.
Critics by now were insisting their concerns about Rabbi Dweck went well beyond the lecture on homosexuality and focused more generally on his approach to Jewish law. He was accused of being cavalier with rabbinic sources on various issues of ritual observance and dismissive of rabbis who did not share his view.
Rabbi Yosef initially turned to Dayan Yisroel Lichtenstein, head of the Federation of Synagogues Beth Din, to establish a rabbinic panel to investigate the complaints.
But when he was unable to broader support to take part, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi instead agreed to Chief Rabbi Mirvis taking charge of the affair.
Rabbi Bassous, who had led the attack on Rabbi Dweck, said he would comment in a few days.
But Rabbi Naftali Brawer, a supporter of Rabbi Dweck, said the SPSC head had been “humbled and neutered”.
It was, he added: “A sad conclusion to a shameful episode. A nail in the coffin for rabbinic independence of thought, courage of conviction and creativity. The Orthodox community will be impoverished as a result.”
Daniel Jackson, an SPSC member and professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he was relieved Rabbi Mirvis had condemned Rabbi Dweck’s detractors. But he added he was “ disappointed” the review panel had given “no hint that the prosecution of a rabbi was unwelcome, leaving the impression that any rabbi might be subject in the future to ideological review. Most disturbingly, it seems that Rabbi Dweck has agreed to a kind of ‘hashkafic probation’ in which his teachings will be vetted.
“This outcome will hardly reassure UK rabbis that they should follow the courage of their convictions and address today’s pressing issues with honesty and openness.”
Rabbi Nicky Liss, chairman of the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue, issued a statement with colleagues, echoing the calls for unity.
“Our silence until now should not be misconstrued,”it read. “As a rabbinate, we followed the Chief Rabbi’s call to support diplomatic means to resolve this issue away from media scrutiny, rather than bow to the unrelenting demands for us to speak about it publicly.
“The controversy has been attended by inflammatory and vituperative rhetoric, which we condemn in the strongest terms. This has no place in civil discourse and shows the rabbinate and Judaism itself in a very poor light.”
Rabbi Chanan Atlas, of Manchester’s Yeshurun Synagogue, said the decision was “most likely the best one that could have been reached given the difficult circumstances.
“Both Rabbi Mirvis and Rabbi Dweck have displayed the best of virtues and emerged as true leaders who are able to rise above the storm. Rabbi Dweck has maintained his dignity and did not sink to the low standards of his opponents.
“It is however a sad day,” Rabbi Atlas added. “Sad that Rabbi Dweck, as a Sephardi rabbi, was not able to rule on halachah in accordance with the particular tradition of that community; sad he was forced to stand aside from sitting on the Sephardi Beth Din; and sad that a spiritual leader of a community is not able to express himself freely.”
The full statement from the Chief Rabbi reads as follows: