Is UK’s Sephardi rabbi fracas about more than condoning homosexuality?
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'This has severe reverberations in the Sephardi world'

Is UK’s Sephardi rabbi fracas about more than condoning homosexuality?

After controversial statements by Joseph Dweck, one of Britain's top rabbis, some have called for his ouster. But do their claims hold water?

From left to right: Rabbi Joseph Dweck (courtesy), British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), and Chief Sephardi Rabbi od Israel Yitzhak Yosef (CC-SA-GFDL).
From left to right: Rabbi Joseph Dweck (courtesy), British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), and Chief Sephardi Rabbi od Israel Yitzhak Yosef (CC-SA-GFDL).

LONDON — Those close to the Rabbi Joseph Dweck affair have described is as “a behemoth of an issue.” It’s a suitably biblical term for what might seem, on the face of it, an arcane spat between British religious scholars over the permissibility — or not — of homosexuality.

But, in fact, the repercussions of a lecture which seemingly condoned homosexual relationships that Dweck delivered in London this past May go far beyond that. At stake could be the Jewish religious status of anyone who has availed themselves of the rabbi’s services, whether for circumcision, conversion or marriage.

The uproar follows a 97-minute talk the rabbi gave to members of the Ner Yisrael Community in Hendon, northwest London, on homosexuality in Jewish law.

“[W]e have to see ultimately how it is we deal with it in terms of Torah and society,” Dweck said at the lecture. “If we do not hang our prejudices at the door when we deal with it, and don’t look at Torah as it is and what it is saying to us, and stop with the insane bigotry and prejudice we’ve got, we will be on the out and society will move forward because [God] doesn’t wait for anybody. He is taking His world into love.”

As the senior rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese congregation — and thus, effectively, the titular head of Britain’s small but vibrant Sephardi Jewish community — the Los Angeles-born rabbi has attracted a devoted following since taking up his post three years ago.

Now deceased Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef seen with his son Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef during a ceremony inaugurating the latter as the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel at the at the Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakai Synagogue in Jerusalem old city on September 16, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Now deceased Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef seen with his son Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef during a ceremony inaugurating the latter as the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel at the at the Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakai Synagogue in Jerusalem old city on September 16, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Dweck studied in Jerusalem under the tutelage of the late Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, whose granddaughter, Margalit, he married.

Before coming to London, Dweck served as rabbi of Congregation Shaare Shalom, a Syrian Sephardi synagogue of over 700 members, in Brooklyn, New York, from 1999 to 2014. For the last five years of his time in the US, he was also headmaster of Barkai Yeshivah, a large Jewish day school in Brooklyn.

While in the running for the London job, Dweck contended against and beat out Rabbi David Bassous, whose brother, Rabbi Aharon Bassous, heads a small Sephardi community in London. The latter Bassous has spearheaded the outcry against Dweck’s lecture.

This history may have colored Dweck’s most recent tweets, one of which quotes poet Robert Frost’s axiom that “The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.”

Rabbi Joseph Dweck speaks at a Lights Out WWI Remembrance Ceremony at the Bevis Marks Synagogue on August 4, 2014, in London, United Kingdom. (Dan Dennison/Getty Images)
Rabbi Joseph Dweck speaks at a Lights Out WWI Remembrance Ceremony at the Bevis Marks Synagogue on August 4, 2014, in London, United Kingdom. (Dan Dennison/Getty Images/via JTA)

Though Dweck began his lecture with disclaimers warning of the trepidation he’d felt while preparing it and of the controversy he suspected it might cause, he did not anticipate the fallout that would ensue on three continents.

During the course of the speech, he said that the Torah had little to say about homosexuality and that, although sexual intercourse between men was forbidden, men could love each other in other ways.

He also said that he “genuinely believe[s] the entire revolution of feminism and even homosexuality in our society… is a fantastic development for humanity.”

In response, during a two-hour lecture to his own Golders Green Sephardi community Aharon Bassous described Dweck’s talk as “false and misguided… corrupt from beginning to end.”

“Throughout Jewish history, there have been those who deviate from the Torah… the reformers, Conservative, Liberal and their ilk,” Bassous said. “But they’re not dangerous, because we know where we stand, and we know where they stand.”

‘From the outside, he’s Orthodox, but his mouth spouts Reform’

“When is it dangerous? When you have someone who comes in front of you with two hats,” he continued. “He’s got the hat of an Orthodox and the hat of a Reform. From the outside, he’s Orthodox, but his mouth spouts Reform.

“Where have we had this before in Anglo Jewry? Louis Jacobs. Rabbi Dweck is another Louis Jacobs. It’s not only this talk. I’ve heard subsequent talks, and he’s even more poisonous than Louis Jacobs.”

The late Rabbi Louis Jacobs founded the Masorti movement in Britain, causing a schism with mainstream Orthodox Jewry in the early 1960s. After a public conflict with the then-chief rabbi Israel Brodie, Jacobs — accompanied by many of his congregation — set up the New London Synagogue.

For many, the Jacobs affair, which became a cause celebre in the general British media, was a watershed for Anglo Jewry. But its ramifications still echo in the country today as unions blessed by the Masorti rabbinate are not recognized by clergy under the aegis of the Chief Rabbi. There are many recorded instances of people marrying in both a Masorti and an Orthodox synagogue in order to get a valid ketubah, or marriage certificate.

In addition to objecting to the contents of Dweck’s homosexuality lecture, Bassous claimed that the rabbi made dubious rulings during other classes, such as granting permission to watch TV or ride a bicycle on Shabbat. Soon, within Orthodox circles, controversial quotes from Dweck lectures began circulating.

Two weeks after the original lecture, both Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and the London Beth Din were distancing themselves from the situation, saying that as Dweck was a senior Sephardi rabbi, he did not fall under Mirvis’s control.

Nevertheless, there were private meetings between Dweck and Mirvis, who also spoke to the Spanish and Portuguese community.

Israel enters into the fray

Adding fuel to the fire, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, the present Rishon l’Zion, or Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, addressed a letter to rabbis of the Syrian community in New York which argued that Dweck was “not qualified” to be a rabbi and urged his former colleagues to dissociate themselves from him.

The Archbishop of Cantebury Justin Welby (l) and the British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, visit the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, in Jerusalem's Old City, on May 3, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
The Archbishop of Cantebury Justin Welby (l) and the British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, visit the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, in Jerusalem’s Old City, on May 3, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yosef is the son of the former chief rabbi Ovadiah Yosef and is the uncle of Dweck’s wife.

“This has severe reverberations in the Sephardi world,” a source told The Times of Israel. “The Spanish and Portuguese community in London cannot continue with a rabbi who does not have the blessing of the Rishon l’Zion.”

‘The Spanish and Portuguese community in London cannot continue with a rabbi who does not have the blessing of the Rishon l’Zion’

Other commentators have said it is no coincidence that Dweck regularly returns to the US to give lectures in the summer.

However, last month, Dweck canceled his annual summer job as scholar in residence at a major Sephardi summer institute in New Jersey to deal with the fallout from his comments. He has allegedly made himself unpopular with some members of the Syrian community — including those who are said to be serious funders of Yosef’s office.

Following the first letter, Yosef wrote another to dayan (rabbinical judge), Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel Lichtenstein, who is the head of London’s Federation of Synagogues, an Orthodox Ashkenazi denomination which technically does not recognize the authority of Mirvis.

In this letter, Yosef asked Lichtenstein to convene a beit din (rabbinical court) and effectively hold a trial of Dweck.

Lichtenstein reported this to the Federation of Synagogues lay leadership — which, uncomfortable with the request, insisted on non-Federation rabbis joining the proposed beit din.

They first looked to Mirvis, but he turned Lichtenstein down flat, saying privately that he did not wish to be involved in what he deemed “a kangaroo court… a medieval show trial.”

Ultimately, Lichtenstein told Yosef that he could not convene a Beth Din as had been requested.

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef meets with newly appointed Supreme Rabbinical Court judges in Jerusalem, July 13, 2016. (Photo by Yaacov Cohen/Flash90)
Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef meets with newly appointed Supreme Rabbinical Court judges in Jerusalem, July 13, 2016. (Photo by Yaacov Cohen/Flash90)

As the weeks rolled on the controversy escalated, with influential rabbis, both pro- and anti-Dweck, taking increasingly public sides. Externally, things proceeded as usual in the Spanish and Portuguese community.

In mid-June, community president Sabah Zubaida issued a letter to his congregation which 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.”

At that point it became clear that what had began as a “witch hunt,” as Dweck’s supporters called it, had developed into a legitimate controversy over some of his halachic rulings and aspersions he had cast on rabbinical colleagues.

‘People hadn’t really paid attention to what he had been saying until Rabbi Bassous went after him’

“The homosexual lecture was the trigger for all this,” one insider said. “People hadn’t really paid attention to what he had been saying until Rabbi Bassous went after him — and then there was a new focus on his halachic rulings and a realization that some of them were really suspect.”

Concerns were expressed over rulings he was said to have made, including the switching on of fluorescent lights after sunset on a Friday, as well as allowing payment with a credit card for flu medication on Shabbat.

According to a group of rabbis critical of Dweck, he had said that some of his colleagues could be dishonest in their rulings, and that, “No rabbi, however long his beard is, however long he has learned, can say you can’t ride a bike [on Shabbat]… They’re not allowed to.”

Seeking to temper some of the heat, Dweck made an apology to a WhatsApp group of more than 100 rabbis over his repeated criticisms of their rulings. Not everyone was charmed. One rabbi said it was “too little, too late,” though others were said to have been impressed that he had apologized at all.

A photo from circa the 1930s of the Gateshead yeshiva. (CC-SA-Cecily Davis)
A photo from circa the 1930s of the Gateshead yeshiva. (CC-SA-Cecily Davis)

Into this uproar waded the head rabbi of the prestigious northeast British yeshiva at Gateshead, Rav Shraga Feivel Zimmerman. In public letters Zimmerman said that Dweck was “not fit to serve” due to his “limited knowledge, weak halachic reasoning skills, and lack of training.”

And in the wake of Zimmerman’s denunciation, a group of anonymous rabbis warned Mirvis, that “if Joseph Dweck is maintained in office as a rabbi, whether it is fully or even partially, in spite of all the letters received from highly respected Orthodox rabbinical authorities in Gateshead and in Israel and worldwide, Chief Rabbi Mirvis should realize that he will be responsible for the splitting of Anglo-Orthodoxy and lose his credibility as a Chief Rabbi to a large consensus of Orthodox communities.”

‘If Joseph Dweck is maintained in office… Chief Rabbi Mirvis will be responsible for the splitting of Anglo-Orthodoxy’

In response, Jerusalem’s Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo wrote an open letter to the Gateshead leader, urging him to withdraw his comments. Lopes Cardozo, who studied in Gateshead, said he felt it was his “moral and halachic duty” to defend Dweck.

He said that the letter warning Mirvis that he would be responsible for a split in the community was “blackmail” and that some rabbis “seem to have lost all sense of proportion.”

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, a contrite Dweck was asking for Mirvis’s help, Mirvis was aware that he could not become involved in this complex war of words without the backing of Yosef.

Looking to Israel to re-enter the fray

As battle intensified in public — this week it was announced that Zimmerman would be making a rare public appearance at Aharon Bassous’s synagogue, presumably to ramp up the rhetoric — in private Mirvis was seeking a missing piece on the chess-board: a “blessing” from the Sephardi chief rabbi.

Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Finally, after days of delicate negotiations, Mirvis received the letter for which he had been waiting. In it, Yosef says: “Seeing as I am not fully familiar with the context of Jewish community life in England, I request from his Eminence, who carries the glory of Torah on his shoulders, in his capacity as Chief Rabbi of England, to take responsibility for dealing with the matter and to reach a decision based on his understanding of the situation. If he finds it necessary, he may appoint a beit din, or any other suitable format, which will enable him to bring the matter to a final resolution. Whatever he decides will be acceptable to us in Israel.”

The crucial words are “any other suitable format,” as well as the last sentence acknowledging Mirvis’s authority. As chief rabbi, Mirvis is one of the few people in the world who can draw a line under the Dweck affair, but the letters continue to pour into his office, almost exactly split down the middle between supporting Dweck and demanding he lose his job.

It is an ‘urgent communal priority’

Now, Mirvis has the thankless task of putting in place a credible process to deal with Dweck. He is all too aware that whatever he does, some will not be satisfied. But, The Times of Israel has been told, Mirvis considers this to be “an urgent communal priority.”

With a row echoing in three countries, the last thing Mirvis wants is a repeat of the Louis Jacobs Affair. The process is being deliberately kept under wraps, with no time frame; no one knows whether a beit din is being convened, or whether Dweck will be questioned closely simply by Mirvis himself.

“It will take as long as it takes,” says a source close to the Chief Rabbi. “It is one of the burdens of office. But the implications for conversions, marriages, children — the unity of the Jewish world is literally at stake.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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