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June 12, 2017 10:26 am

Rabbi Dweck, Judaism and Homosexuality

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Marchers in a past Tel Aviv Pride Parade. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

I have never had the pleasure of meeting Rabbi Joseph Dweck in person. But I have been in touch with him online and electronically. I know him to be an exceptional rabbi. After a highly successful career in the United States, he moved to London to head the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, where he has enthused many people and brought them closer to the Torah. His rabbinic qualifications are impeccable. He is connected to the most revered and scholarly Sephardi authorities. He is an articulate and an inspiring leader. In addition, and possibly most importantly, he is a very caring person.

A few weeks ago, he gave a lecture in London on homosexuality. It was a brave attempt to grapple with the challenges that other cultures present to traditional Torah texts. He traced the history, the terminology and the ideas behind homosexuality in the pagan and post-pagan world. He used sources from Torah, Talmud and great post Talmudic masters to illustrate the nuances and variations in attitudes. And while expressing absolute commitment to Jewish law, he said that he was grateful for the challenges that current Western attitudes towards sexual matters have presented to Judaism — because it forces traditional Jews to examine their core values and attitudes towards loving relationships. As with any unscripted lecture, Rabbi Dweck used some infelicitous phrases that I may have avoided, which he has since sought to clarify. Nevertheless, his brave attempt to grapple with a problem rather than avoid it has brought the wrath of his enemies down on his head.

A public rebuttal of Rabbi Dweck (but not his ideas, which were hardly addressed) has come from Aharon Bassous. He is an Indian-born Sephardi rabbi, educated in Ashkenazi yeshivot, who set up his own synagogue in Golders Green, London. In a faltering, simplistic tirade reminiscent of Savonarola, he attacked the integrity, faith and scholarship of Rabbi Dweck as if he were a heretic. The vindictiveness of his speech, in my opinion, was a far greater betrayal of Torah values than anything Rabbi Dweck might have said.

It is typical of such men that they think that by throwing mud you can stop people thinking for themselves, and by shutting mouths you turn off ideas. To me, at any rate, that is a clear breach of Torah values.

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Rabbi Dweck has said nothing new in terms of Jewish law. His sensitive approach was pioneered by Rabbi Chaim Rapoport, who is well known in rabbinic circles as an impeccably Orthodox authority (and a Chabad Chasid). His book Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View was prefaced by the late Berel Berkowitz, Dayan of the Beth Din of the Federation of Synagogues. The book’s forward describes Rapoport as “a courageous figure who has written on a difficult subject that many would rather avoid,” designed “to mitigate the painful consequences of Orthodoxy’s uncompromising rejection of homosexuality.” Interestingly his book was waved before the cameras by Rabbi Bassous. Except he merely used some general words from the introduction that stressed the uniqueness of Torah, instead of quoting Rabbi Rapoport’s actual views.

Rabbi Dweck said: “Homosexuality in society has forced us to look at how we deal with love between people of the same sex, and it has reduced the taboo of me, my children, and my grandchildren being able to love another human being of the same sex genuinely, to show them affection, to express love without the worry of being seen as deviant and problematic.”

I agree that this is an infelicitous and ambiguous statement. But you’d have to have a devious mind to take this as an endorsement of the act or of rejecting the Torah. Dweck went on to say, “The act remains an issue. But if we can deal with the peripheral issues, it changes how we address these things. That’s good for society.” Of course it is. Clearly his attackers had not read or heard what he actually said. It is fine for them to go on living in closed societies and insist on adherence to their worldview without question. But for those of us who live outside and have to deal daily with human problems, simply putting up shutters is no solution.

There are two aspects to the challenge that homosexuality presents to traditional Jews. First, no one would argue that the Bible considers homosexuality to go against its primary value system of heterosexual relationships as the normative way to create families and rear children. But this does not mean that biblical law doesn’t allow for exceptions — those who choose not to marry altogether, for example — even if this is not ideal. The Bible can also accommodate genetic variations. The Talmud certainly did. Modern knowledge of the way that genes influence us, which was not available previously, has changed the way that we understand the nature of freedom and choice. This does not change our laws. But it does affect the way we relate to individuals.

For example, one could well argue that having caring, loving parents of any sex or sexes is preferable to a normative family where there is abuse, conflict and tension.

As for the act of homosexual intercourse itself, we have never posted policemen in bedrooms or sought to make a person’s private sexual life a matter of public concern. Not only that, but embarrassing people in public is regarded as one of the most serious moral deficiencies by our great rabbis. As a result, many Orthodox rabbis apply tolerant standards to the private lives of their congregants. And they welcome everyone into their communities, without prying into private lives.

It is true that halacha, despite its preference for leniency and its escape routes, is not completely relativist. We are expected to respect the law of the land, to take measures that mitigate hatred, and to strive for peace and good relations. Yet this does not mean sacrificing one’s own values. Regardless of our halachic imperatives, we try to be sensitive and try to find ways of being constructive where possible, as Rabbi Dweck does.

The Sephardi world has a long tradition of tolerance and open arms. Ashkenazi Orthodoxy has always tended toward rigidity and exclusion — it could always shunt people it did not like off to Reform communities. Sephardi communities have no Reform branch. As a result, their rabbis have often had to encounter views that they did not agree with. It would be a tragic betrayal of Sephardi inclusiveness if Rabbi Dweck were to be hounded from his pulpit.

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