The Need for Tolerance in Judaism
I am returning to last week’s subject of homosexuality in Judaism and the personal attacks on Rabbi Joseph Dweck, because the ramifications are still very troubling.
The illogical, political and personal attacks on Rabbi Dweck have led him to take a leave of absence from the Sephardi Beth Din in London. The Sephardi Beth Din is made up of several different constituencies. Most are unduly influenced by Ashkenazi pressure, and many are not as enlightened or open-minded as the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community.
Let me start by explaining who the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities are, and why the views of Rabbi Dweck are so important in Jewish life.
The Spanish and Portuguese Jews (the S&P) trace their unique customs, liturgy and pronunciation to Jews who fled Iberia for Northern Europe and the New World some 500 years ago. They established their communities first in Amsterdam, where their original synagogue survives in all its glory to this day.
They then entered Britain illegally. Cromwell, despite his willingness and the arguments of Amsterdam’s brilliant and enlightened Rabbi Manasseh Ben Israel, couldn’t get Parliament to overturn Edward the First’s ban on Jewish settlement. Antisemitism has a long and despicable history in the UK. But Cromwell turned a blind eye, and the Spanish and Portuguese Jews re-established the modern Jewish presence in London. Their first synagogue, Bevis Marks, was completed in 1701 — with beams, it is said, donated by Queen Ann herself. Other S&P synagogues soon opened up in the United States and North America.
But the original S&P membership has all but disappeared. For years now, they have drawn on other communities — Sephardi and even Ashkenazi — for their membership and religious leadership. Their present rabbi is an Ashkenazi, highly educated and open-minded, from the Soloveitchik family.
In London, the S&P was the power and the authority of the Anglo-Jewish community. In the 19th century, the influx of Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe changed the character of Anglo Jewry. Eventually, the Ashkenazis took over. The United Synagogue and its chief rabbinate became the decisive force in Anglo Jewry for the next hundred years. But slowly, the United Synagogue, like Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, came under pressure from a different breed of Jews — more aggressive, expansionist and fundamentalist.
Although UK mainstream Orthodoxy was never that strictly Orthodox, it prided itself on its inclusiveness and its tolerance. But as the haredi world grew, the Chief Rabbinate of the United Synagogue failed to stand up for its constituency. Its chief rabbis failed in their mission to preserve the island of open tolerance and moderation that had been established in Anglo-Jewish communities.
I have no problem with haredi rabbis running their own affairs. They should. It is when they interfere with others — when they try to bully those they disagree with, and they seek to change a community of a different tradition– that I say they have overstepped their mark, and should be put firmly back into place. Not only that, but the behavior of some of them invalidates their own Orthodoxy — because the calumnies that they have spread are clear violations of Jewish law.
Both the Sephardi and Ashkenazi worlds have their extremes and their varieties. I am not saying that one is right, and the other is wrong. There is a lot to be said for closed communities, just as there is for open ones. But both have their dangers. If I had to choose, I would choose the charedi world. I am simply arguing for variety, for choice — to let others live the way that they want to.
Within Jewish law, within its constitution, there is room for variety and civilized disagreement. There is a strict side and a lenient one. A rational side and a mystical one. Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Chasidic, Lithuanian;open and closed; nationalist and anti-nationalist. Each constituency is different. This is the glory of the Torah. Let us not demean it.
The S&P must stand firm as a bastion of Torah sanity and moderation. I congratulate them on their support for Rabbi Dweck. I hope they will continue to resist the fanatics, and that the Beth Din will have the good sense to ask Rabbi Dweck back. Anglo Jewry needs rabbis like him.