The orthodox Jewish community in the UK has been divided by a bitter row after a senior rabbi’s comments about homosexuality led to accusations of heresy and corruption.
The disagreement over a lecture given by Joseph Dweck last month has led to an intervention by the chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, who said he was concerned “about the public fallout from the dispute … which has been deeply divisive and damaging for our community”.
Dweck, the senior rabbi of the Sephardi community in the UK, has stepped aside from the day-to-day activity of the Beth Din, or religious court, in an attempt to defuse the row, which has broadened to encompass his teachings on a range of other issues.
In a 90-minute lecture given at a synagogue in Hendon, north London, Dweck emphasised that sexual intercourse between men was forbidden by the Torah, but questioned attitudes towards gay people. There should not be witch-hunts, he said, adding there were “plenty of skeletons in everybody’s closet”.
He went on: “The entire revolution of feminism and even homosexuality in our society … is a fantastic development for humanity.”
Dweck said changes in social attitudes had “forced us to look at how we deal with love between people of the same sex. And it has reduced the taboo of my children, of me, of my grandchildren being able to love another human being, same sex, genuinely – to show affection to someone else, to hug and kiss someone else, to genuinely express love without worry of being seen as deviant and problematic.”
The comments were swiftly criticised by ultra-orthodox rabbis. Rabbi Aaron Bassous, the head of a Golders Green congregation, said the speech was “false and misguided … corrupt from beginning to end”, and described Dweck as “dangerous” and “poisonous”.
Bassous said the London Beth Din should rule on Dweck’s views, “and if, in their view, [Dweck] is not an orthodox rabbi, doesn’t spout orthodox views … his orthodox hat should be removed from him.”
Dweck was also condemned by Shraga Feival Zimmerman, an influential rabbi in Gateshead, and by the Sephardic chief rabbi in Israel and many orthodox Jews in the US.
Dweck claimed his words had been “misunderstood and misinterpreted”, adding: “Important subjects that trouble our people should not be used for political positioning.” He also said the word “fantastic” had been an exaggeration.
Sabah Zubaida, the president of the Sephardi community, which comprises Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent, said much of the criticism was “based on misunderstandings, some deliberate and some not”. More than 1,400 British Jews signed a petition supporting him.
Since the lecture, Dweck’s views and teachings on a range of issues have been called into question, with some critics saying he has abandoned orthodoxy for liberalism.
Some within the orthodox movement fear he is the subject of a political vendetta, although others are genuinely concerned about his views. “This is not just about what he said regarding homosexuality – it’s much broader and more complex than that,” said a source.
Although Dweck has stepped aside from a decision-making role at the Sephardic Beth Din, his role as leader of the community continues. A spokesperson for Mirvis said the chief rabbi was working closely with Dweck and the leadership of the Sephardi community to offer guidance.