In a packed auditorium in the Ner Yisrael synagogue in Hendon, northwest London, a young, polished Rabbi Joseph Dweck stood up. His usual eloquence gave way to a long introduction, betraying a certain trepidation.
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He knew he was wading in dangerous waters. “This is not an easy shiur to give,” he began, referring to the sermon.
“Chances are, I will upset everybody in this room tonight. I’m going to say something that will strike an uncomfortable chord. I knew that would be the reality when I decided to give this lecture, and I decided to do it anyway. Nobody is talking about it,” he said.
“In the Orthodox world, very few people are talking about it. I don’t claim to have all the answers .... I may say things you may be quite upset at me for saying. All of that risk I am taking tonight, and I am being extremely vulnerable in front of you, in the recording, and whoever else is going to hear me. And I am sure that people will hear this lecture.”
A brief pause.
“I have spent time, years and years, thinking about this issue, researching this. Our sexuality is the foundation of our identity, it is so powerful a force within us that we are afraid of it. I say this with trepidation, because we are dealing with serious stuff.”
The next hour was devoted to exploring the ancient history of homosexuality and the relevant Torah and Talmudic texts. Dweck probably had no idea what a backlash his lecture would unfurl.
The senior rabbi of London’s S&P Sephardi Community, Dweck received his rabbinic ordination from Ovadia Yosef, an Israeli Sephardi chief rabbi who died in 2013. And Dweck is married to Margalit, the granddaughter of Rabbi Yosef.
“He is dedicated first and foremost to Torah, and his teachings are always in line with traditional Sephardic halakha,” one community member said, referring to Jewish law. “A man of integrity, he is always looking to learn from others and the world around him.”
Dweck’s lecture emphasized that homosexual acts themselves are forbidden by Torah — and that this won’t change. But it questioned societal attitudes toward gay community members, condemning those who question whether to let openly gay men receive usual Torah honors.
“‘Should we put them [gay people] up to the Torah?’ What kind of a stupid question. You know how many people we should not put up to the Torah if we start that kind of scrutiny? You won’t be able to fill a minyan, you won’t be able to fill the synagogue, you won’t be able to read the Torah if that’s the kind of scrutiny you’ll start making,” he said.
“Should we start asking whose wife goes to mikveh? When and how? And what their sexual history is? Should we start doing a witch hunt like that? There are plenty of skeletons in everybody’s closet. Let’s not sit on a high horse,” he added, his voice rising.
“The entire revolution of feminism and homosexuality in our society is a fantastic development for humanity. The world is moving towards love. And if you’re not on the bandwagon, well then fine, you can stay back.”
In a statement, Dweck later qualified his word choice, saying “fantastic” was an exaggeration. “I did not say that homosexual acts were fantastic,” he said, before referring to the 12th-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides. “I said that the development in society had residual benefits much in the same way that Islam and Christianity did, as the Rambam pointed out .... I was not asserting law, nor for that matter, demanding a particular way of thought.”
‘It’s a mafia hit'
In the past two weeks since the lecture hit YouTube, Dweck has been condemned by numerous leaders in the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, Sephardi community — from the hard-line Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi taking to his YouTube pulpit, to Rabbi Aharon Bassous of London’s Golders Green community requesting that the London rabbinical court investigate Dweck. The controversy went all the way up to Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.
Rabbi Eli Mansour, a popular Syrian rabbi in Brooklyn, encouraged Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, to involve himself in Brooklyn politics and write a letter against Dweck.
“Mansour found back channels in this community to destroy another rabbi’s life, a rabbi who is fighting for the centrist community,” said one community lay leader. “Mansour wants to control the Syrian community. It’s a mafia hit. It’s a witch hunt — he not only is destroying Dweck’s career, but he has a personal vendetta against him.”
Dweck, affiliated with the Sephardic Community Alliance, was set to spend the summer lecturing in Deal, New Jersey — but that is now up in the air, with Mansour trying to block it. “Dweck is his own thinker, he is tremendously popular, and he draws hundreds to his classes,” one community member said. “The right sees him as a threat.”
Under pressure from Mansour, Yosef, the chief Sephardi rabbi (and incidentally Margalit Dweck’s uncle), denounced the general issue of homosexuality as “nonsense and heresy that were uttered in opposition to the foundations of our faith in the holy Torah.”
Yet his brother, Rabbi David Yosef of Har Nof in Jerusalem, a frequent fundraiser in Mansour’s community, felt the chief rabbi’s letter wasn’t harsh enough. So he took to his pen, too, writing in Hebrew: “Do whatever you can to prevent him from entering your holy camp, and without question he cannot be allowed to serve in any communal capacity.”
Some rabbis have stood up to defend Dweck from the onslaught. “If a mistake does appear in a rabbi’s words, one must find the appropriate way to react, in the way of peace, not in the way of a burning strong fire, even if it is well-intentioned,” wrote Rabbi Sammy Kassin of the Shehebar Sephardic Center.
But most leaders, community members say, have been deafeningly silent, too afraid to comment.
Petitions on both sides are making the rounds in the community’s WhatsApp groups and Facebook feeds; most of the signatories supporting Dweck are young community members — his main followers who consider him a model of Sephardi religiosity engaged with the world. Dweck, according to an S&P Synagogue representative, is now abroad to meet with rabbinical authorities to try to resolve the flare-up.
“No surprise about the tempest this maverick ‘rabbi’ has stirred up,” one Syrian community member posted on Facebook. “Just this summation of his positions leaves me shaking my head in disgust. He has zero respect for other rabbis and holds his personal opinions and interpretations as a way out for the homosexual community. Let him find a reform or conservative congregation that will lap his [views] up. He has no place in an Orthodox rabbinical setting.”
Strictly off the record
In a community obsessed with secrecy, everyone approached by Haaretz agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity. Even those on the margins of the community declined to be named: “You know we can’t speak to the press, right?”
But the fight reflects much more than communal ambivalence toward homosexuality. This is a fight over the community’s identity, over who is genuinely following in the footsteps of their ancestors. It reflects a much larger tension between what community members call “black hats” and “white hats.” (These religious divisions in American Sephardi communities are difficult to conceptualize through denominational Ashkenazi categories.)
These labels used by community members reflect an internal divide across religious and ideological lines. Crudely put — the “black hats” identify as Haredi, while the “white hats” are ideologically opposed to them. These terms apply more to rabbis than to lay people — who can be black hat, white hat or in the elusive middle.
“A lot of people are trying to return to our mesora, tradition,” one community member said. “Why are we adopting this [new way]? This is not us, not our grandparents. There is a lot of sentiment building up now. The [black hats] are constantly building gates around things, so you don’t know the truth anymore. They don’t even let people touch it — they just say, ‘It’s an abomination, an abomination.’ They don’t even let your head go there. Dweck just intended to let people know that gay people are people too.”
“This is the issue in the community,” one woman said. “We are really intermingled with one another.” Syrian Jews’ “black hat” and “white hat” synagogues and schools exist side by side, and to the outsider it’s hard to distinguish between the two.
As one synagogue member put it, “Our tradition is to never be denominational. You can be very religious and still sit next to the guy driving on Shabbat. But lately the Brooklyn community has become more ideological.”
As a young man put it, “The community knows it’s not monolithic, but it likes to tell itself that it is. It’s a community with a capital C, it has its own power. It’s becoming splintered. Practically, if you’re tracing your nature to Aleppo, abiding by the Edict [a Syrian rabbinic decree forbidding marriage to converts], living in Brooklyn and going to Jersey for the summer — is that enough to make a unified community? Yet it’s really two different communities. Only our funerals are all in the same place, in the same old synagogue in Bensonhurst.”
Another member said: “It’s an emotionally charged situation and shows a lot of infighting in our community.”
The infighting surges in matters of gender, too. In one Brooklyn synagogue this past Simhat Torah, women were permitted to have their own hakafot (dancing — albeit without Torah scrolls). It caused a scandal in the community.
“The black hats were infuriated,” one woman present said. “We come from Middle Eastern values — women just didn’t get involved in ritualistic practices; that’s always how it was. They have a hard time understanding that women can be involved in shul — within halakha. There’s no spectrum here, it’s just black and white. In our community they never did it, no one asked for it, so now it became: ‘Why are you asking for it now?’”
“There is undoubtedly a split in the community,” said one young man. “It’s a line in the sand.”