I am returning to last week’s subject because its ramifications are still very troubling. The illogical, political, and personal attacks on Rabbi Joseph Dweck have already had the effect of his taking 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 openminded as the Spanish and Portuguese community, which so far seems to be holding the line, thank goodness.
Let me start by explaining who the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities are and why the position of Rabbi Joseph Dweck is so important in Jewish life. It is known as the S&P. No, it does not stand for Sadism & Pornography, though you might think it did given the pathetic outbursts that certain Charedi rabbis are hurling at its London rabbi because he dared to examine the issue of homosexuality with a degree of sympathy and understanding. But of course, as with most rabbinic storms in teacups, this is not about religion as much as a power play for turf control and ambition, with a few personal vendettas thrown in for good measure.
The Spanish and Portuguese trace back 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 originally candle-lit masterpiece of a synagogue survives in all its glory to this day.
Then they 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 agree to overturn Edward the First’s ban on Jewish settlement. Anti-Semitism has a long and despicable history in the UK. But he turned a blind eye, and in fact it was the S&P who reestablished the modern Jewish presence in London. Its first synagogue, Bevis Marks, was completed in 1701. With beams, it is said, donated by Queen Ann herself. Other S&P synagogues opened up in the Caribbean, from Curacao to Mexico. In the USA they were first in Newport, Rhode Island, followed by many more in the southern states.
Today it’s the New York branch that carries the banner in the USA. Like many, its original S&P membership has all but disappeared. For years now they have drawn on other communities, Sephardi and even Ashkenazi, for membership and religious leadership. Rabbi Marc Angel, who graced its pulpit for many years, came originally from Rhodes. He always did and still does fly the flag of tolerance and moderation. The present rabbi is an Ashkenazi, highly educated and open minded, from the Soloveitchik family.
I once gave a sermon there. An old school friend’s son was having a Bar Mitzvah and he invited me to come over from England, where I was at the time, to give the sermon. In all my career as a rabbi, the S&P was the only synagogue I ever had to wear canonicals in, and also have a rehearsal before the day on how to walk and where to bow. The whole arcane procedure was a condition of speaking. It made me feel as if I was being taken back into the sixteenth century. Whenever I ever feel like traveling back in time I pop in on a Friday evening for a quick dose of nostalgia. But I stray.
In London the S&P was the power and the authority of the Anglo-Jewish community. In the nineteenth century the influx of Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe changed the character of Anglo-Jewry. Eventually they 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 the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, came under pressure from a different breed—more aggressive, expansionist, and fundamentalist. Anglo-Jewry, like all communities, like Israel indeed, is becoming polarized.
For many years, the Haham of the S&P stood and sat next to the Chief Rabbi, first as a senior and then as an equal. In my youth, the Haham Gaon presided over the S&P with dignity, tolerance, a sense of humor, and an understanding of human nature. He was Chief Rabbi Brodie’s equal. His successor, Rabbi Abraham Levy, became the spiritual head of the community.The title of Haham was no longer used, but he too continued the tradition of tolerance and moderation.
Meanwhile the influx of more Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews, first from Germany and then Eastern Europe, began to erode the moderate middle of Anglo-Jewry and is now growing, flexing its muscles, and commandeering the agenda, as indeed they are in Israel and elsewhere. You might recall that a few years ago they insisted on a Chief Rabbi censoring his own words. A similar process is taking place within the Sephardi community now.
Although UK mainstream Orthodoxy was never that strictly Orthodox, it prided itself on its inclusiveness and its toleration. But as the Charedi world grew, the Chief Rabbinate of the United Synagogue failed to stand up for its constituency and insist that it was not designed for nor subject to the Charedi model. Its Chief Rabbis failed in their mission to preserve this island of open tolerance and moderation that Chief Rabbi Hertz fought for. Although I am glad to say that at last Chief Rabbi Mirvis has intervened and demanded civility for the sake of the community.
I have no problem with Charedi rabbis running their own affairs. They should. It is when they think they have the right to interfere with others of a different color, when they try to bully those they disagree with, when they seek to change a community of a different tradition that knows its own mind, then I say they have overstepped their mark and should be put firmly back in their place. Not only, the behavior of some of them invalidates their own Orthodoxy. for the calumnies they have spread are clear violations of Jewish law.
Both Sephardi and Ashkenazi worlds have their extremes and their varieties. I am not saying one is right and the other is wrong. There is a lot to be said for closed communities as there is for open ones. the both have their dangers. If I had to choose, I would be on the side of the Charedi world. I am simply arguing for variety, for choice, and to let others live the way 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 and a mystical. Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Chasidic, Lithuanian, open and closed, nationalist and anti-nationalist. Each constituency is different. This is the glory of Torah. Let us not demean it.
It is so important that the S&P 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 the Beth Din will have the good sense to ask Rabbi Dweck back. Anglo-Jewry needs rabbis like him.