Defending Rabbi Dweck: On Bnei Akiva’s response to communal controversy

By Sam Gross

In the last few weeks, Anglo-Jewry has been rocked by a storm of controversy, of accusations, clarifications, innuendos and defamations surrounding Rabbi Joseph Dweck, in the aftermath of his shiur on homosexuality and Orthodoxy in May. The dust has not settled, and the story is still developing. Rabbi Dweck announced that as a result, he will not be taking his normal role as a scholar-in-residence in New Jersey this summer, and (perhaps more frighteningly) that he is stepping down – at least for now – from the Sephardi Beth Din.

Rabbi Dweck is under threat.

In the recent past, a debate about whether and what BA’s response should be to the unfolding events occurred on the Bogrim’s facebook page. Frankly, I was shocked to see people who opposed any kind of response. In this article for Yediot, I aim to show only one thing: that the chinuch I received and indeed that I tried to pass on to my own chanichim in Bnei Akiva, leads me to believe that B’nei Akiva can and should have a role and a voice in the events that are unfolding around us.

כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה:

This statement of Hazal was interpreted by Rav Moshe Tzvi Neriah, one of the founders and leaders of Bnei Akiva to mean that every Jew is responsible for the well-being of every other. He called it a ‘בנין אב בהלכה’, i.e. a fundamental aspect of Jewish law. Bnei Akiva has LGBT chanichim and madrichim, and it has gone some way, especially this year, to showing that these chaverim of our tenuah should be and are as welcome as valuable as any others. Yet now when a Rabbi from our community is under sustained attack for expressing similar views, our mettle is tested.

To the credit of the Mazkirut, Bnei Akiva has released a statement affirming its open stance towards LGBT chaverim. Still, I believe this statement does not go far enough. To quote Joe Gamse, a statement about our tolerance that fails to support Rabbi Dweck directly misses the point: “The debates around homosexuality and Orthodoxy have been raging for the past few decades. The ‘controversy’ of the past weeks has been the despicable character assassination and witch-hunt of a leading rabbi and scholar who professed a moderate (and perhaps even fairly mainstream) Modern Orthodox approach to these issues [of homosexuality and Orthodox Judaism].”

במקום שאין אנשים, השתדל להיות איש:

This was probably the line in Pirkei Avot that stands out the most from the chinuch I received from Bnei Akiva shlichim and madrichim

Bnei Akiva told me that it was a revolutionary movement, that in the context of a general apathy of Anglo-Jewry, we represent an activist counter-current. Where others are content to donate to the UJIA and have holidays in Eilat, we say that our responsibility as Zionists is Aliyah. Where others are content to hide behind the invisible walls of the charedi shtetls, we proudly market ourselves as a Modern Orthodox movement, taking full part in the greatest intellectual traditions of modernity. Where others are content to be culturally Jewish, to represent an Orthodoxy that means shul on Shabbat morning and not marrying out, we say that halachah and Talmud Torah are the wellsprings of our lives. Bnei Akiva stands like King Canute in the surf, commanding the tide to halt. Amazingly, it seems to work. Year after year, our chaverim do make Aliyah (this summer, בעזרת ה‘, I plan to be one of them). 

Our chaverim, even those from non-observant homes, go to yeshivot and midrashot and our hachshara programmes. Our madrichim, busy with the demands of A-Levels and university courses make the time to take machanot in the summer and winter. Our sviva madrichim take time out of their week no matter what to make Bnei Akiva a staple of Orthodox Jewry.

This is why I am shocked and, to be frank, appalled, by the apathy I heard from some chaverim of the movement on this issue. Where is our revolutionary zeal? Are our values not impinged? Do we not believe that a witch-hunt is underway?

It is for this reason that I believe Bnei Akiva’s statement on Friday does not go far enough.

“At Bnei Akiva we deal with youth who are struggling to reconcile their sexual orientation with their Orthodox identity. We are proud that with our Rav Shaliach’s guidance we are attempting to forge a way for a more inclusive Orthodoxy which cares about individuals and their welfare, creating a safe-space for all.” I too am proud of that fact. I was proud of the event led by Rav Ari and Joe Hyman earlier this year. I was proud of the movement for running it. But if we are genuinely ‘attempting to forge a way for a more inclusive Orthodoxy’, how can we stand silently while Modern Orthodox Rabbis who are attempting to forge that way right alongside us are hounded out? In that context, look around, at the response by other communal institutions, and I guarantee you, whoever looks, “וירא כי אין איש”. The obligation on us is to support leaders, directly and loudly, who share our values and are under threat – and far more unequivocally than with a statement on BA’s facebook page that doesn’t even mention them. And above all, without wishing to impugn otherwise respected leaders, I think that any place in which the institutional leadership’s response to this situation is calling it an internal Sephardi issue is a מקום שאין איש. Rabbi Bassous, one of the key figures in the attack on Rabbi Dweck, has said that almost no one will stand by Rabbi Dweck and his values (13 minutes in to his response shiur’ for anyone who wants to listen). Will we let him be proven right? Which brings me on to the next point.

אם לא עכשיו אימתי:

Some have suggested that it was best to wait for “the rabbonim” to emerge and give a view. Others have suggested that it might not be good for Bnei Akiva to get involved in a dispute. Yet more have suggested that there is no sense at all in getting involved in “communal politics”. So when is it appropriate to get involved? Is it when Rabbi Dweck has lost his remaining roles? Is it when they come for Ashkenazi Modern Orthodox Rabbis? Today, tolerance to fellow Bnei Yisrael that happen not to be heterosexual is the value in the dock is it only when Zionism is under threat that Bnei Akiva should get involved? The people who attack Rabbi Dweck also attack secular education would we stand up and be counted for that?

A few years ago, a major figure in Bnei Akiva Olami made a deeply inappropriate Facebook post which implicitly called for violence against Palestinians. I felt a great deal of sympathy for the individual in question, because it is very easy to write an inappropriate post on social media at a time of deep emotion. Nonetheless, I thought that he could no longer serve as a fit representative of our movement, and was disappointed by Bnei Akiva Olami’s decision that he could continue. Then too, Bnei Akiva of the United Kingdom could have waited for rabbonim, or decided that it shouldn’t get involved in a dispute, or that it should steer clear of communal politics. Instead Bnei Akiva took appropriate action – in that case releasing a statement and disassociating from Bnei Akiva Olami to a limited extent. Then too, I was proud of Bnei Akiva for taking difficult steps under pressure, no doubt, from all sides.

In our current predicament, who amongst our chaverim is wont to say that Rabbi Dweck is not fit to be a Rabbi? If there are people that side with the politically and nepotistically motivated attacks on him, then I will understand this inertia (though I echo Yonah Goldschmidt’s sentiment that “we have to wonder why those members felt at home in our movement in the first place”).

Bnei Akiva has made progress towards opening the movement to its LGBT chaverim, and that is a good thing. But whatever progress we have made is no room for complacency. Right now, our values are under attack.

I do not know if we can change the outcome of this current controversy, though as the largest platform for Orthodox youth in the country, I would not underestimate our significance either. We might fail. Rabbi Dweck might be driven from our community. But if we don’t try, if we don’t signal that we stand shoulder to shoulder with Rabbi Dweck, then all of our chaverim will know that when it most counts, Bnei Akiva does not practice the values it preaches.

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