By: Dov Pfeiffer  | 

Chanukah and Covenantal Relationships: Rabbi Dweck from the UK Visits Beren Campus

Rabbi Joseph Dweck, senior rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardi Community in the United Kingdom, has an extensive internet presence through which he spreads his Torah. In fact, I had listened to many of his lectures before coming to YU, which I enjoyed greatly. I was excited when I saw a flier for his upcoming tour, containing a stop on the Beren Campus on Dec. 14. The shiur itself was uploaded to the Stern Torah Spotify page, for those interested in listening.

Rabbi Dweck’s shiur discussed the theme of Israel’s covenant with God and its relevance to Chanukah. Within the shiur, Dweck brought up many stories to back up a secondary thread of his speech, the unique connections seen in how Jews live — connections, in Dweck’s view, often taken for granted. 

Dweck considered the prevalence of covenants in Tanakh, from well-known examples such as God’s covenant with Avraham (Genesis 15:18) and the covenant by Har Sinai (Exodus 19) to lesser-known covenants, like God’s covenant with Pinchas (Numbers 25:12). Dweck noted both the uniqueness of covenants to Judaism as well as the theological question of what it means for an omnipotent God to enter into a covenant. More simply stated, how does an all-powerful God commit to running by rules?

Dweck gave particular focus to the seemingly unearned covenant with Abraham, suggesting that, from a textual perspective, it is as if God fell in love with Abraham for no easily explicable reason, at which point God established a covenant with him. Dweck honed in on the particularist aspect of this choosing: “So Haqadosh Baruch Hu is primarily choosing not the philosophy of Avraham, not even the religious sensibility of Avraham, but the man, the human, the being that is Avraham.” God then saw in Avraham’s descendants a reflection of that same love expressed toward Avraham. In sum, the choice of Judaism was based on a love for Avraham and his family, not out of some sense of his philosophical or moral perspective.

Dweck built from the family nature of this covenant to articulate a view of Judaism as a large, extended family. “The Jewish people, the people of Israel, are not first and foremost a religion, are not first and foremost an ideology, are not first and foremost an ethical and moral society,” he said. “We are first and foremost a family, a people, and the covenant is within every one of you, in your person, as it was with our great grandfather.” The ethical and ideological aspects of Judaism, Dweck explained, as important as they are, are like an added layer upon the family, but are not themselves the foundation. 

Following this, Dweck arrived at what he considered the central theme of Chanukah. Chanukah was the first time that Jews en masse considered abandoning their identity as Jews to submerge fully in Greek society. Dweck saw the Greeks as the first culture to pose such a question, by, in his understanding, posing many of the same questions Judaism deals with, while also providing greater hedonistic satisfaction. Dweck described Chanukah as a fight not just for our religion, but our identity.

The victory of Chanukah, short-lived as it was, was one that was fought by people seeking to preserve their identity in the world, one which God then joined into to preserve the covenant, as reflected in the words of Al haNissim, that God fought the Maccabbees’ fight, not that the Maccabees fought God’s war.

As such, in the halakhot of Chanukah, it is described as “Ner ish u’Beto,” that, as expressed in the typical Sepharadi practice, one can fulfill the commandment of Chanukah lighting even when traveling because the household lights for him. Dweck suggested that the family focus is because the family unit, the foundation of Judaism from the covenant with Avraham onwards, is what led to the victory.

Dweck concluded by summarizing the importance of close family, even where relationships are tense, as well as the extended family composed of all Jewish people, who, despite fundamental disagreements, are all part of the Jewish family, whatever any individual’s state of Jewish knowledge may be. 

At the very end, Dweck, who studied under, and is married to a granddaughter of, Rav Ovadia Yosef, answered a question about Rav Ovadia with humanizing recollections about how he loved to make pickles, would make them for Shabbat and give them to his grandchildren saying that they were “ma’aseh yaday,” the work of my hands. Similarly, he described Rav Ovadia’s love for Arabic music, that he knew every song, and how, when possible, he would spend hours singing pizmonim [liturgical poetry] at the Shabbat table.

“I was humbled to see so many of the students attend the shiur and I was also impressed with how seriously they were engaged,” Dweck shared with The Commentator. “I also appreciated the thoughtful questions that several asked at the end. I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated speaking to the students and I look forward to more in the future.”

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Photo Caption: Rabbi Joseph Dweck

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons