Hundreds of religious Jews have signed petitions both for and against Senior Sephardi Rabbi Joseph Dweck after he said the sexual revolution allowing acceptance of homosexuality had been a “fantastic” development for humanity.

Dweck, who is head of the Sephardi community in the UK, has now been called a “heretic” by American rabbis and criticised by Israel’s Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef, but hundreds of Sephardi Jews in the UK have defended him.

The furore follows his shiur on homosexuality on 8 May, after which he was attacked by Orthodox rabbis in London. Dweck this week admitted that his use of the word ‘fantastic’ may have been “exaggerated,” but stuck by his point.

Arguing that he had been attacked by those more concerned with “political manoeuvring,” he said: “I did not say that homosexual acts were fantastic. 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.”

He added: “These residual effects in my opinion are that it has helped society be more open to the expression of love between men. I was not asserting law, nor for that matter, demanding a particular way of thought. I was simply presenting a personal observation. Admittedly, ‘fantastic’ was an exaggerated word.”

More than 1,400 have signed a petition backing Dweck, saying: “Character assassination, misrepresentations, and misconstrued contexts have constituted a majority of the responses, rather than honest, open, sensitive discussion.”

They said this was “disheartening and reflective of a most unfortunate climate in our community,” adding that Dweck was “a teacher of Torah with deep integrity, knowledge of Jewish tradition and love for Klal Israel [Jewish people]”.

However, a counter-petition originating in the United States had by Monday gained 480 signatures, and was being championed by Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi, who described Dweck’s comments as “heretic”.

Dweck’s most prominent London critic has been Rabbi Aharon Bassous, an Orthdox rabbi in Golders Green, who said his comments were “twisted, misguided and mistaken”.

This week, in a letter to American rabbis, Yosef said he was “amazed and angry” at Dweck’s “words of nonsense,” adding: “A large part of his words contain profanity, and any reasonable person will understand that it is forbidden to say them.”