Unfortunately for the community, as Dr Hellig has outlined, the national/traditional orientation had changed. Orthodoxy had become more assertive, not just in South Africa.[i] The principle that every rabbi had equal authority in his congregation had been overthrown by an authoritarian system introduced from Britain following the tradition in the Anglican church.
Since the establishment of Jewish congregations in South Africa in the 19th Century there had been controversy about making it harder or easier to convert, particularly in the early days when there were few Jewish women and Jewish men wanted to remain in the fold and bring their children up as Jewish.[ii] The 10th annual report of the United Hebrew Congregation (1925) discussed the topic concluding that;
The policy of the congregation and of the local Jewish community in general has been to discountenance proselytes and for years all applicants have been indiscriminately refused, but it has been forcibly brought home to your Council that it is not only impracticable and unjust but also contrary to the Jewish law to close the door entirely to all, including genuine and deserving applicants to the Jewish faith. The injustice and futility of declining to consider any application regardless of their [sic] merit is evident when it is found that the people who are refused consideration in South Africa, proceed to London and other European cities where they find very little difficulty in entering the Jewish fold. This in practice means that only the poor applicants who cannot afford to travel overseas are precluded by local obstinate refusal to consider cases of any description.”[iii]
Eighty years later this same practice of wealthy people proceeding overseas for conversion was the cause of conflict with the Chief Rabbinate.
In 1930 the Jewish Board of Deputies instituted a commission of many important communal leaders to investigate and report upon the law relating to proselytism and its administration in South Africa. Diligent search by John Simon failed to find this report but it was clear that by this time the principle had been established that proselytes were being accepted by the South African religious authorities on merit and the desire for marriage would be no bar with Rabbi Landau saying "that the door should not be closed to converts". In 1939 the G&SPHC minutes recorded a March resolution of the United Council of Hebrew Congregations that only conversions carried out by the Beth Din of Johannesburg or Cape Town would be recognised and that no fees were to be charged for doing so (1.6.1939). Rabbi Rosen had pointed out that Rabbi Duschinsky, as Av Beth Din, had ruled that with civil marriages so easily available in South Africa, the wish of one partner to a marriage to convert was an indication that the person wished to share the religious identity of the Jewish partner and bring up their children in a Jewish home, and what could be more legitimate a motive![iv]
But politics, established principles and practicalities did not help when heart surgeon Dr Chris Barnard’s ex-wife, Karin, married Saul Berman, G&SPHC deputy president, having been converted by Rabbi Edmond Amsellem in Paris and a controversy erupted, even reaching the pages of the satiric Noseweek[v] magazine and the national news. This was another stick to use to attack Rabbi Steinhorn. The Chief Rabbi and the local Beth Din would not recognise her conversion or marriage or the Jewishness of the child she was carrying. Rabbi Steinhorn insisted that the conversion was valid.[vi] .
Like the funerals and the baby naming, conversion became a tool in the fight for control. Rabbi Steinhorn argued that the division was based on power and a tug of war between the Orthodox congregations in Johannesburg and the somewhat "enlightened ones" in Cape Town. The chief rabbinate in Johannesburg wanted to impose its standards and the Sea Point congregation wanted to uphold theirs, as it had done since its inception and as was done in Modern Orthodox or centrist synagogues throughout the world. And as had been done in South Africa since the 1920s.
The fact of the matter is that in the Orthodox world today outside of South Africa, which is very provincial, very closed and very British, there’s a whole world called Modern Orthodoxy. We in Sea Point are its only representative in South Africa. Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris does not represent Modern Orthodoxy. The fervently Orthodox are disenfranchising most of Judaism." Rabbi Steinhorn said.[vii]
The conflict continued to simmer as the G&SPHC was reluctant to be dictated to as had been shown in the conflict over the chief rabbinate fifty years before. Dr Clive Rabinowitz proposed in August that the G&SPHC should disaffiliate from the Union of Orthodox Synagogues (UOS) and set up its own Beth Din. Much as had been proposed in 1950. Rabbi Steinhorn was not optimistic that things would be resolved between the Beth Din and the UOS and the G&SPHC agreed that they would be given six months to try to come to an agreement. Negotiations between Sea Point and the UOS were "limping along," said Dr Rabinowitz, who predicted that the talks "may yet lead to a resolution of the problems."
"The public spat was extremely unfortunate… We want unity, "Rabbi Steinhorn stressed, "but I don’t think they can live with Modern Orthodoxy." [viii]
The next year president Clive Allen[ix] noted that at the time he was writing his article for the Rosh Hashanah bulletin the congregation was buzzing with rumours. Were they going to leave the UOS? What would happen to weddings? Who would comprise their own Beth Din? Allen stated that it was his fervent prayer that by the time the article appeared, peace would have come to their great congregation and that the acrimony and bitterness of the recent past would be a thing of memory.
Within the allotted six months the dispute had been settled with negotiations conducted by Judge Dennis Davis of the Cape High Court, a G&SPHC member, who tried to obtain the best possible exodus. At its AGM in March a joint statement was read out announcing that the differences between the shul and the UOS over Rabbi Steinhorn had been “amicably resolved" in full accord with halacha. The agreement was that after Passover 2004, the popular G&SPHC rabbi, Rabbi Steinhorn would retire and become Rabbi Emeritus.
According to Judge Davis [x], “With Rabbi Steinhorn’s departure, the die was cast and the synagogue moved from its Modern Orthodox stance to the right. The shul gave up and there would be no intellectual content in the shul. We did not realise at the time what we were losing, the only rabbi who could talk to the really bright kids who did not want to have anything to do with their Jewish identity, by giving them a viewpoint of Judaism that captured the exquisite dilemma of being secular and religious at the same time.”
The international Jewish Telegraphic Agency[xi] quoted Judge Davis as saying that not having Rabbi Steinhorn in a synagogue as significant as Sea Point - the largest in the southern hemisphere - was a “very, very major loss to Jewish life in South Africa.”
With all the difficulties, he remains, in my view, the one singularly Modern Orthodox rabbi in this country. I would really hope that as an emeritus rabbi he continues to make a serious contribution to Jewish intellectual life in this town.”
The Chief Rabbi and the UOS, with its control over marriages, brisses and cemeteries, had won.
Rabbi Moshe Kurtstag, head of the Beth Din commented that even though Rabbi Steinhorn “was not prepared to be dictated to by a Beth Din”, and they were branded by the G&SPHC as Talibans,“when we were under fire, Rabbi Harris was strong and did not capitulate… I’m very proud of (what we did). We were seen as people fighting for our religion”[xii]
But that was exactly what the G&SPH Congregation was also fighting for.
As previously mentioned, in his article published fifteen years earlier, Dana Kaplan had predicted that the only remaining Modern Orthodox synagogue in South Africa, led by an intellectual, centrist Orthodox Rabbi Jack Steinhorn, was the Green and Sea Point synagogue and that Rabbi Steinhorn had said emphatically that he was certain that when he retired in the next few years, he would be replaced by a more yeshiva-oriented individual. And in this, as in so many other things, Rabbi Steinhorn was proved correct.[xiii]
Said Dr Clive Rabinowitz, the new president, they felt general relief that the matter had been settled. “We must go forward. We can't have our energy stuck in in-fighting, and must do what is best for the congregation."
Said Chief Rabbi Harris: ”We are all very pleased that the Green & Sea Point Synagogue is remaining in the family of Orthodox congregations. Every effort will be made to find a really suitable successor to Rabbi Steinhorn. We look forward to an era of full co-operation with the religious authorities."[xiv]
Dr Rabinowitz[xv] reminded the congregation that Judge Davis had explained in a lecture the previous year that Modern Orthodoxy was not to be considered as a diluted or watered-down religion. They were as legitimate as any other Orthodox faction. They did not need middle age dress to authenticate their position. What they stood for was not to change halacha, but to interpret it leniently rather than severely where possible to accommodate modern life. They also accepted that there were truths such as mathematical and scientific truths side by side with Torah. They preferred their rabbinical leaders to have a wide outlook and understanding of life. Given this, where would they be in say 20 years’ time in a Jewish world presently tilting towards fundamentalism and emphasising ritual over substance? They would not be unaffected by events around them, including a projected drop in population. This would inevitably lead to conflicts and differences of opinion between themselves and more right-wing organisations. It was important to fight for their fundamental rights. It was necessary for their integrity. Dr Rabinowitz was optimistic that they would always represent the views of their congregation and had a flourishing future to look forward to.
On 30th April 2004 Rabbi Steinhorn assumed the title of Rabbi Emeritus. He was their longest serving rabbi. He went on aliyah to Jerusalem where he took an active part in the religious life and lived surrounded by great respect from rabbonim and religious communities around him, passing away in November 2010 after a long illness.[xvi] Judge Davis, who had often delivered sermons in the synagogue, said it was the passing of an era as he was arguably the most intellectually gifted rabbi this country has ever had.
So we’re talking about somebody who, both in a secular and a religious way, had top-of-the-range education. We’ve never had a rabbi in this country, I suspect, with that depth of qualification: that translated into the way he was able to communicate on an astonishing range of subjects. When you studied with Rabbi Steinhorn, you didn’t just study the text – a whole kaleidoscope of intellectual engagement took place at the same time. We do not have one rabbi in this country like that and I don’t know when I’ll ever have the privilege of studying under someone like him who understood the interface between the secular and the religious in so profound a way. Rabbi Steinhorn continuously emphasised that being Jewish was about contradiction and tension and that meant that you always swam against the tide. That, of course, was not liked by the establishment and certainly wasn’t liked by an establishment who were not as gifted as he was.”
Paying tribute to its erstwhile spiritual leader, the G&SPHC noted that he had “used his remarkable intellect and personality to touch thousands of people, leaving a lasting impact on Marais Road Shul and all of Cape Town Jewry and beyond. A sun has set and the world is darker for it.”
[i] Kaplan, Dana Evan, South African Orthodoxy Today, op cit, 45,46
[ii] In 1926 draft by-laws set out rules which would govern the acceptance of proselytes including favourable reports from the advisory board appointed for the purpose; a two-thirds majority vote from the advisory board appointed for the purpose; and that applicants had to have "unimpeachable antecedents" (whatever that might mean) and that communal privileges would only be extended to people converted under the auspices of the Federation of Synagogues.
[iii]10th Annual Report 1925. 249 Draft Bye Laws. Federation of Synagogues, 1926, in the archives of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Johannesburg. South African Jewish Board of Deputies Minutes, 27 July 1930. Quoted in John Simon, op cit. 247-250
[iv] Rosen, Rabbi David, “Father, Teacher and Colleague”, IN Newman, Rabbi Prof J , Memorial Book in Honour of the Late Distinguished Rabbi Professor E J Duschinsky, 1987, 13
[vi] “Karen can't be an 'instant Jew'”, News 24, 2002-10-25
[viii] Schneider, Moira, “Cape Town Clash”, Jewish Journal, 28.11 2002
[ix] Allen, Clive, “President’s message”, G&SPHC Rosh Hashanah Annual, 5763 - 2003, 2
[x] Judge Dennis Davis, Personal interview, 16.8.2018
[xi] Schneider Moira, South African shul stays in the fold, JTA, 31.3.2003
[xii] Sifrin, Geoff, Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, 107
[xiii] Kaplan, Dana Evan, South African Orthodoxy Today: Tradition and Change in a Post-Apartheid Multi-Racial Society, IN Tradition, Fall 1998, Vol. 33, No. 1, 71–89.
[xiv] Schneider Moira, South African shul stays in the fold, JTA, 31.3. 2003
[xv] Rabinowitz, Dr Clive, “Message from President”, G&SPHC Rosh Hashanah Annual, 2004 – 5765 70th anniversary issue, 3
[xvi] Schneider, Moira, Rabbi Steinhorn : an obituary Jewish Report 12.11.2010