All this would come true. The year after Kaplan’s article appeared, the disagreement between the intellectual, centrist Orthodox Marais Road Shul and the Orthodox establishment represented by the Chief Rabbi and the Beth Din flared into an open disagreement seized upon by the SA Jewish Report and the weekend newspapers. At that time, as previously mentioned,  the 1998 Kaplan Centre survey[i] had found that only 6% of Cape Town Jews were strictly Orthodox, while 67% considered themselves to be traditional.

The Beth Din ordered the G&SPHC to retire Rabbi Steinhorn. The shul committee refused to do so.  It was the shul, not the Beth Din, that had appointed their rabbi and paid his salary.

Next shot in the battle was when Chief Rabbi Harris, Rabbi Kurtstag, Av Beth Din, ten dayanim and Cape Town rabbis fired off letters in May 1999 to every one of the 1,300 members of the G&SPHC. The members were informed that, as the committee had refused to seek the retirement of Rabbi Steinhorn, as they had been requested to do, the rabbi would be declared persona non grata.[ii]

They complained  that Rabbi Steinhorn  was considered to be in breach of his contract because he had refused to respect the authority of the Chief Rabbi (a repeat of the conflict fifty years earlier when the shul and Rabbi Shrock had refused to accept the authority of Rabbi Abrahams as Chief Rabbi).

It must be remembered that the position of chief rabbi arose in Europe in the Middle Ages largely for secular administrative reasons as the ruler needed an intermediary to act between him and the Jewish community to collect taxes and statistics. Historically Jewish law provides no support for the post of a "chief rabbi" since every rabbi has equal authority in principle. The Talmud consists of records of discussion and interpretation  of halachah. Whose interpretation  is right -  Rabbi Hillel’s or Rabbi Shammai’s? There are deep differences over who is entitled to issue legal rulings and how flexible Jewish law was, with some arguing that they were constrained by halachic precedent, while others interpreted Jewish law as subject to historical circumstances.[iii]

The East European Jews had not come from a tradition of a religious aristocracy with a chief rabbi at its head  but when they established their synagogues in the British Cape Colony and assimilated to the ways of the English ruling classes they adopted as “authentic” the practices of British Jewry. These were “shot through and through with English customs and  practices presided over by an ecclesiastical dispensation largely fashioned on the Anglican Church” with its Archbishop of Canterbury.[iv] The position of a Chief Rabbi in Britain first arose in 18th century London as a typical English institution. In Lithuania each rabbi was king of his own castle, the font of halachic authority to guide his flock. Jews who moved into the Cape Colony adjusted without difficulty to this control from London. When the first synagogue was established in Cape Town and it wanted to buy a Sefer Torah they discovered  that they were not allowed to do so without the permission of the British Chief Rabbi and as he had died they had to wait for a successor to be appointed before acquiring one in 1848. Such authoritarianism would not have been possible in Lithuania. In the mid-20th century the British-trained South African Chief Rabbis began to reflect the growing stringency to be found in Orthodox Judaism.


[i] Bruk, Shirley & Shain, Milton, op cit,  33

[ii] Gordin, Jeremy, “Chief Rabbi, judge bid for Jewish harmony”, Sunday Argus, 26/27.6.1999

[iii] Wertheimer, Jack, “Can Modern Orthodoxy Survive?”, Mosaic, 3.8.2014

[iv] John Simon, op cit, 161