By the mid-century there had been a definite change in attitudes towards religious practice. Prof Jocelyn Hellig thought the religious revival was due to an American influence as many of the local Orthodox rabbis were American-born and trained at American-sponsored ba’al teshuva yeshivot such as Aish Hatorah, Ohr Somayach or Lubavitch. There was also the phenomenon of what had been called Hansen’s Law after an important historian of American immigration - “What the second generation wants to forget, the third generation wants to remember” or “what the son wishes to forget the grandson wishes to remember.”[i]
Jack Wertheimer professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary gave a third reason.[ii]
The Modern Orthodox ideals were conveyed by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, (who trained Rabbi Steinhorn), who embodied the ideal through his mastery of rabbinic texts and his broad knowledge of and continuing engagement with Western philosophy. But even as Modern Orthodoxy reached the peak of its influence, (there was) an influx of Holocaust-era refugees from both Nazism and Communism …who came with an ideology of separatism that had developed in Europe.
These eastern European scholars had missed out on the culture of democracy, liberalism and freedom of thought found in the west. The effects of their ideology are clearly shown in the novels by Rabbi Chaim Potok,[iii] particularly in his book The Chosen, where the hero studying for his smichah experiences the tensions among the yeshiva staff when a new teacher, a famed Talmudist and Holocaust survivor, challenges the structure as not being strict enough and threatens not to ordain him.
G&SPHC member attorney John Simon obtained an MA in Jewish Studies at UCT examining the nature and development of Orthodox Judaism in South Africa. He wrote that historically, as Rabbi Steinhorn had told the committee, Orthodox Judaism was a comparatively modern religious ideology which arose in the early nineteenth century as one of the responses to the crisis in Jewish life through emancipation and enlightenment.
The Rosh Hashanah bulletins over the years contained articles about Modern Orthodoxy by John Simon, Dr Sally Frankental, Solly Kessler, Judge Dennis Davis and Rabbi Steinhorn. Prof Hellig categorised South African Judaism as "an expression of Conservative Traditionalism" which conveyed a picture of a community of diaspora Jews very different in essence from any other, its characteristic feature being its conservative traditionalism.[iv]
These ideas began to clash with the later emergence of right-wing Orthodoxy as a result of the increase and growing self-confidence of the ultra-Orthodox which would effect South African Orthodoxy through its control over the office of the Chief Rabbinate. This enabled the office of the Chief Rabbinate to exert a commanding influence over the community by controlling religious affairs and rabbinic appointments.
Since the passing of Rabbi Soloveitchik, the Yeshiva University world has lacked an authoritative figure who personifies for the broader public the synthesis proclaimed in its motto of Torah u’madda, usually translated as Torah and secular knowledge or, more broadly, Western culture and learning. Meanwhile, a neo-haredi group of roshei yeshiva has planted its flag at YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Rabbinical Seminary, which educates, ordains, and shapes the religious and halachic worldview of Modern Orthodox rabbis. Some long-time Modern Orthodox synagogues have taken to hiring haredi or neo-haredi rabbis to fill their pulpits. Most subversive of all has been the internalization of the idea that haredi Judaism represents the touchstone and arbiter of Orthodox authenticity, undermining Modern Orthodoxy’s accommodative ideology and, worse, has made it more difficult to help their members navigate as observant Jews who embrace modern culture.
Most South African Jews originated in Lithuania where they had been followers of Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, the Vilna Gaon, (1720 - 1797), a strong opponent of the new Hasidic movement established by Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, (1690 - 1760). This was a spiritual revival movement that countered the devastation left in Western Ukraine between 1638 - 1650 when Cossacks under Khmelnitsky massacred Jews including the religious leadership in 700 Jewish communities, some historians believing that up to 100,000 Jews might have been killed. Unlike the Judaism practised in Lithuania which centred on scholarship, the Hasidim focused on emotional displays of piety centred on reverence and submission to their rebbe, a hereditary leader and spiritual authority. The Vilna Gaon regarded Hasidism as another heretical sect, like that of Shabbetai Zevi and actively persecuted them, issuing an edict of excommunication. In the 19th century, they became allies against a common enemy, emancipation and the Haskalah, despite their different practices and beliefs.
As few Jews came to South Africa from Poland and the Ukraine, where Hasidism had flourished, Hasidism did not get a foothold into the country until apartheid. Modern Orthodox rabbis were reluctant to take a pulpit in South Africa – the government’s racist policies were an anathema to them. It had taken the G&SPHC six years to find a replacement for Rabbi Rabinowitz. To the Hasidic movement and Ohr Somayach, the government of the country was less important than the saving of Jewish souls and they moved in. By the 1980s, Modern or centrist Orthodoxy was in the retreat. It is possible that the political oppression and insecurity in South Africa made the Orthodox observant Jews more insular and more averse to critical thinking or acceptance of diversity of opinion in their midst. Even Chief Rabbi Harris admitted that it was unfortunately true to say that the more frum the person was, the more likely to be insular. Because they placed the Torah on top of their agenda, they unfortunately failed to realise that they were living as though the rest of the world did not exist.[v]
Dana Evan Kaplan, Research Associate at UCT’s Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research, examined this problem in a 1988 article on ‘South African Orthodoxy Today: Tradition and Change in a Post-Apartheid Multi-Racial Society’[vi] and explained that because most South African Jews saw Orthodox Judaism as representing the only legitimate expression of historical Judaism, they wanted to maintain the traditional rabbinate as the source of religious authority for the community. This allowed the Orthodox rabbinate, in particular the Chief Rabbi and the Beth Din, to exercise power over a wide range of issues, such as conversion, kashrut, and synagogue standards, powers which would not be considered even a remote possibility in more open Jewish societies, such as that of the United States. This would show up ten years later in threats to the independence of G&SPHC.
By the 1990s the authority of the Orthodox rabbinate and the influence of burgeoning Orthodox institutions in Johannesburg, ranging from schools, yeshivot and shtibel congregations to the “return to religion” outreach activities of Ohr Somayach and Chabad, had created an environment that made it increasingly socially acceptable or even fashionable for the Johannesburg Jewish community to be frum although this was seen in a much lesser extent in Cape Town which had always been more liberal and tolerant.[vii] Chabad’s Rabbi Goldman established a Lubavitch yeshiva in Johannesburg and a Chabad semicha programme in Pretoria which since its establishment in 2001 ordained more than 100 rabbis. As a result, many South African synagogues filled with Litvak descendants are now led by Chabad rabbis, who did not worry about politics and have revived practices Chabad regarded as authentic.
Consequently, the way of religion that had been a feature of the South African synagogues since their inception came into conflict with the power wielded by these more conservative rabbis, the Chief Rabbi and Beth Din. Mechitzahs started springing up in synagogues where none had been before and kashrut became compulsory at life cycle events attended by rabbonim.
In a 1996 article Professors David Benatar and Milton Shain[viii] pointed out that although South Africa had entered an age of democracy and transparency, the Jewish community had failed to transport those values into its communal functioning. As a result, the liberal values of pluralism and tolerance embraced by the country were under threat within the Jewish community.
“Religious freedom”, they wrote, “was under attack” and there was a growing intolerance of diversity within the community. They suggested that the social instability resulting from the change in government had led to an inward turn and a search for religious meaning and security. Many young people caught in the growing Ba’al Teshuvah movement had fallen increasingly under the influence of a steadily more intolerant and coercive rabbinate that had undermined the pluralistic ethos previously characterising South African Jewish life. Even those Orthodox rabbis who previously would not have minded sharing a platform with Reform Rabbis no longer did so for fear of ostracism.
[i] Hansen, Marcus "The Problem of the Third Generation Immigrant", quoted in Sacks, Jonathan, Traditional Alternatives: Orthodoxy and the future of the Jewish People: Jews College, 1989, 75
[ii] Wertheimer, Jack, ‘Can Modern Orthodoxy Survive?’, Mosaic, 3.8.2014, https://mosaicmagazine.com/essay/2014/08/can-Modern-orthodoxy-survive/
[iii] Potok, Chaim, The Chosen, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1971, first published 1969
[iv] Kaplan, Dana Evan, South African Orthodoxy Today, op cit, 45, 46
[v] Sifrin, Geoff, Chief Rabbi Harris… op cit, 109
[vi] 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.
[vii] Shimoni, Gideon, Ninety Years of Habonim-Dror SA: A Short History, October 2020
[viii] Benatar, David & Shain, Milton, The Closing of the South African Jewish Mind, IN Jewish spectator Vol 62. No 2, Fall, 1997, 30-32