Rabbi Steinhorn: Rabbi Steinhorn was reputed to be the most learned rabbi in the country. He was open-minded, tolerant, outspoken, charismatic and enthusiastic in his determination to inculcate a love of Judaism in the youth and in his congregation. So great was his impact that many years later one of his students, Elan Burman[i], now living in America, recalled in a Brandeis interview that Rabbi Steinhorn had inculcated in him a love of Jewish learning for which he was forever indebted. However, Rabbi Steinhorn’s modern ideas did not find favour with all the committee members and he was not shy about criticising them and the running of the shul.
He came at a critical time when the more traditional religious Orthodoxy started flexing its muscles. The antisemitism in the 1930s followed by the Holocaust had resulted in some major Talmudic scholars from the Eastern European yeshivot finding sanctity in the West, and their lives had not been impacted by Western concepts of democracy and egalitarianism. As another Modern Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin[ii], had pointed out “One of the most fundamental axioms of democratic Western society is pluralism, which may be broadly defined as the allowance for different and even contradictory viewpoints to exist side by side, without censorship or repression”. This was anathema to these Eastern European rabbis. Even as early as 1938 Chief Rabbi Landau[iii] had written that the “authority of Polish rabbis had long since been acknowledged throughout Europe. Students of Polish Yeshiboth (sic) had been offered important rabbinical positions and they dominated the congregations of foreign countries with a feeling of their own Talmudical superiority and forced their religious views on them.”
With the reluctance of many rabbis to serve in apartheid South Africa, their places in the pulpits had been taken by these strictly Orthodox, yeshiva-trained rabbonim from overseas who were not concerned with the wider society, only with increased Jewish observance. Through their charisma and outreach, their worldview began to be accepted by many community members who had very little Jewish knowledge to debate the issues. When Orthodoxy became stricter, most South African Jews accepted the gradual changes without opposition because they respected the tradition, and did not have the Jewish knowledge to challenge this shift. They also thought that the traditional rabbinate was the only rightful source of religious authority. Consequently, the Orthodox rabbinate, in particular the Orthodox Chief Rabbi and the Beth Din continued to exercise power over a wide range of issues.[iv]
By appointing a Modern Orthodox rabbi to what was a Modern Orthodox congregation, the synagogue did not realise that they would start to clash with the more rigid Johannesburg Beth Din determined to enforce what it considered to be a more authentic Judaism and it was starting to exert pressure on Modern Orthodox synagogues to conform to their own orthodox national-religious, right-wing aligned thinking.
One of the first clashes came over the relationship with the Progressive Reform congregation. Rabbi Steinhorn had agreed to appear on the same Johannesburg platform as Reform Rabbi Norman Mendel to discuss modern Judaism.[v] Neither he nor the committee had seen any problem in that. Cantor Badash remembered a batmitzvah service Rabbi Rosen had conducted with the participation of the Reform Congregation choir and there had been no complaints then. Suddenly Rabbi Steinhorn received a telegram of complaint from the South African Rabbinical Association. The Shul president discussed the matter with Chief Rabbi Casper and they unanimously decided not to reply to the telegram (29.10.1981). When their shul president was invited to attend the induction service of a Reform rabbi (27.10.1982), the Av Beth Din told them there was neither reason nor halachic grounds to refuse to attend or for Rabbi Fogel not to attend a chuppah under which a Reform rabbi participated (16.6.83).
Indeed, British Chief Rabbi Jakobovits[vi] had written that he had always drawn a clear distinction between not associating with Reform leaders in matters on which they had chosen to dissent from their traditions (such as synagogue services, education etc.) and co-operating in areas which did not impinge on our differences. As already quoted, the London Jewish Chronicle in 1966 had condemned the Johannesburg Beth Din in a long editorial headed ‘RELIGIOUS APARTHEID” saying that “Divergence was natural, for men were diverse. A healthy Jewish community needs Liberals and reformers, no less than Orthodox moderates and Orthodox ultras. Judaism generally is the loser when one group insists that it alone is the sole custodian of the true faith.”
The shul president Mr. Van der Kar was then asked to a meeting at the Beth Din offices with Rabbi Duschinsky and the president and vice president of the United Council W Stern and Joe Fintz.[vii] Rabbi Duschinsky said he was upset at the content of the annual Spring Seminar organised by the Council for Adult Jewish Education (CAJE) at the G&SPHC. The local rabbonim and those in Johannesburg were upset that Rabbi Steinhorn would be sharing a platform with Rabbi Spiro, that the G&SPHC was associating itself with that platform and that the venue belonged to an Orthodox Hebrew Congregation.
Van der Kar told them that the Spring Seminar was an event for the whole community and was arranged by CAJE chairman H Geft, a practicing Orthodox Jew, together with Adv S Aaron, Izzy Wolman, director of the Western Province Zionist Council, and Mervyn Smith, vice chairman of the Jewish Board of Deputies. This event was held annually in their venue without complaints and Rabbi Duschinsky had often publicly expressed the desirability of forging discussions between Reform and Orthodox Jews. A common platform was also shared on Yom Hashoah. As the event affected the entire Cape Town Jewish community, the committee members refused to consider withdrawing their synagogue from the event or changing the venue.
It is not unreasonable to question the rabbinic politics that lay behind the sudden interest of Johannesburg rabbonim in an annual Cape CAJE event resulting in them putting pressure on the previously tolerant Av Beth Din to call this meeting. With the destruction of East European rabbis during the Holocaust, South Africa was having to import American-trained rabbis, who were more conservative than the rabbis they were replacing and they were starting to take control.
Writing in 1986, Professor Hellig[viii] noted that the previous ten to fifteen years had witnessed a remarkable revival of Jewish religious life, particularly in Johannesburg, with a proliferation of splinter groups of Orthodoxy under the leadership of individual learned and often "charismatic" rabbis who gathered groups of dedicated Jews under their helms in informal "house synagogues," or shtiblakh, threatening the economic survival of the older monumental synagogues. The tremendous religious vitality of Orthodoxy could be observed in the emergence of strong and growing ultra-Orthodox groups such as the Kollel and Lubavitch as well. This was not yet as noticeable in Cape Town. The emphasis of the growing ultra-Orthodoxy together with the conservatism of the Orthodox rabbinate would prove a threat to the Modern Orthodoxy of the G&SPHC which was strongly Jewish while living in the modern world. These views were to take centre stage fifteen years later when the synagogue in an attempt to continue its position as a centre of modern orthodoxy became embroiled in a controversy with the Chief Rabbi.
Rabbi Steinhorn wrote to the committee explaining the reason behind these sudden criticisms and to outline his concerns (14.2.1982). He told them he believed in middle of the road Orthodox Judaism and explained that the term “Orthodox Judaism” only came into usage with the rise and development of Reform Judaism – before then there were wide variations and practices in Judaism differencing from place to place and at different times. South African Judaism was in the main based on Lithuanian usage and it was only recently in Johannesburg that other usages emanating from Hungary and Poland were introduced and represented as authentic Orthodox Judaism.
Then followed a long list of Rabbi Steinhorn’s complaints and he did not shy away from criticising the committee or the shul appearance, never a tactful thing for a rabbi employed by a committee to do. He referred to numerous items that were causing him concern with which he had got criticism, not co-operation, from the office bearers. These included his participation in Reform functions, his differences of opinions with some of his colleagues on the Beth Din and Johannesburg, his activities and services among various sections of the community, the cleanliness and appearance of the shul, the duties of the committee members in relation to maintaining decorum in the shul and making visitors and youth feel at home in the shul, the style and arrangement of catering at the Kiddush and oneg Shabbat in the Communal centre and his effort to make the synagogue services more attractive and meaningful. He stressed that all his activities, actions and philosophy were completely in accord with Halachah and he could quote outstanding scholars and authorities for his views and requested that the committee advise him if they did not agree with him, failing which he solicited their co-operation and support.
He had previously complained that the committee had not followed up on his suggestions regarding the children’s services so he had dissociated himself with the services; there were also problems with the Junior Congregation and the Youth Congregation. He had volunteered to give morning classes to Std 4 and 5 children at Weizmann School hoping to gain some leverage over them which would result in greater attendance at the children’s and shul services but the shul had no hold over the school. He had arranged for the Bnei Akiva shaliach to invite him to all the youth sub-committee meetings. He[ix] thought they had made a great mistake by transferring Weizmann School to Herzlia. It showed a lack of foresight as they should have developed the Weizmann complex into a community centre. Diaspora congregations needed to be more than just a place of prayer and shiurim and the many attempts they made in this direction were thwarted by short-sighted people.
His vision of a synagogue as being more than a place to be visited three times a year, but a community centre with activities to which people would be drawn so that they would become involved participants would later be recognised in the 21st century in an effort to bring people to the synagogue more often than three times a year.
It requires a degree of chutzpah for a rabbi to criticise a committee in whose hands lie the power to hire or fire him, particularly on grounds of not fulfilling its own duties or looking after synagogue affairs adequately. In most synagogues a certain degree of tension exists between the financial and executive authority and the religious authority. A shul does not need a rabbi to function. It just needs a minyan. Every committee is split between those who like and those who do not like the rabbi.
The big problem came when he failed to invite them to his wedding.
On 25.5.1982, Rabbi Steinhorn informed the committee that he was to be married the following week to Mrs C Sacks and that it was to be a private affair. The entire congregation could not be invited nor could he invite all the members of the management committee but he would announce his intention to be married during the forthcoming Shabbat. They would then go on leave overseas.
All the committee’s resentment at the rabbi’s previous criticisms boiled up as they felt offended that they had not merited an invitation nor had they been informed in advance of his intention to marry. This led President van der Kar to call a meeting of the management committee to defuse the anger. Van der Kar said that the executive stood solidly behind Rabbi Steinhorn and the adverse insinuations of the rabbi by the committee caused considerable damage and the continuous criticism needed to be halted. The committee should not conduct itself in a manner that would bring disrepute to a congregation or its officials and congregational loyalties should not be clouded by personal animosity. Their shul was known throughout the country and the entire Jewish world for its large attendance, cantorial renderings and sermons of high standards, and was probably envied by all who lacked those facilities. The executive had been democratically elected and should not be undermined by individuals on the committee.
His speech did not go down well. Dr EC Kirsch saw no valid reason why they should give the rabbi a wedding gift - after all they had not been invited to the simchah as it was a private affair. AB Margolis said they were entitled to express their opinion. Dr Kirsch agreed and the executive should accept the majority vote; loyalty should not be confused with opinions expressed. He had lost confidence in Rabbi Steinhorn.
R Segal thought the committee should concentrate on running the congregation and not involve themselves in petty personal grievances. Most second marriages were quiet. Rumour mongering was one of the greatest evils that had befallen the congregation.
Margolis maintained that the members were not disagreeing on a personal level but for the welfare of the congregation. If the rabbi was involved in a controversy which he himself initiated, then he was responsible for it and members had the right to discuss matters. As religion was an emotional matter, it could not be helped if people were emotionally involved in the affairs of the congregation Rabbi Steinhorn should be more careful in his words and actions and the executive should be in greater touch with the rabbi.
J Sapire pointed out that there would always be committee members unhappy with majority decisions and he opposed the continuous sniping at Rabbi Steinhorn. Sam Gross blamed the executive, not the rabbi, for not having reported back to the committee. The President concluded that the rabbi must be accepted and the fact that he had remarried must be accepted and he would remain the rabbi until the end of his contract. The character of the rabbi should be defended in his absence as if he were present.
And when the Steinhorns returned from their trip overseas, the Ladies Guild gave a tea in honour of Mrs C Steinhorn. Rabbi Steinhorn had always supported the Ladies Guild and its club for black domestic workers started by Rhoda Getz. They were allowed to work in Sea Point, but as it had been declared a white group area, there was little else they could do. The first meeting took place at Weizmann Hall and drew several hundred women.[x] They also held sewing, literary classes and film shows. Rabbi Steinhorn and Eddie Segal would set up the film projector and show the films.
[ii]Rabbi Shlomo Riskin: The Living Tree: Studies in Modern Orthodoxy, Maggid books, Jerusalem, 2014, 9
[iii]Landau, Chief Rabbi, Short Lectures on Modern Hebrew Literature from MH Luzzatto to NI Fishman, Edward Goldston, London, 1938, 140
[iv] Herman Chaya, Jewish community in the post-apartheid era: same narrative, different meaning IN Transformation: Critical Perspectives on Southern Africa, No. 63, 2007, p 3
[v] South Africa - AJC Archives www.ajcarchives.org/AJC_DATA/Files/1984_11_SAfrica.pdf https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=29&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwiQ-qOJr5LbAhXMDMAKHWTzCDk4FBAWMAh6BAgBEFU&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ajcarchives.org%2FAJC_DAT
[vi] I have always drawn a clear distinction between not associating with reform leaders in matters on which they have chosen to dissent from our traditions (such as synagogue services, education etc.) and cooperating with them in areas which do not impinge on our differences (Such as Jewish-Christian relations, Israel, Soviet Jewry, defense, etc.) We are united by a common peoplehood, a concern for each other as Jews irrespective of religious or any other difference. … We must concentrate all our efforts on promoting mutual understanding and securing effective cooperation for the advancement of common Jewish interests in Israel, among oppressed Jews and indeed of Jewish communities in the Free World. Cohen, Jeffrey (Ed): Dear Chief Rabbi: From the Correspondence of Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits on Matters of Jewish Law, Ethics and Contemporary Issues, 1980-1990,. Ktav, New Jersey, 1995, 240
[vii] Minutes of meeting, 17.7.1983
[viii] In Kaplan, Dana, op cit, 47,48,.78
[ix] Steinhorn, Rabbi, EJ, “On Reflection: The changing role of the synagogue”, G&SPHC Rosh Hashanah Annual, 1987 – 5748, 19
[x] G&SPHC Rosh Hashanah Annual 1979 – 5740