Most South African Jews accepted the changes with grumbles but without opposition because of the respect they had for this tradition, and probably due to their lack of Jewish knowledge to deliberate and question this shift. The community also perceived the traditional rabbinate as 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, such as conversion and kashrut.[i] In Sea Point however, the congregation had a learned rabbi with the Jewish knowledge to question their rulings.
Now the rabbinate claimed that Rabbi Steinhorn had failed to act according to the principles of halacha. He was accused of having included people who were not Jewish in certain ceremonies, and of having given Jewish burials to people who might not have been Jewish. They ordered rabbis to refuse to officiate with Rabbi Steinhorn at any religious occasions including shiva prayers. The legality of the weddings at which he officiated, his recommendations on potential converts and his rabbinic statements would no longer be considered valid.
This was ironic considering that Rabbi Steinhorn was one of the most highly qualified rabbis in the country. He had trained under Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, a major figure in Modern Orthodox Judaism, he held a PhD in philosophy from New York University and was very knowledgeable on halacha. However, such threats of religious blackmail had serious consequences. No weddings Rabbi Steinhorn conducted would be regarded as legitimate nor would the offspring of those weddings be regarded as Jewish or in their turn be able to marry Jewish people. It was irrelevant that Rabbi Steinhorn’s weddings conformed completely to Jewish laws and that he was as well qualified as he had been when he first joined the shul. He had not changed nor had the synagogue, the rabbinate had.
Chief Rabbi Harris said, "This is not a matter about Rabbi Steinhorn's popularity or about him as a pastor. It is about his rabbinic function in relation to the chief rabbinate, the Beth Din and his Cape Town colleagues. If a doctor or dentist or attorney or accountant steps out of line, he's not judged by his patients or his clients but by the professional body of which he is a member. It is my duty as chief rabbi to maintain the authority of the Beth Din on which the religious running of our Jewish community crucially depends."[ii]
But a rabbi is not a doctor or a dentist nor is the religious running of a community crucially dependent on a chief rabbi.
The imposition of a ban on Rabbi Steinhorn by the Chief Rabbi conforms to the perspective raised by Benjamin Elton[iii]in his examination of the British Chief Rabbinate. He found that when there was a need for concession, they made concessions, often with skill and creativity, usually as a result of the threatened break away of a congregation. Chief rabbis were flexible when it was a matter of keeping English Jews affiliated to Orthodox synagogues. As Blu Greenberg has put it, “where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halakhic way.” British Chief rabbis permitted the breaking of Jewish law but they approached it with flexibility because they wanted to preserve a community where most of the Jews were affiliated to Orthodox institutions without being fully Orthodox in behaviour, a situation that is found in countries like South Africa once under the jurisdiction of the British Chief Rabbinate. When there was no room for concession, the Chief Rabbi refused. Elton concluded that the religious development of Anglo-Jewry and the Chief Rabbinate’s place in that development might require reconsideration. Those on the left cherished their image of a lost golden age of liberal Chief rabbis while those on the right recoiled from giving full Orthodox status to men who took decisions of which they disapproved. In the case of the G&SPHC, the Chief Rabbi could have chosen flexibility, but did not. It was a case of who blinked first. It was a battle for control over whose version of orthodoxy was to hold sway – the South African version or the more rigid import.
What the rabbis had apparently not counted on was the reaction of the congregation which supported their rabbi fully. Judge Dennis Davis[iv] said the shul believed that in Steinhorn they had an extraordinary rabbi, both extremely clever and very kind, who gave real dignity and compassion to all. It was the difference, he said, between having a Rolls Royce or a mini minor. The matter was brought to an AGM attended by 700 members who gave Rabbi Steinhorn a standing ovation. They were not prepared to see their highly respected rabbi dismissed but were willing to negotiate. Even the Jewish Board of Deputies became involved as it was concerned to preserve peace and harmony in the community. Mervyn Smith, the Board President, viewed it as a very serious matter that had generated a great deal of anger on both sides.[v]
The G&SPHC president, Aubrey Berman [vi]wrote in 1999 that
There have been deep divisions in the community brought about by controversial issues that have threatened to fragment our congregation and destroy the unity we have previously enjoyed. These issues culminated in a proposal on our agenda which would have far reaching ramifications for our congregation when voted on at the AGM. I have tried my utmost over the past year to resolve all these issues amicably with my sole interest being the unity of Cape Jewry. I have attempted to establish constructive criticism via meaningful dialogue for which I have been criticised by the right for being too left, by the left for being too right, and when I suggested that I was simply taking the same traditionalist centrist position that our congregation had taken for the past 67 years, I was accused of sitting on the fence. What I have learnt in the Jewish context is that it is inherent in most of us to struggle with conflicting views. Even Halachic rulings by the Rabbinate and Beth Din are not standardised and will vary in different communities based on the entrenched minhag or customs in that community.”
The same Rosh Hashanah bulletin carried a fuller and well-argued article on the topic by Solly Kessler,[vii] ‘The Deluge that hit our congregation’, who pointed out that their congregation had always been a bastion of the modern approach to orthodoxy.
Our congregation has just experienced one of the most traumatic episodes in its entire history when the Chief Rabbi of South Africa, the Beth Din and the rest of the Cape Town Rabbis effectively imposed a “cherem” on our Rabbi (they used a euphemism, declaring him “persona non grata”). In implementing the declarations, the Rabbis, inter alia, ordered the Bnei Akiva youth organisation to cease using our shtiebel as their Shul and prohibited certain part-time officials (such as the young man who was assisting us as the Torah reader) from rendering their services. Such actions are virtually unprecedented in the modern Jewish world and their reverberations reached Israel and all the major centres of the Diaspora.
“There are certain aspects of the episode that require deeper consideration by the congregation, as well as by the Cape Town Jewish Community as a whole, and perhaps by the exponents of Modern Orthodoxy further afield… Certain issues were raised that illustrated the insistence that Cape Town Jewry should abandon practices or dispensation that had been applied here for generations even, in some instances with the concurrence of eminent Orthodox Rabbis who served Cape Town Jewry with distinction.
Kessler gave examples of their differing attitudes. One was the limitation of the maximum time between death and burial to 72 hours even though it was sometimes virtually impossible for children to get back to Cape Town from other continents in time. He asked whether compassion for the living was not as important as the relevant halacha pertaining to burial of the dead? He gave another example as the naming of a new-born baby in the Synagogue at a Shabbat afternoon service where the baby was carried to shul and where the mother carried the child onto the bimah. Surely, he argued, there could be no better way for parents to demonstrate their commitment to Judaism? Then there was the ruling of the Beth Din that only Rabbis may give a drasha in the synagogue and that only Rabbis may give a hesped. This was not even a Halachic ruling but a new rule not previously applied to Cape Town and not generally applied in Israel or elsewhere in the Diaspora. This was a case where flexibility could have been applied, but the Beth Din would not do so.
Another complaint made by the Chief Rabbinate (mentioned in a Noseweek article[viii]) was that the G&SPHC had extended an invitation to Dr Azila Reisenberger, an Israeli-born theologian, at the University of Cape Town to address the congregation. The synagogue could see nothing wrong with inviting a senior lecturer who taught the Torah at the university to give a shiur. That was part of Modern Orthodoxy. The Chief Rabbi later apologised to Dr Reisenberger admitting that his statements had been incorrect and defamatory.
[i] Herman, Chaya , “The Jewish community in the post-apartheid era: same narrative, different meaning” In Transformation: Critical Perspectives on Southern Africa, no 63, 2007, 30
[ii] Dei’ah vedibur, Yated Ne'eman Staff, “South African Rabbi Condemned; Information and insight, a window into the Charedi world”, 7.7 1999
[iii] Elton, Benjamin, ‘\”Did the Chief Rabbinate move to the right? A case study: the mixed choir controversies, 1880 -1986”, IN Jewish Historical Studies: Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England, Vol 39¸ 2004, 121-151
[iv] Judge Dennis Davis, Personal interview, 16.8.2018
[v] Gordin, Jeremy, op cit. Sunday Argus, 26/27.6.1999
[vi] Berman, Aubrey, “President’s message”, G&SPHC Rosh Hashanah Annual, 5760 - 1999, 1
[vii] Kessler, Solly, “The Deluge that hit our congregation”, G&SPHC Rosh Hashanah Annual, 5760 -1999, 7
[viii] Noseweek, November 2002 https://www.noseweek.co.za/article/78/NOT-MADE-IN-HEAVEN