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Power Broker at the Pulpit

Catching up with South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein

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visit to South Africa without spending some quality time with Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein would be unthinkable. When we first met in a Jerusalem hotel lobby 15 years ago, he had just been appointed, at the age of 32, chief rabbi of South Africa, but had not yet been installed in office. We became fast friends in 2011, during the course of the first Sinai Indaba, which brings together annually a collection of the Orthodox world’s leading speakers. I subsequently published a lengthy profile on him in Mishpacha based on our numerous conversations during that stay.

Justice Louis Brandeis, the first Jew to serve on the US Supreme Court, once described each state in the American federal system as a social laboratory where policies could be tested, and, if successful, exported to other states. During his 14-year tenure in office, Chief Rabbi Goldstein has turned the South African Jewish community into something of a laboratory for the development of ideas that can be spread across the Jewish world.

The near-universal respect in which he is held by the South African Jewish community (and the non-Jewish community as well) provides him with a great deal of flexibility in promoting new initiatives. His very first initiative upon entering office was the creation of the Community Active Protection (CAP) anti-crime force. CAP has reduced crime rates by 80% to 90% in neighborhoods of Johannesburg with a quarter of a million people, both Jews and non-Jews. Had CAP not come into existence, it is doubtful that there would remain a viable South African Jewish community today.

Chief Rabbi Goldstein hosted my wife and me in his sun-filled office, with a large semi-circle white wood desk with only a few sparse piles of papers. His son Mordechai had just become engaged to Avigayil Ralph, the great-granddaughter of Rabbi Shlomo Rosenzweig, the late av beis din of Johannesburg. The chief rabbi bid us to view a photograph of Rabbi Rosenzweig, along with other rabbinic luminaries, that has long hung on his wall. A week later, we would be Leil Shabbos guests of the chief rabbi and his wife,  Gina, along with the new chassan and kallah.

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fter overcoming my envy of Chief Rabbi Goldstein’s ordered work environment, which could not be in starker contrast to my own, we discuss the role the  chief rabbi played in the 2016 campaign to oust President Jacob Zuma, who had turned the country into his personal fiefdom for the enrichment of himself and close cronies during his ten-year rule. He penned an op-ed in South Africa’s leading paper, the Sunday Times, calling for Zuma’s ouster and addressed a 20,000-person rally at Union House in Pretoria organized by leading black businessman Sipho Pityano.

We watch a video of the speech together. The chief rabbi begins by telling the mostly black crowd that it is only a few days before Pesach and asking them if they remember what Moses told Pharaoh. They answer with a resounding, “Let my people go.”

Next, the normally mild-mannered Rabbi Goldstein leads the crowd in a chant: “What do we want?” To which they respond, “Freedom.” Each call for freedom enumerates another ill of the Zuma government from which they wish to be free: corruption, state capture, personal enrichment, reaching a crescendo, “Freedom to all the people of South Africa. Let my people go.”

Next, the normally mild-mannered Rabbi Goldstein leads the crowd in a chant: “What do we want?” To which they respond, “Freedom.” Each call for freedom enumerates another ill of the Zuma government from which they wish to be free: corruption, state capture, personal enrichment, reaching a crescendo, “Freedom to all the people of South Africa. Let my people go.”

The chief rabbi’s involvement in the anti-Zuma campaign raised eyebrows within the Jewish community. Many saw it as a radical departure from traditional Jewish shtadlanus, which always sought to remain far from the public eye and avoid alienating the ruling authorities.

For Rabbi Goldstein personally, it was also a break from his warm relations with South African leaders. He is the moving force and a principal draftsman behind the South African Bill of Responsibilities, which, though not part of the Constitution, has assumed quasi-constitutional status as a statement of South African values. It is part of the curriculum of all South African schools and constantly promoted in the media. He was also chosen to be the first speaker at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, attended by world leaders and watched by millions around the globe. His first book, African Soul Talk: When Politics is Not Enough, is in the form of a dialogue between him and Mandela’s grandson, Dumani Mandela.

But why did the chief rabbi take a highly public role at the risk of alienating both the president and his allies in the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party? His answer captures succinctly his view of his role as a spokesman for Torah. “Torah must be seen as a voice of moral clarity in the world. If there are pressing moral issues and the Torah appears to be silent, that brings the Torah into disrepute,” he says.

Over Shabbos dinner the next week, I mention the view of some that the protests against the Zuma government risked causing the government to adopt a more anti-Israel stance. But the chief rabbi stands his ground. For one thing, he assures me, Israel is strong enough to take care of itself. Also, South Africa has far more to gain from Israel than vice versa. That was made clear during the three-year drought in Cape Town, the effects of which were greatly exacerbated by the local government’s refusal to avail itself of desalinization technology offered by Israel.

The chief rabbi also rejects the premise that the Zuma government took a more anti-Israel stance in response to the protests. He notes that Hamas had already opened a diplomatic mission in South Africa prior to the protests against Zuma and his eventual resignation.

Most surprising about Chief Rabbi Goldstein’s account of Zuma’s ouster is how well South African democracy functioned. Indeed, he insists that South Africa is “as free as the United States.” Despite the dominance of one party, the African National Congress, the independent organs of South Africa’s civil society functioned well during the corruption crisis. The press took a lead role in exposing the corruption of Zuma and his inner circle, and the government made no attempt to close down newspapers or silence journalists. President Zuma obeyed all orders from the Constitutional Court. Meanwhile, popular discontent, including within the ruling ANC party, eventually forced Zuma to resign and to be replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa.

Ramaphosa boasts one of the most impressive résumés of any national leader in the world. He was the founder of the largest union under apartheid, the Mineworkers’ Union, and the chief negotiator with the ruling People’s Party in the three-year period between Nelson Mandela’s release from jail and his election as South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994. Ramaphosa supervised the drafting of the new South African constitution and was one of its principal writers. When he was not chosen as Mandela’s successor, despite being Mandela’s personal choice, he went into business and became one of South Africa’s richest men.

The chief rabbi’s respect for President Ramaphosa is more than reciprocated. On Motzaei Tzom Gedalyah last year, the chief rabbi welcomed President Ramaphosa to Cape Town’s Garden Shul. He described the president as “a real mensch” for insisting that he go ahead with plans for traveling abroad for a family simchah at a time when he had been invited to the presidential mansion. When the visit did take place, a week later, the chief rabbi related, he and the president learned together a passage in Talmud dealing with universal principles applicable to sheva mitzvos bnei Noach. He chose a discussion of the permission granted to a physician to heal. That permission, Chief Rabbi Goldstein argued, shows that man is meant to be Hashem’s partner in creation.

“We are all partners with G-d, and as a consequence, we are all partners with one another,” he explained. And it is precisely that Divine partnership, said the chief rabbi, that provides optimism that South Africa, with its recent history of rapid turnarounds and peaceful conflict resolution, can build a better future for all its people.

While pledging the commitment of the Jewish community to working to bring about economic expansion, Rabbi Goldstein decried the recent resolution of the ANC calling upon the government to downgrade relations with Israel. He told President Ramaphosa forthrightly that Israel is dear to all South African Jews and that to accuse Israel of apartheid is to desecrate the memories of all the victims of actual apartheid.

President Ramaphosa listened raptly through the chief rabbi’s opening 20-minute address, nodding frequently in response to something the chief rabbi said. His own speech was a full 40 minutes, far longer than mere ceremony would have demanded, and Ramaphosa referred throughout to things that Chief Rabbi Goldstein had said. He told those present that his spirits had been lifted by the chief rabbi’s commitment of the Jewish business community to creating economic expansion and jobs to lift South Africa out of its current recession. “Jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs,” he described as the government’s priority.

The president did not attempt to defend the embassy decision, other than to say that he honors the Jewish community’s attachment to Israel. He expressed his optimism that peace could still be achieved between Israel and the Palestinians and that South Africa, with its own experience bringing together once intractable enemies, could play a role. He envisioned a role for the South African Jewish community in the latter.

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ut controversies, past or present, occupy little of the chief rabbi’s time and will not distract from what he views as his main task in life — the promotion of Torah study and observance. Quoting Rav Mottel Katz, the cofounder of Telshe Yeshivah in Cleveland, Chief Rabbi Goldstein says, “The Torah must be presented in beautiful keilim.” His first major effort in that regard was the 2013 Shabbos Project, which called upon all South African Jews to fully observe one Shabbos. The first Shabbos Project proved an enormous success. The next year, the chief rabbi launched an international Shabbos Project.

But no place else in the world could match all the factors that made the South African Shabbos Project such a widespread success: a very developed communal structure to which almost all South African Jews belong; a highly homogenous and close-knit community — 90% to 95% of the community are descended from Lithuanian immigrants. And because of the large-scale baal teshuvah movement beginning in the 1970s and thereafter, most South African Jews have friends or relatives who are shomer Shabbos.

Yet the Shabbos Project has had an impact worldwide. Last year, Shabbos Project events took place in 1,511 cities in 101 countries, with materials translated into ten languages. Nothing in recent years has come close in terms of bringing large groups of Jews across the religious spectrum together. Some of the numbers are amazing: over 10,000 Jews at a Havdalah concert in Melbourne, Australia; 8,000 at challah-baking in Buenos Aires; 3,000 Jews at 300 tables spread over five city blocks for a Leil Shabbos dinner in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles; 1,200 Jewish college students on the USC campus for a Shabbos dinner.

But, Rabbi Goldstein emphasizes, no less momentous or meaningful are smaller, more intimate gatherings: 40 people at a Shabbaton on the island of Corsica off the French coast, which officially has no Jews; 30 families from a community in Essex, England, with no prior experience of a halachic Shabbos, who kept a full Shabbos together; five strangers who pitched up at the door of Chabad shaliach Levi Piha in Torino, Italy, and who were no longer strangers by the end of the night.

All the materials produced by the international Shabbos Project emphasize the adherence to halachic observance of Shabbos and kashrus. Shamor v’zachor b’dibbur echad means, Chief Rabbi Goldstein emphasizes, that there can be no appreciation of the beauty of Shabbos — zachor — unaccompanied by shemiras Shabbos — shamor. Over the last few years, the Shabbos Project has developed a vast network of 8,000 partners worldwide. And though it is impossible to fully monitor how each of the institutional partners implement their local efforts, they are all fully aware of the mission.

Chief Rabbi Goldstein is intent on keeping the Shabbos Project going through continual renewal. Last year, students in the King David school system (officially Orthodox, but with students from across the spectrum of religious observance) were put in charge of developing the special activities in South Africa, and rose to the occasion. Before the coming year’s Shabbos Project in November, Rabbi Goldstein will publish a collection of essays on 25 different aspects of Shabbos, Taking a Day Out of Life to Live, each based on a different major Torah thinker.

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hief Rabbi Goldstein remains virtually unchanged from when I first met him. Though he is now a world figure, he remains as modest and personable as then. But there is nothing modest about the scope of his ambition to spread Torah. He has no intention of resting on the laurels of the Shabbos Project or Sinai Indaba, which both take place once a year. His newest project will open up the possibility of learning on a weekly or even daily basis.

“My real passion is harbatzas Torah,” he tells me. “If you want to rejuvenate and strengthen the Jewish world, the only way is through increasing limud haTorah.” To do that, he is about to launch a worldwide chavrusa learning program, for Jews of all backgrounds, based on Pirkei Avos. Avos has the obvious advantage of being of immediate relevance and capable of implementation in the lives of all who study it, without a great deal of specialized knowledge.

The goal of the program is not just to convey information, but to provide every Jew with an opportunity to experience the geshmak of learning with a study partner. When one learns with a chavrusa, Rabbi Goldstein says, one can experience the expansion of one’s self beyond previous boundaries.

The chief rabbi has long been involved in preparing learning modules. A recent course on birchos hashachar, designed by the chief rabbi for use in parent-child learning, under the rubric Generation Sinai, was instituted in South Africa’s Jewish schools, with 6,000 students enrolled. (The chief rabbi shares excitedly that he is about to open two kollelim — one in Capetown and the other in Johannesburg — in which the avreichim will teach and learn b’chavrusa with high school students morning and evening.) The material naturally lent itself to a discussion of the niflaos haBorei found in the human body. And to further discussion on the definition of the human soul and its attributes.

The Pirkei Avos Project is obviously far too massive in scope for the chief rabbi to do by himself, at least if he seeks to attend to any of his other duties. But three-and-a-half hours every afternoon, he can be found in the beis medrash of the Yeshivah Gedolah of Johannesburg, with the classic commentaries on Pirkei Avos open in front of him. As he goes through the commentaries, he breaks each Mishnah into modules of concepts and ideas that he wants to bring out. Assisting him in the project is a team of scholars under the direction of Rabbi Avigdor Blumenau, a native South African, who learned for decades in Eretz Yisrael, prior to returning to South Africa to serve as rosh kollel in Ohr Somayach.

After the chief rabbi has broken down the Mishnah into modules, Rabbi Blumenau’s team translates the passages in the commentaries he has selected. Each module comes with two sets of questions. One set of questions is textually based and prepared by Rabbi Blumenau and his team. The other is “mussar-oriented” and designed to apply the Mishnah to real-life situations. Those questions are prepared by a frum psychologist. Each module includes a mini essay by the chief rabbi.

Accompanying each module is a podcast of the chief rabbi in discussion of the Mishnah in question with a prominent figure in the Jewish world. Those who have made podcasts with Rabbi Goldstein so far range from Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky to Hollywood comedy writer David Sacks and popular musicians Alex Claire and Yonatan Razel. The interview with Rav Kamenetsky is particularly dear to Rabbi Goldstein. Rav Shmuel represents for him “the embodiment of the Mussar movement in a human being.” (It is a subject the chief rabbi knows well. He is the author, together with Rabbi Berel Wein, of The Legacy: Teachings for Life from the Great Lithuanian Rabbis.)

Rabbi Goldstein fondly recalls hosting Rav Shmuel and his Rebbetzin 12 years ago in Johannesburg as one of the highlights of his tenure. After addressing a crowd of a thousand who had gathered in Johannesburg’s Yeshiva College on Leil Shabbos, Rav Shmuel returned to his seat and confided to Rav Goldstein, “Just to pronounce the word Shabbos in front of so many Jews was worth coming to South Africa.”

As long as I’m already in his office, the chief rabbi asks me to do a podcast with him on the mishnah (Pirkei Avos 1:8) “Al ta’as atzmecha k’orchei hadayanin” — which is surely appropriate as we are both trained as lawyers. (He even holds a doctorate in law. His PhD thesis, written after he had already taken his first position as a congregational rabbi and was teaching in the Yeshivah Gedolah of Johannesburg, was published as Defending the Human Spirit: Jewish Law’s Vision for a Moral Society.)

Chief Rabbi Goldstein is counting on a synergy between the Shabbos Project and the new Pirkei Avos learning to spread word of the latter. The network of 8,000 partners in the Shabbos Project constitutes an almost perfect marketing network for the new project as well — Jews interested in infusing their lives with greater Jewish content. Through those partners and with the assistance of a strategic team headed by Laurence Horowitz, with a decade of experience in cutting-edge use of social media, Rabbi Goldstein is confident that there will be a large audience for his message that the Torah is the inheritance of every Jew, belonging equally to each Jew, and that any place in which two Jews are found together is a potential beis medrash.

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can’t leave South Africa without getting the chief rabbi’s perspective on the question that has been on our minds for much of our time in the country: What are the future prospects of South African Jewry? In the shul in Cape Town in which I davened for three days, almost every one of the older gentlemen who make up the minyan seemed to be just back or just about to embark on a visit to children abroad in Sidney, London, or Ra’anana. At the Shabbos and Yom Tov table of Rabbi David Shaw in the Sandton Shul, there are plenty of young people and a number of newly married couples. None are speaking about emigrating. But there is talk of the impact of quotas on university admissions and on advancement in large law firms. I’m told in Cape Town that the incoming medical school class at the University of Cape Town will have only two or three Jews, whereas once classes were close to half Jewish. Affirmative action quotas to build up a black middle-class are here to stay for the foreseeable future. Finally, the sluggish economy and dreadful state of the rand cannot be good signs even for those with their own businesses and not in the learned professions. (On a positive note, crime is no longer much discussed, in sharp contrast to my first visit eight years ago.)

Rabbi Goldstein is optimistic by nature, and I don’t expect him, in any event, to sound a gloomy note. He does acknowledge, however, concern about the economy. Despite his great respect for President Ramaphosa, he notes that the government’s focus on welfare is both incurring huge deficits and will do little to grow the economy or encourage entrepreneurship. Just recently, he expressed concerns about the government’s announcement of a national health plan that it cannot possibly afford and which might destroy public medical care, and has contacted the president’s office for a meeting to express his worries.

At the same time, Rabbi Goldstein notes, predictions of the end of South African Jewry have been a constant for decades. After a largescale exodus more than 20 years ago, which reduced the community from a peak of 120,000 Jews to about 70,000 today, emigration has stabilized. He also notes that many who have learned in Eretz Yisrael are returning. A new minyan for returning yeshivahleit and kolleleit has formed on the Ohr Somayach campus. The all-night learning of a young group in the Sandton Shul on Shavuos night was of a high level, and led by an avreich who grew up in the shul and subsequently learned for a number of years in the Ohr Somayach Center program and then the Mirrer Yeshivah.

The communal institutions remain comprehensive — from cradle to grave. And many South African Jews continue to be highly successful in business, as they have been for decades.

Even non-observant South African Jews continue to feel an attachment to their Judaism and it plays a major role in their lives. That is reflected in the fact that Israel is more and more the destination of choice for those emigrating.

For his part, Chief Rabbi Goldstein envisions a bright future for South African Jewry — one in which it will continue to serve as a laboratory, producing initiatives that benefit the entire Jewish world.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 775)

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