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Taming South Africa's Urban Jungle

Yonoson Rosenblum

Whether the problem is high crime rates or incursions into traditional Torah Judaism, Rabbi Warren Goldstein, South Africa’s young and energetic chief rabbi, isn’t afraid to take a stand. Indeed, his unwavering belief in the Torah’s ability to provide solutions to modern-day challenges has earned him the admiration of both high-ranking government officials and a broad cross section of South Africa’s kehillah.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I first met South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein in Jerusalem’s Inbal Hotel, shortly after he had assumed his duties on January 1, 2005, at the tender age of thirty-three. It would have taken a far more churlish person than I not to like him, given his ready smile, boyish enthusiasm, and his eagerness to meet me. And yet I must confess that I badly underestimated him for precisely the same reasons.

In that initial conversation, which lasted well over an hour, he told me that he had recently published a book entitled African Soul Talk: When Politics Is Not Enough, consisting of his e-mail correspondence with Dumani Mandela, a grandson of Nelson Mandela, the first president of post-apartheid South Africa and iconic leader of
the resistance movement to apartheid. He also mentioned having completed his doctorate in law. I absorbed this information with a nod, and privately concluded that the South African Jewish establishment had selected the young man primarily for his secular credentials. I also decided that the new chief rabbi, who possessed a plummy English accent, was lacking “the right stuff,” the requisite toughness needed for the job.

It was not long, however, before reports began to filter back from South Africa that made it clear I had badly misjudged his mettle. Indeed, hints that Rabbi Goldstein would prove a far tougher nut than some might have thought could be found in the speech given by his beloved rosh yeshivah, Rabbi Azriel Goldfein, at the new chief rabbi’s inauguration. Rabbi Goldfein enjoined the young yungerman — like Yosef, young in years but mature in wisdom — to “walk in front of your nation, to be their leader, not to follow them,” just as Moshe Rabbeinu asked Hashem to provide a successor “who will walk in front of the nation” (Bamidbar 27:17).

How closely the new chief rabbi had been listening soon became evident. After accepting an invitation to speak at a communal event marking the tenth anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, Rabbi Goldstein learned that an invitation to speak had also been tendered to a representative of South Africa’s small Reform community. He immediately withdrew from participating in the event rather than give any credence to the Reform movement by appearing on the same platform with one of its clergy.

Around the same time, he walked off the platform when a teenage girl from Johannesburg’s largest traditional Jewish high school got up to sing at a Yom HaShoah event. “It was obvious that a chief rabbi cannot simply remain passive to a public violation of halachah,” he later explained to me. Both actions drew a great deal of communal attention, much of it critical, and the new chief rabbi was accused of having broken communal unity and traditional South African standards of tolerance. But he was unfazed by such attacks. Over a leil Shabbos dinner at his home during my recent visit to South Africa, Rabbi Goldstein confided, “As a community we have become altogether too comfortable with kefirah. Were someone to start promoting Holocaust denial, we would protest vehemently. Yet we hear Hashem’s existence questioned or the Divine origin of Torah and remain silent.”

What enabled him to survive these early controversies was the combination of his upbeat personality and the steady stream of initiatives that has poured forth from his office. Even the nonobservant elements of the general community have had to acknowledge that he is not a naysayer, but driven by a positive vision of undiluted Torah as the only basis upon which to sustain the community. At his inauguration, he took for his personal motto the statement of Rabbi Yochanan HaSandlar, “Any community dedicated to Heaven will endure forever” (Avos 4:14).


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