SA chief rabbi looks past UK post rumors

In interview with 'Post,' Goldstein prefers to talk about recent endeavors in S. Africa rather than candidacy for British rabbinate.

January 18, 2012 05:53
4 minute read.
South Africa's Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein.

Warren Goldstein 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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If the British rabbinate were to place an ad in a newspaper looking for someone to replace outgoing Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who is expected to step down in September, it could read something like this:

Wanted: Sage, spiritual leader, male, Orthodox. Not too young, not too old. With proven experience leading a Jewish community. To fill the position of Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. Great title, nice salary and lots of opportunities to meet the queen. Full disclosure: Quarrelsome community, controversies aplenty.

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As September nears and the search for such an individual kicks up a notch, some say the closest person to that description has already been found.

In an interview over the phone on Tuesday, Warren Goldstein, the chief rabbi of South Africa, who also writes a column for The Jerusalem Post, said he was aware he had been mentioned as as potential candidate for the job.

“I also heard the rumors and speculation that’s going on,” said the 40-yearold, who became the youngest chief rabbi in South Africa’s history seven years ago.

“But as you can tell from the amount of time getting back to you,” (a request to speak with the rabbi was put in two weeks ago) “my head is very much in South Africa.”

Like several rabbis whose names have been raised as potential heirs to Sacks, including Rabbi Michael Melchior and a long list of others, Goldstein demurred when asked if he would be interested in the position.


“I’m really swamped and deeply focused on the work I’m involved in,” he said. “I’m not just saying that.”

Goldstein preferred to talk about his recent endeavors in South Africa rather than the British rabbinate. He was particularly proud of helping set up Community Active Protection, a volunteer organization that helps police neighborhoods in the crime-plagued country. CAP, as it is often called, has helped make the streets safer for 150,000 people, he boasted.

Another focus of his leadership has been standing up for Israel in a country where it has its fare share of foes. He said he relentlessly defended the Jewish state in the media and advocated on its behalf whenever he could.

“The South African Jewish community has a strong Zionist identity and it’s made a big contribution to Israel,” he said.

He also spoke about the conference he organized last June in Cape Town and Johannesburg called Sinai-Indaba, the latter being a Zulu word for community roundtable. It brought a group of renowned rabbis, including Sacks, to the country to debate Jewish issues.

While Jewish educational conferences were important to the South African there was one that he felt ambivalent about. Limmud, the popular international network of Jewish confabs, which draws tens of thousands of people to gatherings around the world, is not one that receives his endorsement.

“There’s a Limmud in South Africa and there’s been a decision form the South Africa rabbinate that as a collective the rabbinate felt it’s not the best educational platform,” he said. “It was a group decision as a whole.”

Limmud has been shunned by the Orthodox establishment in several countries because it embraces non-Orthodox Jewish movements and liberal groups, like the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community. In the UK, where it originated, Sacks has not attended in decades.

Why is Limmud so anathema to Orthodox rabbis in Goldstein’s opinion?

“I think Torah education is crucial, and a large part of my work has been about education. But part of Torah education is where it comes from and the framework of values and that philosophy of life has a context,” he explained. “The feeling is that the educational experience in its allrounded sense needs to take into account that framework of values. We’re free people in a free society and we need to be dealt with in an atmosphere of respect. We can agree to disagree.”

Back on the subject of the UK rabbinate, he said he last visited the country in August and kept track of events relating to the British Jewish community in the news. At the same time, he asked not to be be quizzed about it, explaining that most of his focus on events taking place outside South Africa has been on Israel.

The recent worsening of ties between ultra-Orthodox and other groups of Jews, he said, had upset him.

“There are large schisms,” he said. “One of our top priorities is to hold our society together but the debates have become so polarizing we need to find a way of living together. Verbal abuse, treating people in an undignified manor [cannot be tolerated].”

Perhaps sensing the sensitivity of the topic he asked to move on to the next question.

We had strayed away from the original topic of conversation, he said. In any case, he said he didn’t want to give away too much of his opinion. He said he was saving that for his next column this Friday.

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