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,
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
“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
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
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
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.