Chief Rabbi’s Inauguration Speech
Updated: May 7, 2020
The President of the Republic of South Africa and Mrs. Mbeki, Ms. Naledi Pandor – Minister of Education, Rosh Beth Din Rabbi Kurtstag and other Dayanim of the Beth Din, Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Goldfein, Mara De’asra Rabbi Suchard, Chairman of the Rabbinical Association Rabbi Goldman, other honoured Rabbis and Rebbetzins, Acting Ambassador for the State of Israel Mr. Ilan Fluss, Judges of the Supreme Court of Appeal and of the High Court, my esteemed colleagues from the National Religious Leaders’ Forum, Chairman and President of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues Mr. Max Abrahamson and Mr. Harold Novick, and Vice Chairman of the Cape Council Dr. Clive Rabinowitz, Chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies Mr. Michael Bagraim, Chairman of the South African Zionist Federation Mr. Avrom Krengel, Chairman of the South African Board of Jewish Education Mrs. Fay Lewis, Chairmen of Synagogues and other leaders of Community Organisations, Distinguished Guests.
Mr. President, on behalf of the South African Jewish Community I would like to thank you for your presence here this morning, which signifies your esteem and respect for Jewish South Africans. We are deeply grateful to you as a community, as am I on a personal level, for your having honoured us with the lustre of your presence. We are also grateful to you for devoting your life’s work to South Africa and would like to take this opportunity of congratulating you on your government’s record over our first decade of freedom and democracy. May G-d continue to bless you and your government.
We sorely miss today the presence of my illustrious predecessor Emeritus Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, may he be well. His great contribution, and indeed that of his dear wife Ann, to our community and to South Africa during a time of momentous change and transition are well known and deeply appreciated by us all. Less well known are his many private acts of love and chesed. I myself owe him a profound debt of gratitude for his exceptional warmth and kindness and mentoring of me during my year as Chief Rabbi Elect. Chief Rabbi Harris led us through an epoch-making period of our history courageously, warmly and kindly, with distinction, integrity, and with a light touch of wise and benevolent genius, calmly, and with grace and elegance, and often too with a little gentle humour. We continue to pray fervently for his recovery and we send our warmest love to him and to Ann, and to their family.
Rosh Beth Din, Rabbi Kurtstag, thank you for honouring me with your words this morning, and for inaugurating me. Allow me to express, on behalf of us all, our gratitude to you and to the Beth Din for providing the community with religious authority in vital areas.
My Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Goldfein, thank you for your warm words of guidance and inspiration. The community is indebted to you and Rebbetzin Goldfein for creating a world-class Yeshiva here in Johannesburg, which has for nearly three decades been training Rabbis for the South African Jewish Community.
A special welcome to all my learned and esteemed Rabbinical colleagues and their Rebbetzins, who have honoured us all by their attendance here today in such large numbers. Each of you is at the coalface, available virtually around the clock to congregants in need. Much of your work is done confidentially, and so is unheralded and unsung in this world of mortal man. Each and every congregation you lead forms a precious and intimate community – a world; and an essential building block in the great South African Jewish community, to which we are privileged to belong.
I wish to thank my wife Gina, our parents and families, and my brothers for their love and devotion.
And finally to Al-mighty G-d, Creator and Source of all life and all things, my profound and humble gratitude for everything. We are not alone. We are the proud children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and the 12 sons of Jacob who became the 12 Tribes of Israel, whose descendants were enslaved by Pharaoh in Egypt until G-d liberated us through Moses, Aaron and Miriam. He gave us His Torah at Mount Sinai, cared for us in the desert for 40 years, and under Joshua’s leadership brought us into the Land of Israel. We are the children of those heroes of the Book of Books and we stand on their shoulders.
Everything that we are and everything that we do is built on those who preceded us. Our vision for the future, and our understanding of the present, are rooted in the past. When we pray, three times a day, we begin the Amidah, the most intimate of our prayers to G-d, by humbly acknowledging ourselves as the children of the past. We call on G-d, who is our G-d and the G-d of our fathers, “the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, and the G-d of Jacob”. We begin our prayers in this way because we realise that we do not stand alone, that when we come before G-d, we come before Him with 4,000 years of history, and with generations of righteous men and women, on whose merit we rely in order to stand with confidence before G-d Al-mighty, the King of all kings.
Our forefathers and foremothers laid the foundations of Judaism and the Jewish people. Abraham, born 3,817 years ago into a pagan world, discovered G-d and the importance of ethical living, of compassion and kindness to all. He taught us to show kindness to the wayfarer; he taught us loyalty and commitment to G-d’s will, even at great personal sacrifice. He taught us to have the courage of our convictions, to do the right thing, and to stand, principled, and if need be, alone. He preached the importance of freedom in a world of tyranny.
From Isaac we learnt what it means to be a faithful transmitter of a received tradition. Jacob, together with his wives Leah and Rachel, founded the Jewish people through their daughter and twelve sons. Through their trials and tribulations and struggle to earn a living, to raise their children and find a place of security to live, they all showed us that to build G-d’s world one needs faith in His benevolence and dedication to family. Jacob and his wives raised twelve great leaders, heads of tribes, including the brilliant Joseph, who rose from the dungeons to become the Viceroy of mighty Egypt, while all the time remaining loyal to the values of his fathers.
Our forefathers and foremothers laid the foundations for the most significant event in history. Exactly 3,317 years ago, which equates to only about 120 generations ago, G-d revealed Himself and His law to the newly liberated twelve tribes of the children of Israel. Approximately 3 million men, women and children witnessed G-d’s presence themselves, and with their own ears heard His voice at Mount Sinai.
That singular event became indelibly imprinted forever in the collective memory of our people. The Sinai experience was the culmination of Abraham’s journey, and is the foundation for the rest of Jewish history. Mount Sinai is the real birth place of the Jewish people. The Book of Exodus (19:6) tells us that shortly before the revelation G-d said, “You shall be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”, thereby declaring that Jewish identity is religious and moral, and not ethnic or cultural or racial. This is borne out by the fact that Jews today, and this is especially evident in Israel, are multi-racial and multi-cultural, made up of almost every race and many different cultures. To be a Jew is to accept the values that were revealed at Sinai, values which represent the will of G-d, as taught to our people in their full detail after the giving of the Ten Commandments. It is the moral vision of Sinai that holds us together as one community, all Jews then and forever thereafter.
As Chief Rabbi, I have chosen as my guiding principle and motto for our community the following passage from the Talmud, from Ethics of Our Fathers (4:14): “Rabbi Yochanan Hasandlar said: Any community dedicated to Heaven will endure forever”.
Avot deRabbi Natan, the classic Talmudic commentary to Ethics of Our Fathers, says that the community referred to is Knesset Yisrael, the community of Israel at Sinai. Accordingly, the community dedicated to Heaven, that will endure forever, is one which spans more than 3,300 years, from Mount Sinai to the present. The Talmudic Sages are teaching us that we, the Jewish people, can only survive and indeed thrive, when we are in alignment with, in sync with, the values of the successive generations of Jews who received and passed on the tradition from Sinai. G-d says in the Book of Deuteronomy (4:9-10): “Only be careful and guard your soul exceedingly, lest you forget the things that your eyes have beheld and lest you remove them from your heart all the days of your life; and [you shall] make them known to your children and your children’s children the day that you stood before the L-rd your G-d at Sinai.” We also need consciously to remember what was witnessed at Sinai, because the Almighty foresaw that there would be deniers and doubters of what occurred, just as there are now, and have been for years, deniers of the Holocaust, so soon after it occurred.
Knesset Yisrael, the community of the children of Israel, is what we can term a vertical community, rooted in Sinai. All the generations from Sinai until now in fact form part of one community. Anyone who studies Torah is in constant dialogue with voices coming from that community – voices that span 4,000 years of our history. The Rambam traces 40 generations of scholars from Moses our teacher, to Rav Ashi, the editor of the Talmud. They include Joshua, the Prophets, the Men of the Great Assembly, the Rabbis of the Mishnah and the Rabbis of the Gemora. Through all of them the great truth of the vision of Sinai was transmitted to the post-Talmud scholars, and then on to the Rabbis of the Middle Ages – the Rambam, Rashi, and many others. It is particularly significant for us here today that the author of the passage in the Talmud I have quoted is Rabbi Yochanan Hasandlar, who wrote the words almost 2,000 years ago, because it has been established that more than eighty percent of all Ashkenazi Jews, which includes almost all of us, are related to Rashi, who himself was a direct descendant of Rabbi Yochanan Hasandlar. Therefore, many of us here today are direct descendants of Rashi and the illustrious author, Rabbi Yochanan Hasandlar, who himself was a direct descendant of the great King David of Israel.
Rabbi Yochanan Hasandlar was a student of the famous Rabbi Akiva, and he lived in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple, and a military occupation by the Romans, which calamitous events ultimately led to the exile of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel, an exile which lasted almost 2,000 years until 1948, with the re-establishment of the State of Israel. At the time Rabbi Yochanan spoke, the outlook and future of the Jewish people seemed bleak. His own mentor Rabbi Akiva was executed for teaching Torah in defiance of tyrannical Roman decrees; and so to claim that the Jewish people, if they were dedicated to Heaven, would endure forever must have seemed quite unrealistic. The mighty Roman empire with its elaborate civilisation must have had a much greater prospect of survival than the small and beleaguered Jewish people. But the Roman empire is no more. Its values, its legal system, its political system, and now even its language, have vanished from the daily lives of all humanity. And yet we, the spiritual heirs and descendants of Rabbi Yochanan Hasandlar and Rabbi Akiva, are still here today, and at the beginning of the 21st century can say with heartfelt gratitude that we share their values, their ideals, and their laws. If Rabbi Akiva, and his student Rabbi Yochanan, walked into this synagogue today and opened our prayer books, they would understand the Hebrew language in which we pray, and would empathise with our prayers; we would show them the Sifrei Torah, our Torah scrolls contained in the Ark with the same hand-written text that the Torah scrolls had in their day, a text of 304,805 words which Jewish communities throughout all the countries of their dispersion, isolated from each other for hundreds of years, have jealously guarded and preserved to this day – and successfully so: this itself is compelling testimony to the authenticity of the text as G-d’s word. We would tell them that we have recently celebrated Purim, the festival which commemorates our escape from genocide at the hands of Haman, and that we are soon to celebrate Pesach, Passover, the festival of our freedom from Egypt. They would understand and identify with all of this. They would smile knowingly at how the immortal words of Rabbi Yochanan Hasandlar are the central theme of my address today.
The legacy of Mount Sinai gives us, the South African Jewish community, direction for the future: to be part of a “community dedicated to Heaven.” Our destiny and our divine mission calls upon us to align our values and our behaviour to the principles and laws that G-d revealed to us at Sinai, and which 120 generations of Jews have loyally carried with them from place to place and from era to era.
I see myself as a student of a long and noble tradition of great Rabbis, who are my own link to Mount Sinai. I am a student of my Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Azriel Chaim Goldfein shlita, who was a student of Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, the late Telz Rosh Yeshivah, who himself learned from Rav Avraham Yitzchak Bloch, who was a student of Rav Yosef Yehudah Leib Bloch, a student of Rav Lazer Gordon, the founder of Telz. He in turn was a student of Rav Yisrael Salanter, a student of Rav Zundel Salant, who was a student of Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner, who was a student of the great Vilna Gaon himself. And I am honoured to be entrusted to continue the great tradition of South African Chief Rabbis: that of Chief Rabbi Dr. Landau, Chief Rabbi Dr. Rabinowitz, Chief Rabbi Casper, and yibadel l’chaim Chief Rabbi Harris.
And so, as we stand here today looking for a vision for the future, we turn to our Sinai legacy. Understanding where we come from and who we are gives us guidance and direction. The covenant at Sinai binds those who stood there and also all future generations including our own. The Divine wisdom that was revealed to us at Sinai illuminates the world for us and shows us how to deal with it and how to respond to all its challenges. It teaches us how to build a community and how to be loyal citizens. It shows us how to serve G-d and how to be good people who give generously to others. It shows us how to raise children and what to be ambitious about.
Our Torah values from Sinai teach us how to be good Jews and also how to be loyal committed South Africans. The Talmud lays down Dina deMalchuta Dina – it is a rule of Jewish law that we are to obey the laws of the State; only unjust and immoral laws of the State may be disobeyed, and so the racist legislation of the apartheid regime was not binding on us. The Talmud instructs us to pray for the welfare of the government, which we have done today, as we do at every Sabbath morning service; and prayers are about hope and aspiration – about asking for, and dreaming of, a better tomorrow. Thus the teachings of our Sages require us to share the hopes and dreams of the new South Africa, and to do more than that – they call upon us actively to contribute to its progress and welfare. The Talmudic doctrine of contributing to the greater society around us is called Tikkun Olam, which literally means to fix the world. The world, we are taught, is in a state of disrepair, and is filled with human suffering, and it is our sacred duty to repair and heal it. In South Africa, as we strive to overcome the devastation of apartheid, Tikkun Olam is about poverty alleviation and moral regeneration, and also about redressing the injustices of the past. We are all called upon by the teachings of Sinai to uplift the poor, through charity, and through growing the South African economy as productive, law-abiding citizens, and as hard-working and creative entrepreneurs. We are required by Jewish law to act with integrity, honesty and compassion, spreading the light of Torah morality and spirituality, so as to be a dynamic part of the Moral Regeneration Movement in our country.
Our Sinai covenant also guides us to the most important values of the new South Africa: non-racialism and equality. The Talmud taught about the equality and brotherhood of all humankind long before it was fashionable to do so. The Oral Tradition from Sinai, recorded in the Talmud, about 2,000 years ago, that G-d chose to create all of humankind from one man and one woman, even though other species of plant and animal life were created en masse, in order to eradicate racism from the world by ensuring that we human beings are all descended from one man and one woman. Therefore we are all brothers and sisters. Our teachings from Sinai declare the immorality of racism. The Talmudic statement, “Beloved is the human being created in the image of G-d”, means that every human being has from G-d a soul, which reflects in some way the awesomeness and greatness of the Creator Himself. And so it behoves each of us to treat every human being with great care and respect, regardless of race, colour, creed or gender, and regardless, too, of their station in life.
The covenant of Sinai also helps us articulate a moral vision for South Africa, the Rainbow Nation. After the destruction of a corrupt world in a flood from which only Noah and his family were saved, G-d says in the Book of Genesis ( 9:16 ): “The Rainbow will be in the clouds, and I will see it to recall the eternal covenant between G-d and every living soul in all flesh that is on earth.” Since that flood, the rainbow has become the symbol of a covenant between G-d and the world to build a brighter future for humanity, through societies based on respect for G-d and all human beings. For us in South Africa that means formulating a Bill of Morals that will exist side by side with our Bill of Rights. There are many moral principles which all South Africans agree upon and which can become our shared moral vision for the future. The rainbow was designated by G-d as a symbol of hope for the world after the enormous destruction of the flood, just as our very own Rainbow Nation has emerged from the vortex of the brutality of apartheid. The new South Africa is a beacon of hope for humanity, showing the world that racial conflict and intolerance can be overcome with respect and compassion for all. The new South Africa is also a symbol of hope for the African Renaissance led by our President.
Our tradition from Sinai also helps us understand our connection to the Land of Israel and the State of Israel. Zionism did not start 100 years ago and the Jewish people’s connection to the Land of Israel did not need the Balfour Declaration or resolutions of the United Nations to be legitimate. Our ancient connection to the land of Israel has deep historical and, more importantly, covenantal roots. Nearly four thousand years ago our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived in the land which G-d had promised to them and to their descendants forever. That promise was confirmed at Mount Sinai, and was delivered upon by G-d through Joshua, after the death of Moses. The Jewish people lived in the Land of Israel for 850 years – from the time of Joshua until the destruction of the First Temple and their expulsion by invading Babylonians. They returned in large numbers seventy years afterwards to build the Second Temple and to rebuild the Land, where they remained for a further period of many centuries, until their eviction by the Roman Empire after the destruction of the Second Temple, less than 2,000 years ago. There has always been a Jewish community in the Land of Israel, and many Jews have tried to return in the long interval between the Roman dispersion and the re-establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. The Ramban left his native Spain in 1267 to live in the city of Jerusalem, where amidst the ruins of an almost totally destroyed city, he built a synagogue which was liberated by the Israeli army 700 years later in 1967. Can you imagine what he would say today, if he were to walk through the streets of Jerusalem, with its throngs of people living in a vibrant city, praying at the Western Wall, and continuing in the paths of Sinai? The Ramban’s synagogue represents the sweep of Jewish history, and the continuity of the Sinai tradition from one generation to the next, and it represents the ancient connection of the people of Israel to the land of Israel.
The Torah provides an ultimate vision of peace and reconciliation between Arab and Jew. The conflict in the Middle East is between brothers, and that is the real tragedy. We are all the children of Abraham; Jews are the children of his son Isaac, and Arabs the children of his son Ishmael. The Talmud tells us that, although the sons of Abraham fought for many years, when Abraham was buried in Hebron, Isaac and Ishmael were reconciled at his grave. Let us all pray to G-d that we will merit to see the day when brother will once again be reconciled with brother in the Middle East.
Our mission as the South African Jewish community is to be “a community dedicated to Heaven”, which is always to remain part of Knesset Yisrael, the multi-generational community of Sinai. From our connection to Sinai we can learn to be good people, good Jews and loyal South Africans, committed to the survival of the State and the holiness of the Land of Israel.
Our moral vision starts with Mount Sinai and ends with the vision of the Prophets for the Final Redemption and a better world, for a time which the prophet Isaiah described in these memorable words: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid and a little child shall lead them … they shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the L-rd as the waters cover the sea … and they shall beat their swords into plough shears and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” It is our task to build a community in South Africa with loyalty and dedication and so to write a proud chapter in the history of the Jewish people, and of humankind, a history with spiritual roots at Mount Sinai, culminating in the Final Redemption.
I speak of writing a chapter because, according to the Talmud, even today, the unfolding story of humankind continues to be written in Heaven in a Book, as we continue to journey from Mount Sinai to the Final Redemption. We have the opportunity and the calling to be part of that Book, the Book of the Redemption of all humankind, which provides the link between Mount Sinai and the Final Redemption. If we remain loyal to the teachings of Sinai, we shall help to write an illustrious chapter in that Book, and if we do not, G-d forbid, we will be relegated to a footnote.
Our mission then as the South African Jewish Community is to write this great chapter in G-d’s Book of the Redemption for all humankind by continuing to build a community that would be a source of pride to our fathers and mothers who came before us. They fled from Eastern Europe where they had experienced hundreds of years of grinding poverty and worst of all, persecution and murder, which culminated in the annihilation of six million Jews in the Holocaust of World War II. And no doubt with prayerful optimism, they made their homes here in Africa.
If they could see us today, they would see much that would bring them joy. They would see us in the process of writing one of the great chapters of Jewish history: a chapter which describes how we have built, over the last 150 years synagogues, schools and welfare institutions, that reflect the values of Sinai. They would see a community that has proportionately one of the highest levels of Torah observance and Zionist commitment in the Jewish world today. They would see a community which has legendary unity and warmth. They would see how the Ba-al Teshuva movement – the return to Judaism movement – is a shining example to the Jewish world today. They would see an illustrious Beth Din whose authority is widely respected. They would see how great the Jewish contribution has been to South Africa in areas such as law, politics, medicine and business. Coming from the pain of the oppression and racism of their European overlords, our forebears would be amazed at the breadth of vision of the new South Africa, and at the great South African dream of “The Freedom Charter” – whose 50th Anniversary we celebrate this year – “that South Africa belongs to all who live in it”, the dream of unity in diversity: a dream which sees diversity not as an obstacle, but rather as a source of abundant and rich blessing, where we can proudly celebrate being Jewish and at the same time proudly celebrate being South African. They would see a new South Africa built on tolerance and respect and the dignity of all people, with a Bill of Rights that protects all its peoples and even gives the Hebrew language special mention.
And so today, as Chief Rabbi, I call on our community to go forward from this inauguration with clarity of purpose. Let us go forward with a clear vision of our future, committed to our holy task of continuing to build a community dedicated to Heaven. Let us rededicate ourselves to the covenant of Sinai.
Let us go forward with the clarity of this vision and steadfast loyalty to it. Let us also go forward with strength and with confidence because we are not alone in the world. We are the children of G-d, who is our G-d and the G-d of our fathers, and the G-d of the entire world, and into Whose hands we place our trust. We stand here today with the accumulated merit of previous generations, and we pray to G-d to bless us and have mercy on all of us, to give us the strength and understanding to continue in the ways of our forebears so that we may be worthy heirs to their great legacy which He bequeathed to all of us at Sinai. May G-d bless us all with His abundant blessings; may He bless our brothers and sisters throughout the world and especially in our beloved Israel; may He bless our beloved South Africa. May G-d bless our beloved special South African Jewish Community, and may He help us to continue to build a “community dedicated to Heaven”.
G-d bless you and thank you.