The Importance of Open Synagogues
Updated: May 8
At the heart of the storm around the barmitzvah of Judge Richard Goldstone’s grandson stands an ancient and sacred principle: open synagogues. The Rabbi and lay leaders of the Sandton Synagogue, where the barmitzvah is taking place, consulted with me on how to respond to the threats of protest at the Judge’s presence at the barmitzvah service. Together we took the decision that the synagogue is open to the entire family, including Judge Goldstone, and that everything possible would be done to ensure that the barmitzvah be celebrated with the dignity and joy befitting such an important religious milestone.
I am acutely aware of the wrongs perpetrated by Judge Richard Goldstone. Only a few months ago the Jerusalem Post published an article of mine, in which I criticized his report on the Gaza war as replete with numerous procedural and substantive injustices, all of which tainted its findings legally, factually and even morally. At the time I wrote that his Gaza report “is a disgrace to the most basic notions of justice, equality and the rule of law” and that it is “unjust and wanting in truth”. His severely compromised report has unfairly done enormous damage to the reputation and safety of the State of Israel and her citizens. In the face of much opposition, I have on numerous occasions and publicly, defended the justice of the cause of the State of Israel, and so feel saddened and outraged at the injustices of the Goldstone Report and its very real practical implications threatening the safety of millions of Israelis.
Nevertheless and in spite of all he has done, there is a great principle at stake here, one which is central to Judaism: open synagogues. A synagogue is the home of G-d, and it is open to all. The very first synagogue in history, the Biblical Tabernacle, which was constructed 3322 years ago as recorded in the Book of Exodus, was lead by Aaron the High Priest, who was a great unifier of the people and whose life philosophy is described by the Talmud as “loving peace, pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them close to Torah”. These are the values of an open synagogue. An open synagogue is a place of holiness and G-d’s presence, and should never become an arena of politics, division and pain. It must be a place of compassion and kindness. The Talmud says that we are commanded to act with compassion and kindness because G-d does, and we are required to imitate Him.
Open synagogues are inclusive, and welcome in a tolerant and non-judgemental way all who seek to enter and join in our services and pray to G-d. I am proud and grateful that in South Africa over many years our Orthodox synagogues have been beacons of openness and inclusivity. In this respect, our South African community can offer direction and guidance to world Jewry. Writing in the Jerusalem Post a number of years ago, Rabbi Berel Wein, the world reknowned Jewish thinker and historian, said: “One of the tragedies in current Jewish life is the abandonment of all connections to Torah and the synagogue by secular society. Only the ‘religious’ have a right to synagogue attendance and Torah study. Secular means never stepping foot in a synagogue. What a tragic misreading of Jewish history and life!”
In South Africa everyone comes to shul, and so it should be. Our synagogues do not turn away any congregants because of what they have done, or not done, or who they are, or what opinions they hold. And that is probably one of the reasons why, as surveys have shown, South African Jews have the highest proportions of religious adherence and identity in the world, and why in the last two decades there has been in South Africa an unprecedented growth of Judaism.
Open synagogues are also places of principle and faith, dedicated to prayer, Torah learning and deep spirituality. Many think that tolerance is about compromising principles. All beliefs, whether religious or secular, can lead to narrow, partisan bigotry, and even hatred and violence. Some say that tolerance and openness cannot co-exist with passionate beliefs in supreme religious truths and morality. They are wrong. The Talmud says that G-d is a G-d of compassion, but also of truth. We need to find a way to combine our passion for our faith and moral principles, with a gentle and warm engagement with people who do not share it. Judaism teaches that in doing so we do not compromise our beliefs. On the contrary we are in fact in sync with them, as the Hebrew Bible says, “Her [the Torah’s] ways are that of pleasantness, and all her paths are those of peace”. These words, taken from the Book of Proverbs, describe what the Talmud says are among the defining qualities of Judaism.
And that is why I feel so strongly that the synagogue be open to Judge Goldstone, even though he has done so much wrong in the world. This is not about him. It is about the eternal principle of open synagogues, of a Judaism of peace and gentleness, a Judaism of openness and compassion. The proud and ancient legacy of open synagogues that we have merited to inherit must be defended and strengthened, so that we pass it on to our children.