Dispute over Jewish Standards Roils South Africa’s Orthodox World

A dispute over Jewish standards may lead Cape Town’s largest Orthodox congregation to withdraw from the country’s Union of Orthodox Synagogues.

Cape Town’s Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation was supposed to vote on a resolution to withdraw from the UOS and set up its own rabbinical court, or Beit Din, at a general meeting earlier this month that drew over 1,000 congregants.

In the end, the issue was postponed for six months to give the synagogue committee more time to negotiate with the country’s Chief Rabbinate.

At issue is whether the congregation must observe the standards of halachah, or Jewish religious law, demanded by the country’s Chief Rabbinate in Johannesburg, or whether it can adopt looser standards.

Clive Allen, Sea Point’s president, told congregants that relations between the synagogue and the Beit Din had been “steadily deteriorating” over a number of years, with the acrimony recently reaching “an untenable level.”

Disagreements have included disputes over the conduct of Sea Point’s rabbi, whether synagogue members who have married non-Jews should be allowed to read from the Torah or serve on the synagogue committee, and the handling of cemetery matters.

The synagogue’s American-born rabbi, Elihu Jacob Steinhorn, who has led Sea Point for 25 years, assured the meeting that the synagogue would not become Conservative.

To those who argued that the dispute with the UOS would split the community, Steinhorn said, “We look forward to unity, but with dignity and without going the road of fundamentalism.”

Clive Rabinowitz, vice-president of the congregation, said it had been Orthodox for the past 70 years but “conflicts were bound to occur” because “the UOS and the Beit Din have moved steadily to the right.”

Until 15 years ago, the Cape Beit Din was led by a local rabbi, Rabinowitz said. Currently, it is led by the head of the Johannesburg Beit Din, Rabbi Moshe Kurtstag.

Among the contentious points are “quickie” conversions that Steinhorn has facilitated — the actual conversions were performed in America — which are not recognized by the Beit Din.

According to Rabinowitz, these have now stopped.

Nevertheless, in a letter to Allen, Sea Point’s president, that was read at the meeting, South African Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris wrote: “My colleagues and I deeply resent the failure of the president, vice-president and rabbi of the Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation to adhere to the undertaking given to us earlier this year that no persons outside South Africa would be approached to facilitate easy conversions.

“Not only are these conversions unacceptable, but they are an affront to those who pursue the correct conversion process,” Harris wrote.

Harris warned that the Chief Rabbinate, the Beit Din and the UOS would not recognize Sea Point as an independent Orthodox synagogue, and quoted a number of halachic authorities worldwide who said that if Sea Point set up an independent Beit Din they would not recognize it.

“In view of the critical situation affecting our beloved State of Israel and the dangerous rise in anti-Semitism afflicting Jewry as a whole, it is reprehensible” that Sea Point would consider leaving the group, Harris wrote.

Any such move would “cause division and fragmentation within our community,” he warned.

A former president of Sea Point, Aubrey Berman, said that Sea Point should not be forced to accept a strict interpretation of Orthodoxy.

In the past, he said, the Cape Beit Din had been run by rabbis who understood that the local community was “simply not at the level of observance of Johannesburg Jewry,” he said.

“We’re not ultra-Orthodox and don’t want haredi interpretations forced on us,” Berman said.

Congregant Dennis Davis listed demands that he said should be put to the Beit Din, among them the establishment of a reconstituted Cape Beit Din to reflect the mores of the community, and the need for a “sensible” debate around conversions, possibly through a commission of inquiry.

After the meeting, Harris said it was a pity the committee did not have the courage to vote on the resolution.

“The common sense of the majority of the congregation would have prevailed and the resolutions would have been soundly defeated,” he predicted. “As it is, a six-month postponement does not solve any of the real problems, including the failure of the rabbi and the lay leadership to adhere to written agreements.

“The crucial issue has been misrepresented,” he said. “This controversy is not about centrist or modern Orthodoxy, the adherents of which are Torah-true, but about” the congregation’s “flouting of the halachah, particularly in relation to unacceptable conversions.”

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