The longtime chief rabbi of South Africa, Cyril Harris, has died of cancer at age 69. Harris, who was chief rabbi emeritus when he died Tuesday, led the Jewish community during South Africa’s historic transition from apartheid to a democratic order.
His body was flown to Jerusalem for burial following a memorial service at Johannesburg International Airport. Hundreds of mourners gathered at Jerusalem’s Har Hamenuhot cemetery Thursday morning for his funeral.
“There is no doubt that the South African Jewish community is a better one for his outstanding leadership, both spiritual and secular,” Richard Goldstone, a South African supreme court justice, wrote in a 2000 foreword to a book by Harris.
The Scottish-born Harris, who served as chief rabbi from 1988-2004, proved he possessed a spark. He carried the leadership torch in three areas that he considered his major responsibilities — the local Jewish community, Israel and nation-building in South Africa.
Harris was outspoken on issues ranging from racial intolerance and the economic gap to white emigration, the high South African Jewish divorce rate, women’s rights and communal discipline.
Harris was primarily responsible for having the Jewish “get,” or divorce, incorporated into South African civil law. a feat attempted without the same success in other Jewish communities in the Diaspora.
Many South African Jews felt a surge of pride when their chief rabbi, who became fondly known as the “African Chief,” represented the Jewish faith and said a prayer at the 1994 inauguration of Nelson Mandela, the country’s first democratically elected president.
That was the day a special bond was forged between a visibly moved Mandela and Harris — so much so that when Mandela set his wedding to Graca Machel on a Shabbat, he held part of the celebrations a day earlier to accommodate Harris.
A good cricket and tennis player in his spare time, Harris took on the role of co-chairman of MaAfrika Tikkun, the Jewish community’s effort to help the disadvantaged.
He saw MaAfrika Tikkun as an umbrella for all Jewish outreach efforts and took immense pride in the organization’s projects, promoting them as prototypes and role models for other communities in South Africa.
On his arrival in South Africa, Harris, a descendant of the Vilna Gaon, announced his intention to be a mobile chief rabbi. Unlike his predecessors, he did not occupy the pulpit of the country’s Great Synagogue, or any synagogue for that matter. Through his efforts, he became known throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
Officially, the Chief Rabbi’s Office is at the Union of Orthodox Synagogues in Johannesburg, but anywhere Harris went became his portable office or pulpit.
Within the Jewish community, he sat on the Jewish Board of Deputies, the South African Zionist Federation, the Board of Jewish Education and the board of the South African Jewish Report.
He played a prominent role in interfaith relations, serving on the religious broadcasting panel of the SABC, and was a leading member of the World Conference for Religion and Peace.
Through these forums, he strengthened the ties he initially made with religious leaders of all denominations during the 1994 electoral monitoring, when — following the discovery of 172 electoral violations — six top religious people sought Harris’ verdict. When Harris pronounced that, by and large, the elections were “kosher,” the others concurred.
Following the 1994 elections, Mandela called for the formation of a National Religious Leaders’ Forum, a collective religious voice affecting human-rights issues in particular. As a leading member, Harris counted religious leaders from the Christian, Hindu and Muslim communities among his personal friends.
Harris wasn’t afraid to make waves: He came out strongly against Jewish emigres to other Diaspora countries who left behind elderly parents, causing them to become dependent on Jewish welfare.
At the end of his term as chief rabbi, as Harris eased in his youthful successor, Warren Goldstein, all saluted him for having steered the Jewish community into post-apartheid South Africa.
Harris leaves his wife, Ann; sons Rabbi Michael and Jonathan; five grandchildren; a brother, Victor, and two sisters, Leila and Marilyn.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.