Chief rabbi removes government from prayer for SA
If you’re in an Orthodox shul on Shabbat morning, you may notice that the prayer for South Africa sounds different. It has been rewritten by Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein in response to the South African government’s public support for Hamas.
Now, Jews will pray for the people of South Africa, not the government. Goldstein spoke to a number of rabbis online on 18 October and followed it up with a letter to explain the reasons for the change. He shared the letter with the South African Jewish Report.
The current prayer for the Republic of South Africa was composed by the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris in 1994. It reflected the country’s transition to democracy, and beseeched G-d to protect and guide the president, the deputy president, and the ministers of South Africa with wisdom. It’s recited before returning the Torah scrolls to the Aron Kodesh (holy ark).
This prayer has been changed once before, Goldstein noted, in his letter to the rabbis. He said, “You may recall a similar instance a few years ago, at the height of state capture, when I changed the prayer so that we would not be praying for President Jacob Zuma who was inflicting suffering on 60 million people for the purposes of self-enrichment. Such a change is reserved for extreme situations, for government violations of morality so grotesque they undermine the integrity of praying. This is an issue of being true to our Torah values. We mean what we pray for; our prayers reflect our deepest hopes and aspirations, and our deepest values.”
The chief rabbi continued: “The [current] change is, clearly, due to the South African government’s ongoing support for Hamas. How can we pray for a government that supports an organisation responsible for the worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust – an organisation whose official policy is to murder Jews and which poses an ongoing threat to the safety of the Jewish people and the State of Israel?”
“It’s not a decision that was taken lightly,” Goldstein added. “In any democracy there will be government policies certain population groups will vehemently disagree with. And we certainly can’t change the text of our tefillot [prayers] every time the government makes a decision we don’t like. But when the government crosses the line and adopts a stance this immoral, we can’t in good conscience pray for them.”
He added, “Note the main difference in the prayer is that from now we will be praying only for the country and the people of South Africa, and not for the government. When explaining this to your congregants, it’s important to emphasise the critical distinction between the South African government and the South African people.”
Last Sunday, the chief rabbi addressed thousands – Jews and those of other religions – who had gathered in Johannesburg to demonstrate their support for Israel. In his address, he made the important distinction between the government and the country, stressing that the current government had forgotten that it worked for the people of this country and that it was supposed to be there to serve them.
“As I relayed in my speech at Sunday’s [South African Zionist Federation] SAZF rally for Israel,” Goldstein said, “We are not our government. The people of South Africa exist apart from the government. We elect the government – they serve us and are accountable to us. In a democracy, the government draws its mandate from the people – the people are, in fact, higher than the government. Hence, the South African constitution begins with the words, ‘We, the people.’”
In his letter to the rabbis, Goldstein said, “A blessing we have here in South Africa is the prevailing atmosphere of tolerance and kindness among people of very different backgrounds. It is worthy to note that, at this point, the surge of antisemitic attacks around the world has not happened here Be’ezrat Hashem [with the help of G-d]. The people of South Africa have once again shown how the value of unity in diversity is held dear by many.”
When Jacob Zuma was eventually forced out of office in February 2018, the prayer reverted to Harris’s original text.
How long might it now take to revert to the original version, if ever?