Cyril Harris – a larger-than-life figure
PHOTOGRAPH BY SUZANNE BELLING
Edited by former Jewish Report editor Geoff Sifrin, the book, “Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris – How humanity, morality and humour helped lead a community”, was published by Batya Bricker for the Chief Rabbi CK Harris Memorial Foundation.
Ann Harris, widow of Rabbi Harris, opened the programme by thanking all those involved in the writing, production and financing of the book. She said it was the story of her late husband’s ministry.
Chief Rabbi Harris had intended writing a commentary on Pirkei Avot during his retirement, but he passed away prematurely before he was able to do so, Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein said at the launch.
Yet Rabbi Harris created a commentary by living the principles espoused in each mishna of the tractate.
“A true Torah scholar is someone who embodies its teachings in daily life,” Rabbi Goldstein said, citing several verses from the Ethics of the Fathers.
“He lived life with urgency and impatience, but was loved by all.
“He was passionate about this country and endeared himself to all. He inspired us to believe in the future of South Africa,” Rabbi Goldstein said, as was illustrated at the 1994 inauguration of President Nelson Mandela, when Rabbi Harris spoke with “such majesty and golden words”, quoting Isaiah.
He was a great leader and his presence electrified the room when he entered.
Ann Harris and her husband were rightly described as the “royal couple” of South African Jewry, guest speaker Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron said.
Rabbi Harris was more than the right man at the right time – at a tempestuous and perilous time.
According to Cameron, the book reveals him as a commanding presence – “an open-spirited, large-hearted human being, with a rare gift for oratory and human engagement” – and human frailties and foibles.
He was closely connected to the presidency of Nelson Mandela and had “a previously unthinkable political prominence and political influence. This required risk-taking and courage.
“He went before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and apologised for ‘the evil of indifference which so many in the Jewish community professed’ during apartheid,” Cameron related.
Rabbi Harris had died before his time. Mandela died seven years later.
“What do their lives say for us in South Africa today? They call us to the three great gifts of humane leadership” – having vision when visibility is impaired or even seen as nonexistent; offering our foes what they did not offer us in return – dignity and justice; and calling us to an encompassing and inclusive vision of our own and others’ humanity.
“In an uncertain world we had to hope for many of Mandela’s and Cyril Harris’ kind.”
Justice Cameron highlighted the role Ann Harris played in the life, career and impact of her husband.
“Ann is herself a person of formidable skills, strong personality and redoubtable courage.”
Zamie Liknaitzky introduced Justice Cameron and Foundation trustee Mickey Glass introduced a video by Shawn Levin on the work of the Foundation and its four groups of beneficiaries in which Rabbi Harris had a particular interest – Jewish community services, medical care for vulnerable children, development skills for disadvantaged communities and “rabbis for the 21st century, practical rabbinics”.
In her closing remarks, veteran community leader Marlene Bethlehem, recalled being present at the TRC when Rabbi Harris apologised on behalf of the community for its silence during apartheid.
Cantor Yudi Cohen and his group, Diversity, provided musical interludes.
* “Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris – How humanity, morality and humour helped lead a community” is published on behalf of The Chief Rabbi CK Harris Memorial Foundation by Batya Bricker. Price: R220. Available from the Kollel Bookshop, Johannesburg, and the Museum Shop, Gardens, Cape Town. Next year it will also be available at Exclusive Books.