Who represents South African Jewry?

  • RabbiGreg
Behind the furore over my colleague, Rabbi Julia Margolis, being invited to lead the interfaith prayers at the DA’s recent electoral conference is the premise that it is only the Orthodox Chief Rabbi, Dr Warren Goldstein, who can represent South African Jewry to the public. I want to take strong issue with this assumption and question why it is held by many in our Jewish community.
by RABBI GREG ALEXANDER | Apr 19, 2018

The first thing to know is that every week my rabbinic colleagues (Progressive and Orthodox) are asked to represent Judaism at some kind of interfaith event. These entail giving blessings for peace at openings of events or conferences, at graduations in universities or at other public occasions. Leaders of different faiths are asked to share a prayer or reading from their religious group to mark these moments.

When the organisers call us up, they are not looking for an “Orthodox” rabbi or a “Progressive” rabbi. They are looking for a Jewish representative. Is Rabbi Julia Margolis a representative of the Jewish people? Whoever complained to the DA seems to think not.

Let me explain why she is just as excellent a Jewish representative as Rabbi Goldstein might be.

Rabbi Goldstein is Chief Rabbi of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues (UOS). He was not voted in by the Jewish people, he was appointed by an organisation that represents its own members.

While he can be commended for the job that he does and for the excellent initiatives that have brought new energy to the South African Jewish scene, he is not my ‘chief’ because he does not represent my beliefs or practices.

He does not represent my Judaism. As a strictly Orthodox Jew, he represents the Judaism that he believes is true.

However, the majority of South African Jews are not strictly Orthodox at all, neither in practice nor belief.

This was made clear by the recent Kol Ishah debate, when Rabbi Goldstein used the power of his office for 10 years to stop women singing at Yom Hashoah services across the country, when in fact, it was only a tiny minority of strictly Orthodox Jews who supported him.

The majority of Jews, including Orthodox ones, called for women to sing, and it was only when an Orthodox Jew threatened to take him and the SA Jewish Board of Deputies to court that women were allowed to sing. Rabbi Goldstein continues to oppose this.

Let’s now turn our focus to Rabbi Margolis and ask whether she can represent South African Jews. As a Progressive rabbi, she represents a movement that has established synagogues across this country for more than 80 years. My children are fourth generation Progressive Jews from the times that my grandparents on both sides left their Orthodox shuls and joined Progressive ones.

Our international movement, the World Union for Progressive Judaism, has nearly two million signed-up members across the globe, the largest affiliation of Jews in the world. Can she represent Judaism? Absolutely.

And what about belief and practice? Does Rabbi Margolis in any way represent fewer Jews than Rabbi Goldstein when she stands up to deliver an interfaith blessing? Do the majority of South African Jews believe, as Rabbi Goldstein does, that only men can lead Jewish religious services or give blessings?

Progressive congregations do not, and Rabbi Margolis – as a rabbi who is also a woman – is the rabbinic exemplar of this fact. Do the majority of South African Jews believe that intermarried couples should be discriminated against?

The Orthodox Chief Rabbi enforces a rule that any Jewish man who marries a non-Jewish woman will not be called up to the bimah in their shul. Rabbi Margolis’ movement does not.

Do the majority of South African Jews believe that Orthodox rabbis should be banned from attending Limmud, one of the few forums in the country for cross-denominational interaction? Rabbi Goldstein has enforced that ban since Limmud first launched.

So, who is fit to represent South African Jewry? No rabbi can represent all Jews in this country, just as no priest or minister can represent all Christians. At many of the interfaith events I am invited to participate in (with no apology sent from the organisation to the Orthodox Chief Rabbi), there are two or sometimes three Christian clergy to represent different churches.

At a recent commemoration of the centenary of former president Nelson Mandela’s birth at the Grand Parade in Cape Town, both I and Rabbi Asher Deren from Chabad were invited to give blessings.

Orthodox or Progressive? Catholic or Protestant? Sunni or Shiite? If you were organising your event, who would you invite? In most cases, most organisers are looking for one faith leader to deliver a meaningful prayer from their tradition. And this is what Rabbi Margolis did. No apologies needed.

  • Rabbi Greg Alexander is chair of the SA Association of Progressive Rabbis and serves on the rabbinic team at the Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation


  1. 4 Marie Gruzd 19 Apr
    A brilliantly informative and honest article - well done Rabbi Greg.
  2. 3 David Lipschitz 20 Apr
    Excellent article. Thanks Rabbi Greg.
  3. 2 Pearl jantjies 21 Apr
    Well argued.  Judaism in all its hues need strong voices.
  4. 1 Harold Sandak-Lewin 22 Apr
    A logical and well documented statement from Rabbi Alexander


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