Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin
Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin Courtesy

Continuing with the series of articles on foreign born rabbis who have served and become famous in South Africa. See the article in Arutz Sheva about the Americans Rabbi Avraham Tanzer and Rabbi Azriel Goldfein, who both became Rosh Yeshivas in South Africa.

This article focuses on British born South African Chief Rabbi Dr. Louis Isaac Rabinowitz (1906–1984).

Please allow me to present you with at least five interwoven “introductions” to this complex yet pleasing and pleasurable subject!

Introduction I: Rosh Hashanah the Jewish New Year is a perfect time to make “new year’s resolutions” and the subject of this article is about a book that was the result of one such “resolution” by a famous rabbi in South Africa not so long ago really, Chief Rabbi Louis Isaac Rabinowitz (1906–1984) who decided that he would devote one year’s worth of Friday Night Sermons to explaining the Friday Night Services based on the Friday Night Shabbat Prayers.

Introduction II: If you have once lived in South Africa you surely have your own way of reminiscing about those “olden days”! For some it is just part of their daydreams and even of scenes in “real” dreams. For others it might be by visiting South Africa as time, finances and circumstances allow. For others it may be by using all the means of the Internet with all sorts of ways to communicate with people anywhere in “real time” while for others it may be an occasional “reunion” or some sort of event, practice or habit of keeping the fading memories alive. You may choose to hang a painting of the South African Veld or of Cape Town's Table Mountain or of a special South African flower or tree or a photo of a past milestone family event held in South Africa. Whatever the case or the medium may be, we all have our ways of “staying connected” with our past and hanging on to fading memories as we move into the future.

Introduction III: One meaningful way to “connect” me to a long-gone way of life and the unique Jewish community of South Africa that I have found fascinating and engaging is by reading real old books that I can get hold of some way or another. I was at one time in South Africa for a family Simcha, and went to visit the King David School in Linksfield, Johannesburg where I had spent ten years of my life from 1962 to 1971 when I Matriculated. During that visit I spent time talking with my “old” English teacher the late Mr. Elliot Wolf who had later become the Headmaster and was later the Director of the King David Schools Foundation. During my visit, the old King David Schools Library was clearing out older books and Mr. Wolf was kind enough to allow me to take a few books from the long-lost past that had not been read by anyone in “donkey’s years” as they used to say.

Introduction IV: One such book is the one I wish to focus on now, it is by the late British-born and educated Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz (1906 – 1984) who was Chief Rabbi of South Africa from 1945 to 1961. The name of the book is “Sabbath Lights” that Rabbi Rabinowitz published after he had delivered a special series of famous South African-style Friday Night Sermons based on the Friday Night Services because that is when most Jews would attend Shul in those days as people became less religiously-observant but still devoted to synagogue attendance on Friday nights and the Jewish Holidays as well as keeping up a loyalty to Orthodox synagogues where men and women sat separately and services were conducted in the traditional Hebrew style albeit with updates to Modern Hebrew pronunciations as part of the South African Jewish community’s ever-strong devotion to Zionism, and the support for the establishment and strengthening of the new State of Israel.

I once briefly caught a quick sideways glimpse of the mercurial and quicksilver Rabbi Rabinowitz some time in the early 1970s as he rushed by ever so busily in animated conversation with other rabbis when he was visiting the Beth Din in the old Federation of Synagogues building in Yeoville, Johannesburg where I was a student at the old Jewish Students University Programme with Rabbi Moshe Kurtstag.

Introduction V: Rabbi Louis Isaac Rabinowitz was born in Scotland and was a great Jewish and secular scholar as well as a spell-binding orator with a fiery personality and zeal for justice. There is a good Wikipedia article devoted to him that lists at least twelve scholarly works to him. He was a staunch Zionist but also an early outspoken anti-Apartheid leader and made it clear that he would not continue as Chief Rabbi of South Africa once the National Party government decided to break away from the British Commonwealth.

Typically, he is described in the Wikipedia article: “[Rabbi] Rabinowitz gained fame by publicly discarding his British war decorations in 1947 in protest of British policies in the British Mandate of Palestine, which he viewed as a violation of the British Mandate for Palestine. Always outspoken in his political opinions, he was a harsh critic of the South African National Party's apartheid policies following the South African general election of 1948. He became famous for throwing down his British war time medals in public as a demonstration against British policy of the time. It has been argued that this was the reason why his candidacy for the British Chief Rabbinate in the mid-1960s was later passed over in favour of Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits."

"[Rabbi] Rabinowitz retired in 1961 and emigrated to Israel; there he became deputy editor-in-chief of the Encyclopaedia Judaica. He became involved in municipal politics in Jerusalem, serving as a city council representative and (1976–1978) and as Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem.”

So one can say that he was in effect the last Chief Rabbi of the Union of South Africa (1910–1961) who refused to accept the ramifications of the new Republic of South Africa because of the way that it seriously entrenched Afrikaner power in a manner that Rabbi Rabinowitz completely opposed. He then left South Africa and was subsequently a deputy mayor of Jerusalem in Israel where he passed away.

There are many stories about his many achievements and brave acts, far too lengthy for this article. Once when there was a gathering in Jerusalem of rabbis who omitted to mention the contributions of others to strengthening Jewish life in South Africa, Rabbi Rabinowitz was not afraid to stop the meeting and shout out in protest that there were worthy names of pioneering rabbis that had been glossed over and should receive their due honor!

This book “Sabbath Light” is fascinating because while it was published in South Africa in 1958, and its objective is to obviously motivate South African Jews to be more educated about the Siddur prayer book and especially the Friday Night Shabbat Prayers and motivate the Shul-goers to try keep as much of the traditional Shabbat, there is now in our own times the well-known “Shabbat/Shabbos Project” run by the present young South African-born Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein (b. 1971) that has not only caught on in the present-day remaining Jewish community in South Africa but has now also become a prototype and role-model eagerly emulated and popularized all over the world in hundreds of Jewish communities.

It is as if the explicit aims and dreams of the long-gone Rabbi Rabinowitz were like dormant “seeds” or “prophetic” messages and “light beams” shining bright from the 1950s and finally being actualized and made into a reality so dramatically by a later holder of the same office and the new generations of South African Jews willing to hear this type of “message”.

In between Rabbi Rabinowitz and Rabbi Goldstein, two other great Chief Rabbis also of British birth and education, were at the helm. First the late Chief Rabbi Bernard Casper (1916–1988) who succeeded Rabbi Rabinowitz, and then the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris (1936–2005) who succeeded Rabbi Casper, who in turn was succeeded by Rabbi Goldstein. Prior to Rabbi Rabinowitz the first official Chief Rabbi was the late Rabbi Judah Landau (1866–1942).

Thus South Africa has so far only had five official Chief Rabbis to date. The Cape Province also had a system of its own Chief Rabbis that was subsequently consolidated into one office with the rest of South Africa.

I was fascinated and impressed with this “Sabbath Light” book by Rabbi Rabinowitz for many reasons. The more than fifty short chapters that cover so many topics and realms of thought are too vast for this essay to deal with. One obvious impression is his obvious stature as a Jewish scholar of the highest order and his total command of both the written and spoken word in English. One can sense the sweep of his oratory and his insights into any aspect of the human condition he focuses on.

He often provides amusing and curious details about his own life either by way of introduction or to buttress his arguments. This book is one of many Rabbi Rabinowitz wrote and published, many still available online, on various topics in Judaism and general historical scholarship. But some special golden nuggets it contains stem from his wry and astute observations about the state of his target audience, those hardy Friday Night Shul-goers who came by the hundreds, and even thousands, often dressed in their absolute “Shabbos best” in those days to the famous Wolmarans Street Shull in Johannesburg/

It was located in the heart of the then heavily Jewish Hillbrow-Berea-Doornfontein-“Town” convergence of key communities, in those days considered “fancy” where even the leading laymen arrived dressed in jet black high top-hats. This was the seat of the Chief Rabbi, the grand “spiritual center” of Johannesburg and South African Jewry, built in the grandiose and ornate almost neo-Byzantine style mixed with the modern imposing architecture of the time that took up a whole block with its complex of halls and classrooms for the Hebrew School Cheder and other offices as part of the Jewish community.

Here are some of the nuggets I gleaned that made me smile and even chuckle for how typical they really were and how they still ring so very true:

In the chapter trying to explain “Why we do not indulge in missionary activity” questioning the words in Psalm 96:3: “Declare His glory among the nations…” that sound strange given that Judaism discourages proselytization, so what then is the point of “declaring God’s glory among the nations” and how is it achieved if not by “converting” everyone to Judaism? Good question, to which he gives some good answers, the best of which being that for the Jews it is by personal example that they either “sanctify” God or “disgrace” Him.

The example cited is of an ancient rabbi from the Talmud Shimon Ben Shetach whose disciples bring him an animal bought from a non-Jew with some sort of rough stone attached to it that turns out to be a valuable jewel. Shimon Ben Shetach immediately instructs that the stone be returned to the gentile because “he bought an animal, and not a diamond” so that the gentile then praises “the God of Shimon Ben Shetach” – that is how Jews win the admiration for God from gentiles by bringing about a Kiddush HaShem-Sanctification of God’s Name.

Rabbi Rabinowitz hammers home his point directly: “I would invite all you businessmen and professional men who are here, to think whether in the course of your business activities you have at any time perpetrated such an act, where despite legally you could uphold your claim, you nevertheless acted in a spirit of equity and justice, with the result that not only you but the God of Israel was praised. If you have, then you have helped to declare God’s glory in the world” and there is therefore no need to “convert” a non-Jew to Judaism because it is sufficient to “win over” the non-Jews’ admiration for the exemplary honesty of the Jewish People.

In the chapter “Teaching by example” Rabbi Rabinowitz uses a fascinating real-life case as an example of how education received at home versus education guided even by qualified Orthodox rabbis can create a conflict within “tradition” where parents say one thing (even in the name of “tradition’) and rabbis say another thing (also in the name of “tradition”) causing a conflict in the child’s mind and life. This is known as the problem and challenge of “dissonance” in educational parlance.

The example he gives is of the famous South African fish known as Kingclip that was first regarded by the Jewish community as “Non-Kosher” and then later when the Chief Rabbi and a group of learned rabbis focused and examined the matter they found that Kingclip was actually a Kosher species after all because it was indeed a fish that had on it scales and fins that are the two signs indicating the acceptable Kashrut-status of any fish.

Here is part of that argument and its implications in trying to explain both the power and abuse or neglect of the verse (Deuteronomy 11:19): “You shall teach them [Torah] to your children to talk of them, and when you sit at home…” cited from the Shma Yisrael – Hear ‘O Israel prayer:

Continues Rabbi Rabinowitz tongue in cheek: “How can anyone dare to assert that Kingclip is Kosher? ‘Di mama hot gezogt’ that it was Treif [i.e. Not Kosher]. Against ‘Di mama hot gezogt’ no decrees of rabbis were of any avail…an excellent example of the two manners in which the doctrines of Judaism are inculcated in the heart of the Jew…the formal education of teacher and the education that comes in no formal way. The education of the example which the child sees in the home ‘when you sit in your house…’ It is in the manner in which the father conducts himself in casual sitting at home…that education which makes an infinitely greater impression upon the plastic mind of the child than the formal rote…

In the current issue of Current Affairs there is a thought-provoking article by Mr. Edgar Bernstein who is far removed from allegiance to traditional Judaism, entitled ‘Are We Rearing Jews?’ and he concludes ‘Unless the home can surround the child with the atmosphere of Jewishness, there is little hope of the Hebrew School [‘Cheder’] filling the vacuum.’ I ask you parents whether the meal which you will partake when you go home will reinforce the message of Judaism which you hear here or be in flagrant contradiction to it; whether your child coming home from Hebrew School finds an atmosphere which is consistent with what he has been taught there or represents a denial of it? It is upon the answer which you and you alone can and will give to that question that the future of Judaism in the community depends.”

In one “fell swoop” Rabbi Rabinowitz turns a “common folk wisdom” community response that prefers what “Mama” has to say about the Kashrut of a fish on its head, and then uses the “weight of that argument” against the Mamas and the Papas in the audience to ask if they will also support ALL the other requirements of Judaism’s teachings as well as supporting and reinforcing at home and by their behavior what they have sent their children to learn in the old-time Cheders of the afternoon and sometimes even morning Hebrew Schools, while also attending secular government-run public schools?

This question still confronts us all no matter what level of religious observance, speaking to us in the here and now just as powerfully as when it was delivered then.

Citing the example of the force of Hydrogen bombs capable of obliterating humanity, Rabbi Rabinowitz does one of his typical intellectual summersaults by surprising his listeners and readers by stating that it is all too easy to “preach” about the horrors of the dangers posed by nuclear warfare and asking for the banning of the H-bomb. But, it is far more difficult to “make peace” on the “home front” when there are fights between family or community members.

In the chapter “Individual and universal peace” based on the words in the evening prayers “Grant abundant peace unto Israel and your people forever” Rabbi Rabinowitz delves into the minefield of controversial interpersonal relationships. He uses as an example and launch-pad a metaphor from his own youth growing up in Scotland: “I was brought up in Scotland and I can tell you that all the traditional jokes based on the miserliness of the Scot have a certain factual basis…‘Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves’ that proverb has a much wider application, it expresses a profound thought which applies to every sphere. It suggests that however great the temptation to look to the big things, the only sure way to effect that is by concentrating on the small and insignificant aspects which are usually ignored…

Here in this synagogue there sit two brothers who can hardly be induced to speak a civil word to one another, and I appeal to them to drop this senseless animosity and patch up their differences…It is these ‘pennies’ of the ideal of peace that each and every one of us can carefully look after and the result will be that an atmosphere of harmony and goodwill will be created…Our Rabbis knew what they were about when they concentrated on these ‘pennies.’ For peace is one and indivisible, and when God blesses husband and wife, or brother and brother, or man and his fellow-man with peace, there comes about the next stage that ‘God blesses his people with peace’ and a combination of peaceful peoples brings about a peaceful world…Let us look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves. Then only will ‘nation not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’(Isaiah 2:4)” How true and applicable up to our own times!

Based on: “‘Sabbath Light: Sermons On The Sabbath Evening Service’ by Rabbi Louis I. Rabinowitz M.A., Ph.D., Chief Rabbi, Federation of Synagogues of the Transvaal and United Hebrew Congregation of Johannesburg [1945 – 1961]. Professor of Hebrew, University of the Witwatersrand. Feldhill Publishing Co. – Johannesburg, 5719 – 1958.”

Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin was born to Holocaust survivor parents in Israel, grew up in South Africa, and lives in Brooklyn, NY. He is an alumnus of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin and of Teachers CollegeColumbia University. He heads the Jewish Professionals Institute dedicated to Jewish Adult Education and Outreach Kiruv Rechokim. He was the Director of the Belzer Chasidim's Sinai Heritage Center of Manhattan 19881995, a Trustee of AJOP 19941997 and founder of American Friends of South African Jewish Education 19952015. He is the author of The Second World War and Jewish Education in America: The Fall and Rise of Orthodoxy. Contact Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin atizakrudomin@gmail.com