New Chief Rabbi Eager to Regroup SA Flock

President Thabo Mbeki has warmly welcomed Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein into the group of “nation builders” who have the “honesty and compassion” needed to strengthen South Africa’s moral vision. Addressing dignitaries at Sunday’s inauguration of South Africa’s fifth – and first South-African born – Chief Rabbi, Mbeki said he agreed with Goldstein that societies were “held together by a shared moral and spiritual vision”. Besides being an accomplished scholar of Jewish law, Goldstein, 33, had a doctorate in human rights law, Mbeki noted, and was therefore well placed to assist in the country’s moral regeneration as well as “our struggle to uplift the poor and marginalised”. “The kind of values espoused by the Chief Rabbi are the very ones that we need to instill in society.

“The Jewish community has always enriched the tapestry that is South Africa,” Mbeki said, “and you need to remember, Chief Rabbi, that the doors of the office of the president will always be open to you.” The inauguration of Goldstein was held on Sunday morning at the Sandton Synagogue, Bet Ha-midrash Ha-gadol. Those present, besides members of the congregation, included Minister of Education Naledi Pandor, judges of the Supreme Court of Appeal and the High Court, members of the National Religious Leaders’ Forum, and scores of local rabbis. Both Mbeki and Goldstein sent their condolences to Catholics and Christians worldwide over the death of Pope John Paul II. Both also sent their good wishes to Goldstein’s predecessor, former Chief Rabbi and now Chief Rabbi Emeritus, Cyril Harris, who is ill and was unable to attend the inauguration.

In his address, Goldstein said that “the rainbow was designated by the Almighty as a symbol of hope for the world after the enormous destruction of the flood, just as our own rainbow nation has emerged from the vortex of apartheid. “South Africa is a beacon of hope for humanity, showing the world that racial conflict… can be overcome with respect and compassion”. Goldstein said that the covenant made between Jews and the Almighty “guides us to some of the most important values of South Africa: non-racialism and equality. “The Almighty chose to create all of humankind from one man and one woman… to eradicate racism by ensuring that we human beings are all brothers and sisters.”

Goldstein also said that the conflict in the Middle East was “a war between brothers” and that the local Jewish community hoped, along with Jews all over the world, that it would soon be settled peacefully. Goldstein, an advocate with a BA, LLB and PhD in human rights law, qualified at a Johannesburg rabbinical seminary in 1996. He was appointed Chief Rabbi last year but underwent a year of “apprenticeship” with Harris. At 33, Goldstein is the youngest man ever to have been appointed to the post in this country. His selection as the fifth official spiritual leader of the South African Jewish community reflects the religious revival and return to religious principles by a new generation of young South Africans in recent years. Goldstein’s own family “returned to God” when he was a boy growing up in Pretoria. When Goldstein’s father, High Court judge Ezra Goldstein, made the decision to observe the Sabbath, “it was life-changing”. For Goldstein, his appointment is also tied closely to where South Africa is as a country.

“The Mbeki era is about a nation at work… the new struggle is about creating jobs, tackling poverty and disease.” His interest is in fostering a shared moral vision which “must include creating a better life for all. “It sounds like a political slogan but it’s a very important moral vision. We need to enable and facilitate South Africans to give full expression to the greatness that lies within them. It’s very difficult for a person to realise their potential if they’re living in grinding poverty or with the threat of disease or crime.” Goldstein began his Rabbinical studies at 17, and studied law and philosophy through Unisa at the same time. He completed his LLB while working as a Rabbi. The intention was always to practise law – he has been admitted as an advocate of the High Court – but those plans fell by the way as he became a rabbi. He has a doctorate on Jewish law’s relevance to human rights and modern constitutional law, and he is author of African Soul Talk with Dumani Mandela (grandson of Nelson), a dialogue debating their visions for South Africa.

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