Cape Town Clash
A controversial conversion has reignited a dispute over Orthodox Jewish standards between South Africa’s Orthodox establishment and one of the largest Orthodox congregations in the Southern Hemisphere.
Attempts to paper over the cracks between the beit din, or the Jewish law court, the Union of Orthodox Synagogues and Cape Town’s Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation had been made in August. At that time, Sea Point members, who had been considering pulling out of the union to set up their own rabbinical court, decided instead to give the parties six months to work things out.
However, the issue has erupted again as the result of an article in the latest issue of Noseweek, a South African publication known for investigative journalism. The article focuses on the validity of the conversion that Karin Berman underwent before her marriage to construction magnate Saul Berman, a prominent Sea Point member.
Karin Berman was married to the late Christiaan Barnard, who performed the world’s first heart transplant in 1967.
Members of the beit din reportedly told Karin Berman that they do not recognize her conversion or marriage and said the child she is expecting will not be recognized as Jewish. The credentials of the Paris rabbi who converted Berman were withdrawn 20 years ago, when he was discredited for having certified conversions for a fee, Noseweek reported.
However, Sea Point’s U.S.-born rabbi, Elihu Jacob Steinhorn, insisted that the conversion was valid. Noseweek reported further that the rabbi who married the Bermans in Rome said that he had accepted everything as kosher, based on an introduction from Steinhorn. Steinhorn denied the rabbi’s statement.
The conversion squabble, however, masks deeper issues that have been dividing the South African Orthodox world for some time. Steinhorn told Noseweek that the conversion was "the least of the issues" involved in the dispute.
The heart of the dispute centers on whether Sea Point must observe the standards of halacha demanded by the country’s chief rabbinate in Johannesburg, or whether it can adopt looser standards.
"The fact of the matter is that in the Orthodox world today outside of South Africa, which is very provincial, very closed and very British, there’s a whole world called modern Orthodoxy," Steinhorn said.
"We in Sea Point are its only representative in South Africa," he continued. Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris "can say what he likes, but he does not represent modern Orthodoxy."
Steinhorn disputed claims that the fervently Orthodox community was growing stronger in South Africa, dismissing them as "public relations." The fervently Orthodox, he said, are "disenfranchising most of Judaism."
The Noseweek article mentioned that Harris objected to an invitation that Sea Point extended to Tzili Reisenberger, an Israeli-born theologian at the University of Cape Town, to address the congregation.
"We see nothing wrong with inviting a professor who teaches Bible at the university to come and give a shiur [lesson]. That’s part of modern Orthodoxy," Steinhorn said.
A statement attributed to Harris in Noseweek, charging that Reisenberger officiated at same-sex marriages, was "baldly untrue," said Clive Rabinowitz, Sea Point vice president. Harris later apologized to Reisenberger and retracted the accusation, admitting that his statement had been incorrect and defamatory.
But Harris described as "patent nonsense" the notion that the beit din was being "unnecessarily harsh" and using the controversial conversion to "coerce" Sea Point into stricter observance. At issue, he said, is the fact that "there’s a lot of cheating going on here," with Sea Point congregants defining for themselves what modern and centrist Orthodoxy are.
"Modern or centrist Orthodoxy is observant," Harris said. "The only differences between it and ultra-Orthodoxy lie in attitudes to non-Jewish people and attitudes to general scholarship. They are not differences about the observance of Torah, and this is where both Steinhorn" and a prominent congregant, Judge Dennis Davis, "have got it wrong."
In that sense, Harris continued, Sea Point "is cheating by putting their own definition on modern Orthodoxy."
Harris described as nonsense the article’s assertion that Sea Point was "the last outpost of ‘liberal Orthodoxy,’" resisting "the flood of ‘fundamentalist pietude’ washing south from Johannesburg."
"They are defining Orthodoxy in their own way, and no one else in the Orthodox world will accept it," Harris said.
Rabinowitz, who proposed the resolution to disaffiliate from the union in August, said the public spat was "extremely unfortunate."
Negotiations between Sea Point and the union are "limping along," said Rabinowitz, who predicted that the talks "may yet lead to a resolution of the problems."
Steinhorn said he was not optimistic that things would be resolved between the beit din, the union and Sea Point. "We want unity," Steinhorn stressed, "but I don’t think they can live with modern Orthodoxy," he said.