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Chief Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz 


As South Africa goes to the polls to re-elect a corrupt, evil, disaster of a regime,  one feels so sorry for those naïve idealists hoped for something better. Amongst them was a man I greatly admired.  Chief Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz (1906-1984) who was Chief Rabbi in South Africa during the early part of the apartheid regime. Not only was he a charismatic personality and a powerful orator, but he was also a moral, forthright dynamic leader who fearlessly said what he believed and refused to compromise. I can’t think of anyone as fearless and outspoken a rabbi as him, other than a close friend of his, my father.

I first met him in 1954 when my father took me to South Africa when he went there on a lecture tour. His warmth and magnetism attracted me immediately.  And he became a very important part of my life. After my father’s death, he was a sort of surrogate and he helped launch my career in the rabbinate.

He had been rabbi of a series of synagogues in London and during the Second World War he was appointed the senior Jewish chaplain for the British Army. He served with the allied forces in the Middle East, and during the Normandy invasion. He was a very passionate and committed Zionist. A follower of Jabotinsky and revisionist Zionism. A great supporter of Menachem Begin. Who happened to be in South Africa at the same time as we were and who was adopted by most of the South African community rather than the socialist Ben Gurion. 

In 1945 he had accepted the position of Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew congregation of Johannesburg, the Federation of Synagogues of Transvaal and the Orange Free State, and head of the Beth Din. At the same time, he was a professor of Hebrew at the University of Witwatersrand where he researched the role played by Jews in the Boer armed forces during the Anglo-Boer War. He dominated the South African Jewish community, and he did not flinch at making enemies. Many in the Jewish community were frightened that his outspokenness would threaten their position. He was a man of many parts. He loved going horse riding every Friday out onto the veldt , something he would continue when he moved to Jerusalem later in his life. 

He had gained notoriety and acclaim by publicly throwing down his military decorations in 1946 in protest at the British policies in mandatory Palestine who had refused to allow the remnants of the Holocaust to migrate to Israel. This was why it was said that he was passed over twice for the position of Chief Rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth. In fact, when he was short listed to succeed Chief Rabbi Brody, he wrote to the Queen asking if she would oppose his appointment because of the medal issue, and she replied that she did not. However, his opponents then justified their opposition because he was too strong a personality. Had he been elected he would have been the last bastion before the British Chief Rabbinate capitulated to the Charedi pressure.  

After the South African National Party won the election in 1948 and began installing apartheid regulations, he became an outspoken critic of the apartheid regime, objecting to its moral failure and racism and ignoring the disapproval of the government and some of his community. 

He challenged the Nationalist Government when it extended apartheid to religion. He rejected the amendment to the Native Laws Bill which would bar Blacks from white churches in the country.  Rabinowitz declared that the synagogues were “open to everyone of any creed or color” and that Blacks would be admitted to services in the same way as Europeans. He said that Judaism made no distinction between white and black and that there were dark-skinned Yemenite Jews, black Jews of Harlem, and the Ethiopian Jews as well as Cochin. There was no color bar in Judaism.

He continued his attacks against Apartheid with such fearless vigor that in the end the South African authorities demanded his retirement instead of expulsion. Rabbi Rabinowitz left South Africa in 1961 and settled in Israel.  In Jerusalem, he was a city councilor and  Deputy Mayor. He became the Rabbi of the Herut-Etzel (Achdut Yisrael) Synagogue and an editor for the Encyclopaedia Judaica and wrote a weekly column on the flora and fauna of Jerusalem. His political positions were right-wing. He opposed the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai and fell out with his friend, Prime Minister Menachem Begin over it. He Died in 1984.

When I was studying in Jerusalem, I would spend many Friday nights at his home on Rehov Mapu. His knowledge of both Judaica and secular culture livened the Shabbat meals.  The lights would go out after the meal and guests would leave. But as he warned his favorites, they should remain. Shortly afterward the lights would go on again and we would play Scrabble. 

He took it upon himself to guide me toward the rabbinate. While I was still in the middle of my studies, he persuaded me to take a break and go to Bulawayo in what was then Southern Rhodesia to help out the community temporarily after the sudden death of their rabbi. He said I needed to get some practical experience of the rabbinate before deciding if that was what I wanted. He gave a temporary and honorable ordination! He mentored several other young men of promise who became prominent rabbis around the world. 

The South African Jewish Report in its obituary said “ Rabbi Rabinowitz was without doubt the most distinguished representative of the South African Jewish community during the years of his sterling work, on behalf of the community and its religious, educational and philanthropic institutions. He left an incredible imprint on the community which remains to this day. He was the absolute master of the spoken word and was supreme on the pulpit.” 

He would without doubt be shocked at what South Africa post Mandela has become but then aren’t we all? And even more so by the hypocrisy of the world toward Israel. He must be turning in his grave.

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