Leadership is a fascinating phenomenon. Our societies are shaped by leaders as they pioneer the way forward, stimulating us to think, motivating our actions and lifting our spirits. They create infrastructures and if they are righteous, they ensure sustainability. The Jewish communities that have taken their seat at the global table are those with great leaders at the helm, and the South African Jewish community has its seat at the main table of that banquet. It boasts a zeitgeist that is renowned worldwide and pulsates with a fierce commitment to Jewish and Zionist values.
Over the past few months, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the lives we once knew and we have watched in awe as the best of our leaders have risen to the surface and those less worthy have fallen from their glass pedestals. The signature mark of a true leader is one who stands up to be counted, steps up to the plate boldly, with courage, tenacity and a definitive commitment to see their undertakings through to the very end. Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein is ubiquitous on the leadership playing field, always at the forefront, setting the trend, paving the way for South African Jewry by ensuring that on all fronts the communities’ multitude of needs have been accounted for – a feat he continuously undertakes with a drive that quite simply put is…unmatched.
I have had the great honour and privilege to share a special relationship with both Rabbi Goldstein and his wife Gina and am a great admirer of his many worthy and wonderful projects. He is the quintessential maverick, leading from the top as he navigates often uncharted waters with an uncanny ability to make miracles happen. It is a sunny day and our conversation is as candid as it gets – transparent, enlightening and moving. I am always uplifted by Rabbi Goldstein for so many reasons, but what I find most inspiring is his purity of intention.
As we discuss leadership, he shares a treasure trove of golden nuggets, “A leader does what he has to do for the good of others. If you are in a position of leadership and those around you are in need or are suffering, you are obligated to step up and make a contribution.” And step up he does. As we discussed the pandemic and the key role he played in creating a task force and infrastructure, it is clear that he is a man of his word. One may think, what does the role of Chief Rabbi have to do with broader communal issues? He answers me before I could ask the question. “Torah is broad, it encompasses everything. Torah is not limited. It pertains to all aspects of life and therefore, my responsibilities as a Torah leader are similarly holistic. Being a true Torah leader means looking out for the safety, security, welfare and overall wellbeing of the community. Leadership is first and foremost about caring for people. This has to be the prism through which you engage with your community.
"Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was against using the word ‘religion’ to define Judaism because Torah is about so much more than that, it has something to say on everything.”
Over the past 15 years, Rabbi Goldstein has put this philosophy into action. He is the founder of Community Active Protection (CAP), a community-driven crime-fighting initiative that protects 30,000 homes and upwards of 200,000 people in Johannesburg, which has reduced contact crime across the city by between 80 and 90 percent. He was also a founder of ORT/JET- an organisation that helps empower local Jewish businesses.
In 2013, he introduced one of his signature projects – the Shabbat Project. What began as a local “unity initiative” bringing together South African Jews – observant and not, young and old – to observe a full halachic Shabbat, soon became a full-blown global grassroots movement that last year reached more than 1,500 cities and 106 countries around the world. There’s also Sinai Indaba, perhaps the largest annual Torah convention of its kind in the world. Every year, the event brings together an array of leading international Jewish thinkers and speakers, and thousands of South African Jews of all persuasions. Then there’s “Generation Sinai”, a platform for parents and children to connect and learn Torah ideas with one another in preparation for each Jewish holiday, which has become a fixture in many schools, including here in the UK.
On the political front, Rabbi Goldstein has been a vocal advocate for Israel, and a staunch activist against antisemitism and anti-Zionism. He has also been a forceful critic of the South African government when it has dealt unfairly with Israel, and during the corrupt presidency of Jacob Zuma, during which time he joined marches on parliament, spoke at national rallies and even went so far as to amend the traditional prayer said in shuls every Shabbat morning for the welfare of the government. A recent public conversation with the Chief Justice of South Africa on the subject of racism underlined his commitment to racial justice, and when there was a public outcry over Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng’s perceived “pro-Israel bias”, Rabbi Goldstein leapt to the Chief Justice’s defence with a series of searing op-eds in one of the country’s main newspapers.
The breadth of Torah - this idea that Torah “has something to say on everything” is reflected in the books and other works Rabbi Goldstein has written. With a PhD in Human Rights and Constitutional Law, his doctoral dissertation explored the Torah’s “Vision for a Moral Society”, and dealt with issues such as human rights, political power, women's rights and the criminal justice system. Soon after taking the reins as chief rabbi, he wrote the “Bill of Responsibilities” – adopted by South Africa’s Department of Education and taught in schools nationwide, and then co-authored a book with Dumani Mandela (Nelson Mandela’s grandson) on the importance to society of values and morals. At the same time, Rabbi Goldstein – a qualified Dayan (Jewish Judge) – is also the author of Sefer Mishpat Tzedek, a halachic work (in Hebrew) discussing Torah business law and ethics, with a particular focus on competition law, and The Legacy: Teachings for Life from the Great Lithuanian Rabbis (with noted historian, Rabbi Berel Wein), exploring Lithuanian Jewry and its heritage and values.
“Torah is the blueprint for the world,” says Rabbi Goldstein. As the Midrash says, ‘God looked into the Torah and created the world’, meaning the world is an expression of everything contained in the Torah, and therefore there is nothing within human experience that is outside the framework of Torah.”
“There are different models of leadership. Western leadership is typically top-down, hierarchical. African traditional leadership is bottom-up. A classic example of this is the Imbizo custom – whereby everyone states their opinion, and from those opinions the chief formulates a consensus for the way forward. The Jewish model of leadership is inside-out. First, you work on yourself, refine your character, become a mensch. And then you widen your sphere of influence to include a spouse, a family, friends, community and society in ever-expanding circles of leadership. But the starting point is the self. The miztvot (commandments) are the framework for helping us to create a better version of ourselves. Nachmanides’ entire philosophy of the miztvot is based on how they change us and make us into better people. And for me, this is a principle that guides me in everything I do.
“Leadership is about creating partnerships, about collaborative relationships that are not top-heavy. When leadership is top-heavy, it holds people back and doesn’t achieve the intended outcomes. The Torah outlook on leadership is very interesting. The Talmud teaches that God wants us to be His partners in creation. Torah itself is a framework for forming that partnership with God. We see from God’s own example that leadership should not be top-heavy. This form of collaborative, consultative leadership is a style I adopted from the outset in 2005 when I first took office. The incredible thing is that when we recognise our partnership with God, we by definition become partners with one another. Building a community requires leaders to believe in their community and the community to believe in their leader. So, at the heart of leadership is this partnership model.”
Rabbi Goldstein tells me that when he creates new projects, he first creates the infrastructure and ensures it is solid and then he empowers others to take responsibility on the implementation, because that is how you build a sustainable model. “When I embark on projects, my goal is to build partnerships and work collaboratively, communicating clearly, leading proactively and always empowering others as we go along. No leader has all the answers and no leader is fully self-reliant. You will only be successful if you build bridges, have faith in others and give them the respect they deserve. If you empower people, you allow them the chance to become great. Nelson Mandela exemplified this. He believed in people and this opened doors for them to rise up and actualise their potential. When I met him I asked him to sign a children’s version of his autobiography ‘Long Walk to Freedom’. He wrote – “To a future great leader.” That note epitomised how he saw potential greatness in the people around him. We are all created in the image of God and therefore have all been imbued with the spiritual gift of malchut, an innate majesty. The Torah tells us that Moses was “the humblest of all men.” The commentators explain that his greatness came from being able to recognise the greatness in the people around him. That is true humility, true greatness, true leadership.”
On the Pandemic
“As part of my mandate as Chief Rabbi, I try to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the community. So when we realised that South Africa was weeks away from a full blown outbreak of Covid-19, I immediately endeavoured to establish protocols that would ensure that it was addressed as effectively as possible.”
In all his endeavours as Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Goldstein has always tried to work with experts in any given field, and the pandemic was no different. Fortunately, South Africa is blessed with a remarkably resourceful Jewish community with leading experts in many professional spheres. From the beginning of the pandemic, Rabbi Goldstein enlisted the guidance and support of Professor Barry Schoub, Founding Director of the National Centre of Disease Control and a world-leading virologist, and Dr Richard Friedland, CEO of Netcare, the country’s leading private healthcare provider. Later he brought on board Professor Ephraim Kramer, a leading expert in emergency medicine, with a specialty in mass gatherings, who recently oversaw all of the medical operations for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
Of course, Covid-19 is more than just a health crisis. The institution of mass lockdowns to curtail the spread of the disease has engendered financial, social, political and spiritual upheaval on an unprecedented scale. “Dealing with Covid-19 as a leader requires a multi-faceted approach. This is the approach I’ve tried to take”.
Medical: Rabbi Goldstein formed a task force of renowned experts, including Professor Schoub, Dr Friedland and Professor Kramer to address the acute medical emergency that the pandemic caused, ensuring the community were pre-emptive and proactive in closing shuls before lockdown and implementing protocols that would protect the community. The medical team also established the scientific criteria for when the reopening of shuls could take place in a responsible way, also providing the protocols for how that should be done.
Political: Rabbi Goldstein has engaged with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and senior cabinet ministers throughout the pandemic. Many of these engagements have involved discussing the implications of the lockdown for the country’s religious communities and ensuring the provisions of the lockdown were manageable.
Financial: Within the community, the chief rabbi has been particularly anxious about the issue of Jewish-owned small and medium-sized businesses surviving the harsh lockdown restrictions. From the beginning of the pandemic, he worked behind the scenes with a number of philanthropists and business leaders to help set up a special community fund to assist these businesses. The outcome of these efforts was the Gesher Fund, offering interest-free loans to ensure Jewish businesses weather the storm so they can get back on their feet when the Covid-19 crisis subsides.
Spiritual: Rabbi Goldstein coordinated a variety of prayer initiatives, as well a series of Shabbat campaigns, with the focus on how Shabbat can be a source of comfort and strength at a difficult time. These campaigns culminated in a global Shabbat initiative bringing together chief rabbis across the world and centred on Shabbat HaGadol (the Shabbat before Pesach). He then joined a number of these chief rabbis in issuing a call for Jewish communities across the globe to set aside their differences and unite in honour of the festival of Shavuot, and in recognition of the common challenges that have beset communities in the wake of Covid-19.
Education: The chief rabbi published and distributed a series of books comprising articles written by the South African community Rabbis and Rebbetzins for each of the festivals. This, he says, was of particular importance with shuls closed and the usual avenues for spiritual connection limited. He is producing a Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur guide to help the community through the high holy days, though it is anticipated that shuls will be reopen by then, albeit with strict safety protocols and restrictions.
Online: Rabbi Goldstein set up a WhatsApp group and Facebook page to spread words of Torah and provide comfort and guidance to the community. There has also been a weekly webinar to provide regular Covid-19 updates to the community, alongside advice from special guests dealing with Covid-19-related issues, such as managing stress, dealing with loss, and coping with financial challenges during the crisis.
Conversation: He is also about to launch the “Lessons from Lockdown” campaign: a community-wide conversation in which people are invited to share what they have learnt during the coronavirus crisis – “so that we can draw strength and inspiration from each other as a community.”
Rabbi Goldstein explains how the strategy for the way shuls will exit lockdown will also fall in line with this collaborative principle of leadership: “I don’t take a paternalistic approach of ordering shuls what to do. Rather, together with Professor Kramer, we have put together the guidelines that ensure it is medically sound and responsible to reopen and then I invite the Rabbis to decide together with their communities about how and when they want to reopen. I have made it clear to them that to open a shul without complying with our health and safety protocols would be a violation of halacha and so the ultimate decision of whether to open is theirs. This means they are obliged to take full responsibility for the decision and to be accountable for that decision to their communities. I have also encouraged individuals to take responsibility for their own decisions to attend shul. And if they notice that their shul is not complying with the protocols, they must raise the issue with shul leadership, or even find somewhere else to pray, if needs be. This approach empowers shuls to lead their own communities and also compels congregants to act as equal partners with co-responsibility in the process.”
Leadership in the Modern World
“Rabbi Mordechai Pinchas Teitz of Elizabeth New Jersey used to say, ‘The Torah speaks in the language of tomorrow.’ The Torah is by its nature always ahead of its time in how it relates to our world. God, Himself, is in a sense democratic in how He wants us to partner with Him in His creation of the world. He left the world in a state of imperfection precisely for this reason; He leaves room for us to partner with Him in perfecting it. Consider this: the Talmud teaches that a doctor is given permission to heal. One may think, how can a doctor change the status quo and essentially overrule the authority of God’s own Hand in a person’s life? But the Talmud is teaching us a very important principle: God Himself wants the doctor to be a partner in bringing healing.”
Rabbi Goldstein emphasises the great importance in believing in people and relinquishing control in order to empower. He is emphatic in his belief that no one person can offer all the answers and quotes a Mishna in Ethics of the Fathers, “Make many students.” He explains this to mean that every Jew should play a role in teaching Torah and thereby have many students, not just rabbis and officials. “God wants us to work with him in making this world a better place, which requires leaders to let go and make space for everyone. The truth is this is not always easy for the layman who then has to assume more responsibility that they might be accustomed to. So the paternalistic model of leadership is often a safer bet, because it absolves people of having to make a contribution. People need to feel the weight of responsibility and find solutions together - solving problems as equal stakeholders.”
Lessons From My Rebbe and Teacher – Rabbi Azriel Goldfein
“I learned in Yeshiva Gedolah in Johannesburg under Rabbi Azriel Goldfein who was very influential in shaping me into the person I am today. He gave me a deep appreciation of Torah as the divine design of the world, and the way I have strived to lead and serve in my tenure as Chief Rabbi is always by using Torah as the blueprint. Torah has formed the basis of every single thing I have set out to do.
“Rabbi Goldfein was also remarkable in how he dispensed advice. Whatever problem I brought to him, he never told me what to do. We would analyse the situation together, and he would probe my motivations for taking a particular line, and also explore all the options available to me. He was brilliant at asking penetrating questions to help me to understand my own train of thought and how I had arrived at my decisions. This process would help me refine my thought process and arrive at an answer. He was exceptional in this regard. He also taught us to think for ourselves, and when we wanted to delve into Torah topics, he would passionately encourage us to examine the sources and to spend time with the texts, working hard to make sense of it. Of course, this was always done through the lens of mesorah (tradition passed down from rabbi to student) which links us back to Sinai. But we were given the freedom to explore the Torah in our own unique way.
“The Litvishe derech (Lithuanian approach) is very much centred on character development, connected to the Mussar movement, founded by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter. This approach encourages a person to put in the effort to work on one’s character because good character and pristine integrity is the starting point of leadership. We can never dismantle the traits that do not serve us, but we can mould them and refine them and eventually gain control over them. The Mussar approach compels us to address head-on our vested interests, our egos, the resentments we may carry - these are all part of who we are - and to transform them by redirecting them. This is another reflection of the breadth of Torah; that it encompasses every aspect of life, every dimension of us.”
Rabbi Goldstein constantly emphasises the universal relevance and moral weight of the Torah’s message. He lives and breathes this credo and through his extraordinary example he has been able to impact hundreds of thousands of Jews in the global Jewish community and is renowned as a leader by both Jews and gentiles alike. What is most impressive about him is his extraordinary ability to create such a fluid intersection between the Torah and secular world and with a symbiotic combination of gentleness and boldness that could only come about through the consistent character refinement that underpins the noble ethos by which he lives.
To quote Nelson Mandela, “A leader…is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realising that all along they are being directed from behind.” Rabbi Goldstein exemplifies the very essence of leadership as he shepherds the flock home.
- October 12th 2020
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