When I interviewed South African Jewish youths, no one could definitively distinguish Reform Judaism from its Progressive counterpart. There are more than 1000 families who are members of the Progressive Shuls in Cape Town – yet not one person knew the answer. This begs the question – is Cape Town’s dominant orthodox Jewry actively excluding a significant portion of its own Jewish People?
As previously mentioned, progressive Judaism in Cape Town forms a large number of the broader Jewish community. However, the organised Jewish community categorically aligns itself with Orthodoxy – an archaic method of practising Judaism that is unpopular in most parts of the Western world (even including the United States and Israel). Ironically, while South Africans might call themselves “Orthodox Jews”, they actually practise the traditions that Progressive Jewish community have adapted, one that suit the needs of a modern Jew.
The South African Jewish community are one of the very few Jewish communities worldwide whose members consider themselves orthodox. Ask any Jew anywhere else in the world and I guarantee you they would describe an orthodox Jew as being staunch – someone who stringently follows the laws outlined in the Torah (i.e. the old testament). But this is not the case in the South African Jewish Community. The majority of Cape Town Jews who considered themselves “orthodox” (including myself), would not be considered orthodox anywhere outside of the South African context. As a result of these arbitrary distinctions, Progressive Jews are often collectively excluded from community events. Progressive movements are openly delegitimized by the community’s Orthodox rabbis and the dominant discourse of the Jewish people in Cape Town (and South Africa) surrounding Progressive Judaism propagate a stigma towards Progressive Judaism.
Progressive Jews have adapted orthodox laws to suit the needs of a modern community set in a Globalized Context. For example, using a cell phone or driving on the Sabbath is forbidden in an orthodox shul but is allowed in a progressive one. With this being said, the majority of “orthodox” Jews in Cape Town do not abide by the official laws of the Sabbath that so many orthodox Jews around the world do. Thus, Progressive Jews are moving with the times and creating a Judaism that is relatable and inclusive – even to the Cape Town’s orthodox majority – yet they are continually excluded.
The strength of South African orthodoxy is majorly rooted in their political, financial and social power over the community’s Jewish institutions. Movements such as the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) align themselves with orthodoxy. Jordan Seligmann – the Chairperson of SAUJS at the University of Cape Town explained that SAUJS would define themselves as pluralist (i.e. inclusive of all sects of Judaism). However, this isn’t actively specified as one of their official pillars and, as such tend to maintain the orthodox laws in the running of all religious services. In addition, SAUJS has informally aligned themselves with Chabad on Campus – a fresh Jewish student organisation that is explicitly orthodox, Seligmann confirmed that the two organizations “work together most of the time with respects to religious events”. This informal alignment is further exacerbating the exclusion of Progressive Jews as high holidays and religious events are celebrated in an orthodox manner and do not include Progressive Jewish traditions in their services.
I conducted a survey asking 53 Jewish students – “Is a certain type of Judaism favoured in South Africa? If yes, why?” Unsurprisingly, 78% said yes and 40% of those said the reason being orthodox hierarchy while 30% said ‘other’. However, the answers for those who chose ‘other’ all related to orthodoxy’s financial and exclusionary power within organised Jewish community movements.
Rabbi Malcolm Matitiani, a progressive rabbi in Cape Town, suggests that the reason for the great deal of prejudice towards the Progressive Jewish community is largely based on ignorance (“What is Progressive Judaism”, 2016). Rachael Bootcov explained to me that as a Hebrew teacher at Temple Israel (The Progressive Shul), the children who she teaches don’t fully understand their own sect of Judaism. She explains that this is largely based on the monopoly power that the community’s Jewish schools hold. Rachael says that when teaching them for their Bnei Mitzvah (coming of age ceremony) she often gets the child who does not agree with the Progressive traditions because of what they are being fed in the school system. Rachael further explains that from personal experience, it is difficult to ‘un-teach’ her students what have been engrained in their school education and as a result, a sense of pride is non-existent within their community amongst the younger generations.
As an active member of the progressive Jewish community, Rachael explains that conversations amongst people in her community are happening in attempt at inclusion within the broader community. But she does not think that these same types of conversations are happening amongst orthodox movements. She explains that we cannot be one cohesive movement because of the vast ideological differences. Nonetheless, she foresees “tolerance and inclusion” amongst the Jewish community a logical possibility.