A Cape Town Jewish community built on love and acceptance of one another

By Rabbi Emma Gottlieb (she/her)

As I write this, it is Tu B’Av, the Jewish day of Love. 

We have just moved passed Tisha B’Av, our national day of mourning, and are beginning the seven weeks of liturgical consolation that lead us out of the depths of despair and into the optimism that we need as we prepare to confront our mistakes and misdeeds, and commit to another year of trying harder to reach our potential as individuals and as a Jewish community. By the time you are reading this, we will be almost at the New Year, and we will either have done the spiritual work that Elul invites, or we will be coming unprepared into 5783. Yet, in the remaining days of 5782, we still have some time to imagine how our Jewish community in Cape Town might be improved in the year(s) to come.

Over Tisha B’Av, we often talk about Sinat chinam, meaning the ground-less hatred which the Talmud attributes as the reason for the destruction of our Holy Temples in Jerusalem. The term comes from two Hebrew words, soneh, which means to hate (as in the commandment lo tisnah et achicha bilvavecha — You shall not hate your kinfolk in your heart, from Lev. 19:17) and chen, which means grace. Sinat chinam is therefore sometimes translated as ‘hatred that is gratis’. Then, as now, it refers to internal strife within the Jewish community — hatred between Jews (and thus the exact contravention of the law from Leviticus). This hatred is destructive to both parties, and thus to the whole of the Jewish community, and yet, it has sadly persisted for thousands of years, between groups of Jews who have different understandings of God, Torah, and/or how Judaism can be practiced. Sinat Chinam has been seen all over the world, between Progressive and Orthodox Jews, between Ashekenazim and Sephardim, between Jews of different races, genders, or ideologies, between Zionists and those who struggle to align themselves with the modern-day State of Israel. 

In Cape Town, we are not immune to sinat chinam in the Jewish community. We have a ‘community’ Mikvah that not all Jews are allowed to use. We have seen women’s voices excluded from ‘communal’ events. We have seen Jews of different sexual orientations and gender-identities excluded from ‘communities’ that claim to be welcoming and accepting. We have seen Jews of colour treated differently than Jews who ‘look Jewish’. I could go on.

At the same time, we are facing external threats to our sustainability and continuity. By now we have all heard or read the projections — South Africa’s Jewish community is ageing, shrinking, emigrating. Tomorrow’s generation of Jewish leaders will be smaller, less committed and less financially secure than our current, and certainly previous generations of Jewish leaders and communal organisers. So it seems as good time as ever to root out sinat chinam — and to heed the teaching of Rabbi Abraham Kook, of which I was recently reminded by my colleague Rabbi Julia Margolis in Johannesburg. Rabbi Kook taught that, “if the Second Temple was destroyed (due to) baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild (ourselves) with baseless love — ahavat chinam”, or, to use the same translation from above, “love that is gratis” — love that is boundless; love that extends complete acceptance of the other, even when we don’t understand them or agree with them.

A divided Jewish community will not survive the projections. Only one which is united can do so. 

Thus, in 5783, may we re-examine what it means to be a true Jewish community, based in love. May we embrace and encourage diversity. May we remember that we are stronger together and that, indeed, we need one another. Let us not be divided and derisive. Let us accept one another. Let us strive to understand one another. Let us come together to dialogue and learn from one another, with generous spirits and open hearts.

Olam chesed yibaneh, let us build our world from love. 

Kein yehi ratzon — May it be God’s Will.


Temple Israel www.templeisrael.co.za

• Published in the September 2022 Rosh Hashanah Digital Edition – Click here to read it.

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