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Trembling South Africa Controversy
When Rabbi Steve Greenberg and I toured South Africa in February 2005 we
truly honed the model of our work. It was the first time that we
combined the touring of the film and Steve's book and the synergy of the
two had an incredible impact.
Trembling Before G–d had a theatrical release at Cape Town's Labia
Cinema, Johannesburg's Killarney Nu Metro Cinema, and Pretoria's Nu
Metro Menlyn and Rabbi Greenberg launched his book, Wrestling With God
and Men, nationwide.
However, The Beth Din or Rabbinical Court of South Africa and the Board
of Jewish Education tried to shut us down in every way possible –
preventing any Trembling Before G-d flyers from being posted in any
Jewish establishment; cancelling our screening at the Chief Rabbi's
community center; preventing Rabbi Greenberg from speaking in any Jewish
high school in South Africa; and even threatening a Jewish social hall
with the removal of their kosher license if they hosted our event. Their
attempt to stop Rabbi Steve Greenberg's book launch at The Beyachad
Center which is the Jewish community center of Johannesburg failed when
secular community leaders stepped in to prevent a possible legal action
on the basis that the cancellation of the book launch would constitute
discrimination based on sexual orientation which is outlawed by the
South Africa Constitution.
This censorship backfired and catalyzed nationwide press for a month.
The story garnered the front page of the weekly South African Jewish
newspaper, feature stories in the Sunday Times, Mail and Guardian and
Cape Times, numerous articles in the Afrikaans and English-language
press and multiple appearances on TV, commercial talk radio, and other
radio shows. Thousands of people came to diverse programs we held in
cinemas, universities, and cultural institutions over the course of 2
weeks. The whole tour, events, press and marketing were organized thanks
to a dedicated team of truly fantastic South African volunteers led by
Sheryl Ozinsky, our coordinator in Cape Town, and David Bilchitz, our
coordinator in Johannesburg.
These programs included panelists from many faiths and races: the
Secretary General of the Dutch Reform Church, lesbian sangomas or
traditional African healers, the Imam of Pretoria Mosque, Dominee Andree
Muller, Brother Muhsin Hendricks (an Islamic gay scholar), Justice
Dennis Davis, gay activists from The Equality Project, Bishop Paul
Verryn of the Methodist Church, MC Rowen Smith (Dean of St Georges'
Cathedral). No South African Orthodox rabbi would appear on any of our
We held special screenings for black township gay, lesbian, bisexual and
transgender youth at Cape Town's Triangle Project. We did a roundtable
discussion on homosexuality with a group of therapists. Rabbi Steve
Greenberg led evenings of teaching at the Cape Town Jewish Museum and
Gitlin Library, Johannesburg's WITS Institute for Social and Economic
Research, and at the University of Cape Town. Greenberg and DuBowski
participated in a debate on homosexuality at WITS with the South African
Union of Jewish Students – the following week The Chief Rabbi of South
Africa came to address the students on the topic. DuBowski presented
film workshops on using documentary for social change at University of
Western Cape, a historically black university under apartheid, and the
TV Department at WITS. The two also led a wonderful Shabbat dinner for
the Jewish gay community in Johannesburg.
A new Jewish GLBT organization in South Africa Ð Jewish OutLook
(check out the web-site www.jewishoutlook.org.za) - was birthed
through the process and a group of people are planning to bring
Limmud – a pluralistic Jewish learning conference
– to South Africa to open a space in the
community for discussions around issues such as this one. And
the community held a debate after our departure where the Beth
Din had to defend themselves for the choices they had made. At a
debate addressing the Orthodox rabbinate's refusal to engage
with Rabbi Greenberg, Rabbi Rappaport of the Beth Din said,
"What we are opposed to is people espousing things that are
contrary to Judaism and mankind coming to talk to our children.
I have the right to defend myself before a robber kills me – it
is my duty to protect my child from spiritual murder." Justice
Dennis Davis replied "Have we become a theocracy with the
Orthodox community running the show where there is only one view
and one truth? That is the concern."