Theology Thursday: The Rabbi Prince of Safed by Steven Plaut
There is an old Swazi legend about a beautiful maiden who fell in love with a handsome warrior. But to win her hand he had to present her with the skin of a leopard, which he had to hunt for on rugged Gobolondlo Mountain. While hunting on the mountainside, he was seized by resident witches, who turned him into a white flower, condemning him for his trespassing to bloom and die among the mountain grasses. When after many days the warrior had still not returned, the lamenting maiden sat on the river`s edge where her inexhaustible tears flowed to form the Phophonyane waterfalls of Swaziland.
Safed. One of the four traditional holy cities of the Land of Israel. The town is one large continuum of yeshivas and religious schools of a hundred different styles, wintry cold even while the rest of the country bathes in warm sunshine. It is a few days before Tu b'Shvat, and there are chassidim here of every imaginable type, mixed with young Americans and Israelis with their tsitsit hanging out who look like they are no more than two or three years removed from decidedly non-Orthodox lifestyles.
Safed is the town of the ARI, Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), the greatest of all Jewish kabbalists. It is also the home of the Rabbi Prince from Swaziland.
His is one of the most familiar faces to the locals of Safed. While I wait for him in Safed's Old City, a Yemenite man with flowing sidecurls comes out of his shop and makes conversation with me. He inquires about who I am searching for. His face brightens with instant recognition at my mention of Rabbi Natan. “Yes, he is the son of a king,” he says. “But then again," he adds after a pause, “all Jews are children of a King.”
Swaziland is one of the few remaining kingdoms on earth. For a generation whose knowledge of Africa often ends with Disney`s Lion King, it is a land of the utter unknown. An independent monarchy surrounded on three sides by South Africa and on the fourth by Mozambique, its million residents are among the poorest on earth. Just about the only time Swaziland merits mention in Western newspapers these days is when it`s pointed out that the country has been ravaged by the world's worst per-capita epidemic of AIDS.
The Swazis were a wandering African tribe that came down across Mozambique in the late fifteenth century, stumbling onto the fertile Veld lands of what is now Swaziland. The people speak English and Nguna, a dialect related to Zulu. Spreading as far as the high Emlembe or the “place of the spider,” they named the country KaNgwane, after their chief, and called themselves the bantu baka Ngwane, the people of Ngwane. During the mfecane, or the “time of the crushing,” they defeated all the other tribes in their area and successfully fought off a major war of aggression by the seemingly invincible Zulu state. They maintained their independence into the twentieth century, with the help of their clever maneuvering of the Boers and British.
The early Swazis were a monotheistic people, holding a belief in a single deity whom they knew as Umkhulumnqande. Sobhuza, perhaps the greatest of their kings, had prophesied that light-skinned people would one day enter the country carrying an umculu, or holy book, and he ordered his people to accept that book when this should come to pass. The Swazis blessed new moons and circumcised their menfolk. When a Swazi girl grew up and fell in love, she would set out to “write” her sweetheart a love letter in which she could express her hopes and desires. This “letter” was made of tribal beads, each one expressing a specific meaning linked to its color, but each also representing a specific letter.
Swaziland is a predominantly Christian country. (Somewhat bizarrely, one large Swazi religious Christian movement calls itself “Zionism,” from which come the African “Zionist” churches.)
Rabbi Natan was born Prince Nkosinathi Gamedze in 1963. The Gamedze clan was one of the two large royal tribal clans in Swaziland, the power base for the kings of the country. It was actually Rabbi Natan̓s grandfather, not his father, who was the last king from the family to rule.
During the reign of the last Gamedze king, the British, who had recently defeated the Boers in a long and bloody war, toyed with the politics of the country, redrawing borders and brokering Swazi power. As part of the restructuring, the kingship was passed over to the rival Dlamini clan, the other large Swazi royal tribe. The last of the Gamedze kings abdicated and spent his final years as a Christian pastor, while his brother took over as chief of the clan.
But the clan was not entirely removed from favor. The son of that last king, Rabbi Natan's father, served as Swazi liaison to the British Empire in London, and later as Swazi minister of education. He raised a family of eight children who lived in royal comfort and wealth in the impoverished capital city of Mbabane. The only Jew the prince had ever seen was the Israeli ambassador to Swaziland.
The prince was sent to Johannesburg to study at the University of Witswatersrand. These were still the days of South African apartheid, but the first cracks in the system were showing. Being from the Swazi royal family, the young prince was not required to live in the dilapidated black sections of the city, but instead was one of the first black students to be allowed to live in the white dormitories of the university.
Languages were his passion. He admits today to speaking thirteen languages fluently, but I suspect he is being modest and actually speaks far more. In any case, the thirteen do not include languages he “merely” understands completely and works with in his studies, such as Talmudic Aramaic and Yiddish.
At “Wits” University he studied a series of European and African languages. One day he was sitting next to a student who was doing some homework in a language with bizarre-looking letters. “What alphabet is that?” he asked. “Hebrew,” was the response.
The following semester the Russian language class he wished to take was fully booked. So instead he signed up to study Hebrew. Most of the other students in the class were non-religious white Jewish students with whom he would form many long-lasting friendships. His brothers and sisters poked fun at him for his choice of courses, nicknaming him “The Rabbi” in jest.
Toward the end of his studies there, he was approached by an Israeli professor on sabbatical from Hebrew University. The professor suggested that the prince come to Jerusalem on fellowship to continue his language studies. He jumped at the chance and entered Hebrew University in 1988. Some of his Jewish friends from “Wits” were now also in Jerusalem, several studying at the Ohr Sameach yeshiva there. The prince would visit the yeshiva to see his South African friends, occasionally sitting in on evening classes. He soon started reading on his own, particularly the works of Maimonides.
In the fall of 1989, he traveled to Rome while Hebrew University was shut for the religious holidays. One morning he woke up in a hotel near the Vatican feeling hungry and went down to the breakfast room. Sitting there, he stared at the food, but each time he took some in his hand, his arm felt weary and seemed to resist the notion of carrying the food to his mouth.
Back in his room, he recalled that he had heard that Jews have one day a year when everyone, regardless of level of observance, fasts. Curius, he checked his Hebrew University calendar. Sure enough, this was that day – Yom Kippur.
But the real change in his life came a few days later. He stood in St. Peter`s Basilica in the Vatican and contemplated the centuries of suffering the Jews had experienced at the hands of the Church. It was there and then that he made up his mind. He was going to convert to Judaism. Back in his hotel near the Vatican, he recited the “Shema Yisrael” for the first time.
He realized he would not have an easy time of it. It would be an enormously challenging task to learn his way through Judaism from scratch and to gain acceptance. He would be the only black person on the yeshiva bench. Moreover, his family at home would have trouble coming to terms with all this; would see him as someone lost to their Christian faith.
None of that mattered to him. “Truth must outweigh everything,” he tells me as we sip coffee in the café in the old Safed alley. “Truth is everything, and I understood in the depths of my soul that Judaism was the truth. Nothing else mattered after that.”
The café owner has been eavesdropping. Now he interrupts us. He wears a baseball cap with the letters USA, but his London accent gives him away. “I am a convert also,” he says, “and we converts see things so much clearer than you confused Jews from birth. Perhaps there should be a special prayer in the morning where we thank God for having made us gentiles who had to convert.”
Rabbi Natan smiles. He seems to comprehend.
While he feels at home in the yeshiva world, Rabbi Natan has no patience for Orthodox Jews who show disrespect toward their non-Orthodox brethren, or who shout “Shabbos” at anyone who violates the Sabbath. He feels a special affection for secular Jews, along with a mixture of envy at their having been born into the faith and incredulity at their failure to appreciate the religious treasures they inherited. He thinks they struggle internally with the question of who`s the boss – themselves or God. And he thinks the onus is on Orthodox Jews to bridge the gap.
After returning from Rome he told the rabbis at Ohr Sameach of his decision. They set up a study group to assist him. He began with Torah and the Rashi commentary. In 1991 he formally converted. He was renamed Natan, the son of Abraham.
But conversion was only the beginning. He had decided he wanted to do advanced rabbinic studies and become an ordained Orthodox rabbi. After finishing Ohr Sameach, he transferred to the Brisk Yeshiva in the Old City for his advanced studies.
The transition from Ohr Sameach to Brisk was almost as dramatic as the move from Africa to Jerusalem. It was a different world. Brisk is one of the toughest schools in the “Lithuanian tradition” of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) studies. The instruction is in Yiddish. Natan already spoke German, though, and so was able to catch on and follow the Yiddish of his instructors.
The Lithuanian yeshivas were the bastions of the Ashkenazi misnagdim, or those who opposed chassidism. So it was ironic – though from what I know of him, perhaps not unexpected, that after completing his studies the Rabbi Prince from the misnaged yeshiva would find himself in Safed, with its large numbers of chassidim.
While there are many African Jews in Israel, mainly Ethiopians, they very rarely merge into the haredi lifestyle. Rabbi Natan can be picked out from a distance due to his haredi clothing and accompanying black hat. If it were not for his skin color, he could pass for a denizen of Meah Shearim – except for one detail: he does not have sidecurls, perhaps because of the difficulty of training his delicate African hair to shape themselves into Eastern European payot.
Rabbi Natan speaks in a quiet and patient tone, so different from the usual Israeli hustle and high-decibel shouting. He has been teaching and studying in Safed since his move there in 1991. He is marrid to Shayna Golda, an American woman who moved to Israel from New York, and they have two children. In the sixteen years since he moved to Israel, he has gone back just once to Africa, where he had a highly emotional reunion with his family.
South Africa seemed like a different galaxy from the one he`d left. It was strange seeing black Africans actually in charge. But he was now the Jewish foreigner in his native land. South Africans seem to be fascinated with him; a South African TV station even prepared a special documentary on his life, and he will go back for another visit and speaking tour when it airs this spring.
The biblical Song of Songs is, on an earthly level, a story about the beautiful black Shulamit — a sort of love letter composed of Jewish tribal beads. It was included in the Hebrew Bible because it is considered an allegory of the love affair between Israel and God Himself. The beautiful black maiden Shulamit is the symbol of the nation of Israel, filled with uncontrollable passion for her lover.
The great Rabbi Akiba once said, “For the whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy and the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies” (Mishna Yadayim 3:5). As Rabbi Natan bids me farewell, returning down the alley of Old Safed to resume his teaching, Rabbi Akiba's comment takes on a whole new meaning for me.
Steven Plaut, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor at Haifa University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article appears in The Jewish Press
Thursday, March 10, 2005