A prominent Manhattan rabbi is defending his decision to participate in last week’s National Prayer Service.
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City was one of three Jewish clergymen to participate in the service Jan. 21 at the National Cathedral on the morning after Barack Obama’s inauguration.
As the service was taking place, in response to a call from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the executive director of the Rabbinical Council of America, Rabbi Basil Herring, said Lookstein was breaking the organization’s rules by participating in the service.
Herring said Lookstein’s participation was problematic both because the service was held in the sanctuary of a church, which Orthodox Jews are prohibited from entering, and because it was an interfaith prayer service, which the RCA discourages for fear that such participation could allow missionaries to legitimize their argument that Jews can indeed embrace Jesus.
“To go into a cathedral, in this case an Episcopalian cathedral in the main sanctuary, is certainly by most accounts not appropriate,” Herring said. “If one wants to visit the Sistine Chapel to view the art of Michelangelo it is problematic. There is no political perspective here that says you should not do it because it is politically sensitive. Of course it is a purely religious question.”
In an interview with JTA just hours after the service concluded and in a mass e-mail to his colleagues later in the week, Lookstein defended his decision.
“After consultation with people who are absolutely committed to [Jewish law], I had originally decided to do it because I felt it was a civic duty to honor the new president of the United States. That is why I originally agreed to do it,” Lookstein said.
“But the people who spoke to me about it indicated it was an important contribution to the Orthodox community because it is only right for the Orthodox community to be supporting the president in a visible way when he is being supported by representatives of the Conservative and Reform movements.”
The controversy has triggered a robust debate among Modern Orthodox rabbis, both regarding the substantive question at hand – whether Lookstein’s decision to participate was permitted under Jewish law – and the process question of whether the RCA overstepped its bounds or mishandled the situation by criticizing Lookstein publicly.
The founders of an alternative Orthodox rabbinic group, the International Rabbinic Fellowship, have come to Lookstein’s defense.
In a statement, Rabbis Avi Weiss and Marc Angel defended Lookstein’s right to decide for himself whether to participate and took aim at what they framed as the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of Orthodox rabbinic bodies, including the RCA.
The RCA’s Herring, in addition to commenting on the situation, sent JTA a statement drafted by the organization.
“The long-standing policy of the Rabbinical Council of America, in accordance with Jewish law, is that participation in a prayer service held in the sanctuary of a church is prohibited,” the RCA statement said. “Any member of the RCA who attends such a service does so in contravention of this policy and should not be perceived as representing the organization in any capacity.”
Even some RCA members who agreed with the RCA’s view that Lookstein had made a mistake believed the organization should have remained silent or limited its comments to the public statement.
This week, the RCA’s president, Rabbi Shlomo Hochberg, denied his organization had ever taken a public stance on the matter.
“We did not issue any press release,” Hochberg said. “We gave you our policy statement about a longstanding RCA policy. There is no comment about Rabbi Lookstein. He acted independently and not on our behalf. It wasn’t going to be sent to anyone. If no one called, it would not have gone out. It was not going to be sent out to anyone.”
Lookstein joined six representatives of various religious communities, including Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, in reciting portions of a nondenominational responsive prayer. Most of the overall service was nondenominational, but there were a few distinctly Christian references.
The other four religious representatives to read part of the prayer were Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America; the Rev. Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners; Uma Mysorekar, president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America; the Rev. Suzan Johnson-Cook, senior pastor of the Bronx Christian Fellowship in New York City; the Rev. Carol Wade of the Washington National Cathedral; and Kirbyjon Caldwell, senior pastor of the Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston.
Earlier in the program Rabbi David Saperstein, the Reform movement’s top representative in Washington, recited Psalm 121.
According to another source, the Obama team was looking specifically for the participation of an Orthodox rabbi.
One person in attendance said that Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the one-time candidate for vice president and an Orthodox Jew, told Obama that it was incredibly important and a very positive thing that the Orthodox community was represented.
The RCA’s Herring was adamant that the group was not taking a political stance, noting that the organization sent a letter to President Obama congratulating him and expressing confidence that “with the help of God, you will build on the respect and good will that you have earned to lead a united country in a successful confrontation with the daunting challenges that we face both within and without.”
Lookstein said he had two conversations with Herring about his participation. In the first, Herring tried to dissuade Lookstein from participating. In the second, he did not.
“Had I pulled out it would have been something of an insult from the Orthodox community, which was at least the way I felt,” Lookstein said.
He also said he heavily weighed the halachic implications of his move, and though he would not ordinarily participate in an interfaith prayer service, especially one in a church, in this case he felt “there were other concerns.”
“If I reached a decision to do it, since I am very careful about shmirat mitzvot, you should conclude that I felt halachically this was the right thing to do,” Lookstein said.
Lookstein met Obama after the reading and recited to the new president the blessing Jews say when they come into the presence of a king – only after Obama gave him permission.
“I thanked him for his support of Israel and I urged him to remember the unforgettable statement he made in Sderot, where he said, ‘If anybody would shoot rockets into my house while my daughters were sleeping, I would do anything in my power to make sure they wouldn’t do it again,’ ” Lookstein said. “He responded with a clear assent.”
In Lookstein’s e-mail to his colleagues, he concluded, “Maybe this will save a life or two in the future and maybe it will not; but I felt this was not an assignment I could – or should – turn down.”