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October 24, 2014 / 30 Tishri, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘RCA’

RCA Parley To Address Women’s Leadership Roles

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

With a high-profile discussion scheduled on women’s leadership and two proposed rules aimed at marginalizing rabbis who deviate leftward on hot-button issues, an upcoming Orthodox rabbinical conference is expected to draw its largest crowd in years.

The Rabbinical Council of America’s three-day conference set to begin Sunday in Scarsdale, N.Y., comes just months after the near ordination of a female rabbi by one of the RCA’s highest-profile members drew a sharp rebuke from the haredi Orthodox leadership of Agudath Israel of America.

“I think it will be one of the more exciting RCA conventions,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the council’s first vice president, seeking to put a positive spin on what also could prove to be a highly divisive gathering of mostly Modern Orthodox rabbis.

Two amendments to the RCA convention that have been put forward are clear reactions to the controversy sparked by Rabbi Avi Weiss’s decision in January to confer the title “rabba” – a feminized version of rabbi – on Sara Hurwitz, a member of the clerical staff of his New York synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

Following the Agudah condemnation and discussions with RCA officials, Rabbi Weiss stated that he did not intend to confer the rabba title on anyone else, saying Orthodox unity was of more pressing importance.

One amendment effectively would expel from the council any member who “attempts to ordain as a member of the rabbinate, or to denominate as ‘rabbinical’ or as ‘clergy,’ a person not eligible to serve as such as those terms are understood under the policies and positions of the RCA.”

A second amendment would bar from officer positions anyone who is a member of another national rabbinic group “whose principles or tenets of faith are antithetical or contrary to the policies and positions of the RCA.”

Rabbi Weiss is one of the founders of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, a liberal Orthodox group founded, in part, to serve as an umbrella for graduates of his rabbinical school, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Graduates of the school have been unable to secure automatic membership in the RCA, which has never taken a public position on the fellowship.

RCA insiders say adoption of the measures, neither of which would be retroactive, is unlikely. But their existence still points to a tug within the organization between those seeking to maintain the council as a broadly inclusive group and those who want to draw firmer lines.

“The RCA leadership has always been centrist,” said one RCA official involved in planning for the conference. “The rank-and-file rabbis, those on the front lines, can’t afford to be radicals on either end. But it’s getting harder and harder to promote an RCA which is led by the center, but which includes the whole range.”

Following the Weiss controversy, the RCA announced that women’s leadership would be placed on the conference agenda. A committee is now in the late stages of crafting a policy on the issue.

The policy, which will have to be ratified by the membership, would express general support for women’s scholarship and their assumption of appropriate leadership roles while drawing the line at ordaining them as rabbis. But lately there has been resistance from those seeking stronger language marking certain functions as forbidden.

“The committee expects for there to be pushback and perhaps alternate language from both the right and the left,” said the RCA official.

Whether any formulation could quell the controversy is unclear. Weiss has never backed down from his view that Hurwitz is a member of the synagogue’s rabbinic staff, though he says the school he is launching to train women will bestow a title other than rabba.

Moreover, several women now serve important Modern Orthodox congregations in various capacities – some of which clearly overlap with traditional rabbinic functions.

The results of a survey to be presented at the convention show a clear consensus among RCA members against granting semicha, or ordination, to women, according to an official involved in the council’s strategic planning process. On other issues, the official said, there is no “strong consensus.”

The policy that the council is to enact on women’s leadership will likely remain vague on specifics as a result. Its drafters say that a policy of calculated ambiguity is necessary in part to maintain unity across a broad range of opinion.

“I believe that we can have clarity on the red lines and have a degree of inclusiveness in the areas that are not as clear,” Rabbi Goldin said. “We as an organization have to provide latitude for members within the organization to be able to follow their conscience in areas that are not black and white.”

But it is precisely that approach that has encountered some turbulence and which is leading some to push the organization toward a firmer line.

“I think there’s a need for clarity,” said Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, an RCA regional vice president who said he supports the amendments in principle. “What we don’t want to offer the public is a blurring of the lines, that the RCA is all things to all people.” (JTA)

RCA Parley To Address Women’s Leadership Roles

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010


With a high-profile discussion scheduled on women’s leadership and two proposed rules aimed at marginalizing rabbis who deviate leftward on hot-button issues, an upcoming Orthodox rabbinical conference is expected to draw its largest crowd in years.


The Rabbinical Council of America’s three-day conference set to begin Sunday in Scarsdale, N.Y., comes just months after the near ordination of a female rabbi by one of the RCA’s highest-profile members drew a sharp rebuke from the haredi Orthodox leadership of Agudath Israel of America.


“I think it will be one of the more exciting RCA conventions,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the council’s first vice president, seeking to put a positive spin on what also could prove to be a highly divisive gathering of mostly Modern Orthodox rabbis.


Two amendments to the RCA convention that have been put forward are clear reactions to the controversy sparked by Rabbi Avi Weiss’s decision in January to confer the title “rabba” – a feminized version of rabbi – on Sara Hurwitz, a member of the clerical staff of his New York synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.


Following the Agudah condemnation and discussions with RCA officials, Rabbi Weiss stated that he did not intend to confer the rabba title on anyone else, saying Orthodox unity was of more pressing importance.


One amendment effectively would expel from the council any member who “attempts to ordain as a member of the rabbinate, or to denominate as ‘rabbinical’ or as ‘clergy,’ a person not eligible to serve as such as those terms are understood under the policies and positions of the RCA.”


A second amendment would bar from officer positions anyone who is a member of another national rabbinic group “whose principles or tenets of faith are antithetical or contrary to the policies and positions of the RCA.”


Rabbi Weiss is one of the founders of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, a liberal Orthodox group founded, in part, to serve as an umbrella for graduates of his rabbinical school, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Graduates of the school have been unable to secure automatic membership in the RCA, which has never taken a public position on the fellowship.


RCA insiders say adoption of the measures, neither of which would be retroactive, is unlikely. But their existence still points to a tug within the organization between those seeking to maintain the council as a broadly inclusive group and those who want to draw firmer lines.


“The RCA leadership has always been centrist,” said one RCA official involved in planning for the conference. “The rank-and-file rabbis, those on the front lines, can’t afford to be radicals on either end. But it’s getting harder and harder to promote an RCA which is led by the center, but which includes the whole range.”


Following the Weiss controversy, the RCA announced that women’s leadership would be placed on the conference agenda. A committee is now in the late stages of crafting a policy on the issue.


The policy, which will have to be ratified by the membership, would express general support for women’s scholarship and their assumption of appropriate leadership roles while drawing the line at ordaining them as rabbis. But lately there has been resistance from those seeking stronger language marking certain functions as forbidden.


“The committee expects for there to be pushback and perhaps alternate language from both the right and the left,” said the RCA official.


Whether any formulation could quell the controversy is unclear. Weiss has never backed down from his view that Hurwitz is a member of the synagogue’s rabbinic staff, though he says the school he is launching to train women will bestow a title other than rabba.


Moreover, several women now serve important Modern Orthodox congregations in various capacities – some of which clearly overlap with traditional rabbinic functions.


The results of a survey to be presented at the convention show a clear consensus among RCA members against granting semicha, or ordination, to women, according to an official involved in the council’s strategic planning process. On other issues, the official said, there is no “strong consensus.”


The policy that the council is to enact on women’s leadership will likely remain vague on specifics as a result. Its drafters say that a policy of calculated ambiguity is necessary in part to maintain unity across a broad range of opinion.


“I believe that we can have clarity on the red lines and have a degree of inclusiveness in the areas that are not as clear,” Rabbi Goldin said. “We as an organization have to provide latitude for members within the organization to be able to follow their conscience in areas that are not black and white.”


But it is precisely that approach that has encountered some turbulence and which is leading some to push the organization toward a firmer line.


“I think there’s a need for clarity,” said Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, an RCA regional vice president who said he supports the amendments in principle. “What we don’t want to offer the public is a blurring of the lines, that the RCA is all things to all people.” (JTA)

‘Pretty Worth It In The End’: An Interview With Dominican-American Convert Aliza Hausman

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

Have you read the blog Jewminicana? If you have, you are already familiar with Aliza Hausman, a recently converted Dominican-American blogger. She blogs about her childhood, upbringing, conversion, and a wide range of other topics. She and her husband, a semichah student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, also speak about life as a religious interracial couple.

Hausman’s conversion process began five years ago. She first became interested in Judaism when she was in junior high school. A Holocaust survivor spoke to the students in her school, and the idea of survivorhood resonated with her. The Jewish Press interviewed her about her decision to convert and about her blog (www.alizahausman.net), which has allowed her to help other people of color who are looking to convert to Judaism.

The Jewish Press: What was it about the survivor’s story that piqued your interest in Judaism?

Hausman: I think by the time I was 13 years old I was pretty sure I was not going to make it to my 18th birthday. Either my mother was going to kill me or I was going to kill myself. I came to school with bruises every other day that I had to hide. And this woman came in and told us that she had survived the unimaginable – unimaginable to most of my friends.

How did you relate to her?

To me it was like this is one person who I think would understand what I’ve been going through my whole life, which is basically being tortured every day by my mother. I thought, “You know, if she can survive, I can survive.” My initial thought was Jews can survive anything, and if I became Jewish, I’d probably survive too. It gave me hope.

What do you see as the main message of Judaism?

When I was Catholic, it seemed that we were focused on striving toward heaven. Everything on earth was sinful and dirty and bad. In Judaism I’m trying to bring heaven to earth. Trying to bring spirituality and godliness to everything I do.

Why did you start blogging?

I started the conversion process; I was 25 years old. Every Shabbat meal, someone would ask me, “Why are you in the conversion process?” One of my friends, Drew Kaplan, was a rabbinical student at the time and a blogger, and he said it’d be easier if I just wrote a blog. After Shabbos I could send people to the blog, and it would explain everything . A mission of my blog is to make people more sensitive. The first thing you say is “Hi and welcome,” not “Are you Jewish?”

Do you ever worry that being so frank in a public sphere could harm your husband’s odds of getting a pulpit?

I worry about that every day. You know, it’s been interesting. My mother-in-law’s friends read my blog. My husband applied for an internship and the rabbi read the blog. I guess I’m kind of lucky they liked the blog. It’s not always the case. I get hate mail. Everything from “You’re not being Orthodox” to “You’re not being Dominican.”

What do you gain from the experience?

I keep doing it because you get these letters from all over the world, and people are like, “Thank you for sharing that little bit of yourself with me,” because people can relate – from child abuse, converts, multiple identities; that’s why I keep doing it.

What topics do you cover during your speaking engagements?

The more I come into contact with other converts of color, [I find] a lot of them have had racist experiences. Jews have been blatantly racist to them or they’ve gone to a synagogue event and people have assumed that they’re the help or the janitor. My husband and I use sources, but [also] just telling people how difficult it is, coming in from a different religion, different planet, or how converts cope. We tell one story where a convert’s mother called her to her deathbed and asked that she convert back to Christianity. I don’t think people really understand that – how hard some converts have it.

In what ways do you see your Judaism benefiting from Dominican culture?

Food! I have chulent every Shabbos, but I also have rice and beans every Shabbos, a staple of Dominican culture, and plantains. I go out of my way to meet Jewish Latinos and find people that speak Spanish, because speaking and understanding Spanish is very important to me. I’ve been told by Jews who converted, “That was important, but shouldn’t be anymore. Hebrew is.” As if a person can’t speak more than two languages! Music. We played a lot of Hebrew music at my wedding, and I asked for salsa or merengue. A kosher caterer made Dominican food for our wedding.

Do you help converts find rabbis to work with?

It’s something I got into in the last couple of months. In the last year the RCA has reformatted how they do conversions. It’s interesting, and one of the hardest things is finding a rabbi. I talk to Rabbi Zilberman at the RCA and get as much info as I can, and go to him and ask him where this person from here with this situation can find someone to sponsor them and help them.

A lot of rabbis are turning people away and no longer want to be involved with conversion. I think I have way more contacts than they do, so I try to help them find rabbis, find people in different communities that they can connect to; other converts. I actually do that a lot.

How do you advise someone who is in the process of converting but struggling with aspects of halacha or the rabbi’s expectations of her?

I’ve been asked by converts how you reconcile women’s issues and feminism with Orthodoxy, how you reconcile homosexuality with Judaism. I’m very clear. I do believe there are things that can’t be reconciled. I don’t believe that you’re not going to struggle with things. The other day a convert asked, “How did you feel about giving up Jesus?” Very easy; I never took it up. I tell people to take it slow.

I got one convert who was like, “I want to convert; I’m not quite sure which movement.” I told him to look at what each stands for and the ideology. He decides first he wants to be Conservative. He has a fianc? – not Jewish, doesn’t want to convert. The Conservative rabbi says, “You have to promise to raise the kids Jewish.” Convert comes back and says, “How can I, if they won’t be because my wife’s not Jewish?” Next time he decided he was going to be Orthodox. How will that work, exactly?

What message do you give to people who are converting?

I don’t think I have a message. It’s very different dealing with someone who is a baal teshuvah and starting to learn, and this need to bring them in. But a convert is just running toward Judaism like a speeding train. I try to explain that it’s going to be hard, not always pretty, there will be issues usually with family and friends. But I think it’s pretty worth it in the end.

Rabbi Avi Weiss Backs Off ‘Rabba’ Title ‘For Sake Of Peace’

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

Just a few weeks after declaring Sara Hurwitz a “rabba” in order to “make clear” her status as “a full member of our rabbinic staff,” Rabbi Avi Weiss promised the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) that neither he nor his Yeshivat Maharat will confer that title on any other woman.

Rabbi Weiss – spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, founder of both Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat, and a weekly Jewish Press columnist – ascribed his concession to “the tension caused to our greater community and my commitment to the principle of gadol ha’shalom.”

Rabbi Weiss granted Hurwitz the title of maharat – an acronym of the Hebrew words manhiga hilchatit ruchanit toranit (halachic, spiritual and Torah leader) – last March after she studied and was tested in the same areas of halacha that men traditionally master before receiving semicha.

The new title, however, sounded awkward, and so in late January, Rabbi Weiss dropped maharat and together with Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber of Bar-Ilan University formally ordained Hurwitz as a rabba.

To many in the Orthodox community, Rabbi Weiss had gone too far. The Agudath Israel Council of Torah Sages declared the move “a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition and the mesoras haTorah, and must be condemned in the strongest terms. Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.”

Both Rabbi Weiss and the RCA denied a Jewish Week report that the RCA was considering expelling Rabbi Weiss from its ranks. “There is no basis to those rumors,” RCA President Rabbi Moshe Kletenik told The Jewish Press. But Rabbi Weiss backed down on the rabba title nonetheless. In a letter to

Rabbi Kletenik, Rabbi Weiss wrote, “The change in title from ‘Maharat’ to ‘Rabba’ has precipitated a level of controversy in the Orthodox community that was neither expected nor intended.”

In a speech to his community this past Shabbos, Rabbi Weiss said he only agreed to drop the title rabba “for the sake of peace,” arguing that qualified women can and should perform many rabbinical duties. He cited Yeshiva University Chancellor Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, who told the Jerusalem Post last year that his opposition to women rabbis was “social, not religious.”

In a recent interview in YU’s student newspaper, The Commentator, Rabbi Lamm referred to this comment, saying, “I was criticized, of course. People asked, ‘You mean that al pi din they’re allowed to become rabbis?’ My response: ‘I don’t know. Are you sure they’re not allowed to?’

Rabbi Lamm went on to say, however, “It is too early to tell where this is all headed and I think they are moving much too quickly. Do I think having women rabbis is a good thing? I do not know. I am, however, concerned that, before long, we will find ourselves overly feminized, and I would not want to see that happen.”

The RCA’s Rabbi Kletenik, however, was unequivocal.

“To ordain a woman as a rabbi,” he told The Jewish Press, “is a breach of our mesorah and not acceptable in an Orthodox synagogue.”

Rabbi Kletenik didn’t endorse or condemn the title maharat, but said semantics are irrelevant. “Regardless of the title, if a woman is acting in the role of a rabbi, that’s something which is not acceptable.”

The importance of higher Jewish education for women is not in dispute, he said. “Certainly we encourage Torah scholarship for women, and there are appropriate roles for women to play in terms of leadership within the Jewish community. But being a rabbi is not one of them.”

The RCA will discuss possible leadership roles for women at its annual convention in April, he said.

Rabbi Weiss’s compromise with the RCA comes 12 years after he and Rabbi Adam Mintz, former rabbi of Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue, hired women interns for their congregations. Both rabbis declared at the time that the hirings should not be interpreted as a stepping-stone toward the appointment of women rabbis.

“The call for women to be rabbis is unhelpful. It has halachic problems,” Rabbi Weiss told The Jerusalem Post at the time.

But a decade later, Rabbi Weiss apparently had a change of heart. When he conferred the title of maharat upon Hurwitz last year, he published the halachic rulings of three contemporary rabbis permitting some form of rabbinic ordination for women.

In a 2009 halachic responsum addressed to Rabbi Weiss, noted religious Zionist leader Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun argued “that an Isha Hakhama can teach and instruct, according to all of the opinions, and a community can accept upon themselves an Isha Hakhama as their teacher (Morah) in Torah, in all of the regular roles of a community and synagogue rabbi, and there is no aspect of suspicion or prohibition, even according to the strict positions in Halakha on this issue.”

‘You Can’t Allow The Nation To Be Divided’ – An Interview With Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

The Jewish Press spoke last week with Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi since 2003, on the contentious issue of conversion to Judaism.

Jewish Press: Your attempt to impose conversion regulations in the U.S. that would be acceptable to Israel’s Chief Rabbinate garnered a lot of attention and created not a little controversy. Are there any new developments in that area?

Rabbi Amar: I should make it clear that I was referring only to new conversions. I did not touch or alter any actions of my predecessors – or any rabbi or rabbinate abroad recognized by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate before I came into office. My concern was with new rabbis or rabbinates that started issuing conversion certificates after I became chief rabbi. I feel that before they can have any involvement in the matter of conversion, they need to be checked and tested in order to determine whether they are indeed qualified to carry out conversions.

At least initially, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) seemed to take rather strong issue with your position.

In the beginning, the RCA voiced concern with my stance and there was a furor in some of the Jewish papers that made it seem as if I didn’t want to recognize the RCA’s conversions. The RCA sent a delegation to Israel and I clarified to them what my reservations were. They understood and agreed with me. It took a year until we formulated a modus operandi and then I came to New York to meet with RCA leaders.

How did your intervention affect the way conversions are handled?

Until then, the procedure was that any rabbi could engage in conversions. I asked that they set up a system of regional batei din with three recognized rabbis and that if new rabbis were to be added they first must be tested. I suggested that any new rabbi come to us in Israel for testing, but they objected to that. So we decided the test would be carried out by two of their rabbis, Rabbis Hershel Schachter and Mordechai Willig, and I would send a third rabbi or judge from the Chief Rabbinate in Israel to join them and he would bring any questions from Israel.

How is the arrangement working out?

They set up several batei din and sent me names of new rabbis they want to add. While I rely on Rabbis Schachter and Willig, I will not automatically accept a new name without checking up on him first. So far, though, no tests have been carried out as I’ve been inundated with work that has prevented me from putting more time into the project.

So while it’s common knowledge that the Chief Rabbinate does not recognize Conservative or Reform conversions, the fact is you don’t recognize Orthodox conversions carte blanche either.

Yes, that’s right. There are a lot of new rabbis who call themselves Orthodox but whom we have not yet verified in terms of their qualifications to perform conversions. We can’t stop them from doing anything, but we can refuse to recognize their conversions. So if someone comes along with a conversion certificate not issued by any of the batei din approved by us, we won’t automatically accept it.

Now, there are cases where we’ve disqualified Orthodox rabbis whom we had recognized in the past. We did so after having received complaints about those rabbis, but not until we verified the matter thoroughly. When someone comes to us accusing a rabbi of not performing as per halacha, we ask the complainant to describe in writing what fault he found and to sign his name. I then send the letter to the rabbi in question in order for him to respond.

What is your reaction to the recent decision by the Court of Appeal in London that ongoing personal acts of faith, rather than birth or conversion, defines a Jew?

Unfortunately, we can refer to the courts in Israel that are gravitating in the same direction. Not too long ago the courts here ruled that non-Orthodox groups in Israel should be funded and be able to continue their non-halachic activities.

As long as the Who is a Jew law is not amended, the courts will allow Reform, Conservative and every other non-halachic group to make inroads and destroy the character of the state. If, God forbid, they will begin to validate Reform and Conservative marriages and conversions in Israel, the nation will be divided.

This gives me no rest, as it is forbidden to tear this nation in half. Having various political parties who disagree on ideology is not threatening – that can occur in the best of families – but once you stop marrying each other, that’s a real split and it is forbidden that this should occur.

What is your message to American Jewry, to American rabbis?

I think my proposal to set up recognized batei din was a good start, but another vital step that must be taken is that there must be uniform registration in every country. I explained this to the RCA leaders when I met with them. For instance, all rabbinates should print up identical forms and when a couple registers to marry they will get a copy of the form, the rabbi will get one and a third one will be filed away in a central database where one will be able to see which rabbi performed the marriage. Likewise, when a person converts anywhere in the U.S., every rabbi will be able to know who performed the conversion since it will be filed away in this central database. The same with regard to divorces.

But won’t that create arguments among rabbis and rabbinates over who should control this database?

I suggest that each rabbinate or rabbinic organization set up its own database – the RCA would have its database, the Agudas Harabonim would have its database, etc. – and they can all cooperate and coordinate. I agree it might cause friction, but first start organizing it and then worry about the arguments later. Certainly we can come to some kind of meeting of minds.

I’m sure there were many arguments and disagreements when they formed the Chief Rabbinate in Israel many years ago but today, thank God, even though there are many private batei din in all parts of the country, there is an orderly arrangement and everything is registered with the central body – the Chief Rabbinate.

Jewish Community Acts To Tackle Economic Crisis

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

            America has been hit by what is likely the worst financial crisis since The Great Depression. Many Jewish communities have been hit hard, with a staggering number of families struggling with joblessness. Jewish organizations that package donated kosher food report a dramatic increase in the number of families in dire need of assistance. Estimates in some places find that about 1 out of every 25 families is receiving aid.

 

Providing minimum food requirements and making mortgage payments has become an overwhelming and impossible challenge. Many of these households were accustomed to helping others. Now the depressing reality is that they, themselves, are crying out for communal support. And the forecast for the near future is not encouraging.

 

Those who are still only minimally affected but anticipating even worse times wonder how they can possibly help those whose fortunes have fallen on such hardships. It is true that as individuals, we cannot support those who need our help. However, together, we can ease their burden considerably.

 

This Shabbos, Parshas Beshalach/Parshas HaMan, rabbis have joined in a nationwide effort to make an emergency parnassah appeal. As Rabbi Zishe Novoseller, executive director of EPI, said earlier this week, “We are all in this together. The OU, National Council of Young Israel, COJO, the RCA, Agudath Israel and many other major Jewish organizations have united to participate with the emergency aid initiative to help the Jewish community. Working together is our only hope to alleviate the depressing problems facing our people.”

 

A recent gathering of nearly 100 Flatbush rabbonim discussed how best to help the suffering mispallelim, with Rav Matisyahu Solomon, of Beth Medrash Govoha of Lakewood, urging for the Parshas Beshalach/Parshas HaMan appeal.

 

The appeal this Shabbos is just the first step of many to ease the pain of those who are out of work, with the funds shuls raise to be directed solely toward the mispallelim of your shul and community who have lost their jobs during the past year.

 

Communities are encouraged to follow the lead of those in Boro Park, Flatbush, and Monsey who have established a matching funds program that gives two dollars to each family for every dollar that is donated, and collectively, we must network with our contacts in order to assist a fellow Yid in finding a new job.

 

For more information visit www.ny@ny.pcsjobs.org.

Intense Debate Follows Orthodox Rabbi’s Presence At D.C. Service

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

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.”

(JTA)

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/news/global//2009/01/28/

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