Rabbi Busted For Entering Church

From the New York Daily News:

A Manhattan rabbi was chastised by higher-ups for an unorthodox move – participating in an interfaith prayer service at the National Cathedral with President Obama on Wednesday.

The Rabbinical Council of America took Rabbi Haskel Lookstein to task, issuing a press release saying he broke the rules by entering a Christian church.

Lookstein, who leads Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on the upper East Side, said he had no regrets about reciting a nondenominational prayer there.


There was a recent disagreement over participation in an interfaith service at the National Cathedral celebrating President Obama’s entrance into office. R. Haskel Lookstein was one of six representatives from multiple religions who recited non-denominational prayers out loud.

He said: "May the President, Vice President, Members of the Cabinet, Governors of States and Territories, Mayors of Cities, and all in administrative authority who are empowered by our sacred trust lead this nation with wisdom and grace as they seek to serve the common good" (JTA).

Click here to read moreIn response, the RCA stated that this participation was contrary to their official rules, although there is no intent to punish R. Lookstein in any way (Daily News, USA Today, JTA, JPost, Arutz Sheva).

What I’d like to do here is to attempt to explain what R. Lookstein was thinking and why the RCA is right even if R. Lookstein is justified in doing what he did. I certainly have no intention of dismissing R. Lookstein, who is an accomplished rabbi. This is more of an attempt to justify his actions while pointing out that they are based on a minority view.

JOSEPH KAPLAN POSTS TO HIRHURIM: Can someone clarify exactly what "long-standing policy of the RCA" (to use the language in the RCA’s statement) R. Lookstein may have violated. Is it a written policy? If so, does anyone have the text? It’s difficult to discuss whether R. Lookstein violated a policy if we do not know what the policy is and how it has been communicated to the RCA members.

TZVEE POSTS: basil herring of the rca should never have gone on record in the press with criticism of an orthodox rabbi participating in an event to honor our new president. i’d like to turn the spotlight on that side of the dispute. whether or not lookstein was justified, i believe there is no justification for immediately, bo bayom, on that very day, for herring, representing the rca, to speak out negatively of one of his members in the national news media. the proper conduct would have been to say "no comment" to the press and to take the matter up with lookstein through the channels of the rabbinic organization. and i second joseph’s query about the alleged rca policy. it’s not clear whether the "policy" we are debating is the "policy" about interfaith services or the "policy" about entering a church.

NACHUM LAMM POSTS: I remember watching Princess Diana’s funeral. It was on a Saturday (I didn’t watch live- it’s on YouTube if you want to see it), and Rabbi Sacks walked (I suppose from the Marble Arch Synagogue) with his congregants after davening and stood outside the Abbey where the funeral took place.

The BBC announcer solemnly said, when the camera focused on him, that "Dr. Sacks cannot enter the Abbey, as today is the Jewish Sabbath."

I have the strong suspicion the BBC announcer made that up. At the very least, R’ Sacks used it as a convenient excuse. (Sometimes I’m happy I’m not in positions like these.) I recall that the Jewish Week asked R’ Bleich about it, and he said it would have been forbidden to enter.

It would interesting to know if, for example, any Chief Rabbis of the UK have attended funerals or coronations of monarchs. The Queen should live and be well, but I’ll try to keep it in mind for whenever it comes up. If there’s still a Chief Rabbinate then, of course.

JP POSTS: The RCA might have been "right" in their halachic reasoning but you don’t address the question of whether they were "right" to criticize R. Lookstein publicly in this way. Is this what we’ve come to? Respected rabbis having to look over their shoulder every time they do something to see if their union organizers are going to give them a slap on the wrist?

R. Lookstein should tell the RCA where to go. The members of his shul have probably kept YU, the RCA, and the OU in business for the last 50 years with their donations.

BEN POSTS: Going to the event probably increased darchei shalom, though avoiding it may not have had a big impact. But publicly announcing that it is forbidden to enter a church is a huge blow to darchei shalom. Personally, I woke up this morning to the radio and heard John Gambling saying, "I never knew that Orthodox Jews weren’t allowed to go into churches." Fortunately no one asked me about it at work but I’m sure a lot of Jews had some awkward ‘splaining to do today. There are certain parts of halacha that should not be on the news, and this is one of them.

MYCROFT POSTS: I first read about it with the discussion about how political and covering all bases Obama has been with the various clergy and had picked 1 from each of the 3 types of Rabbis. I felt a little strange but thought maybe it would be at a White House prayer etc-but then I saw a glimpse of the group of clergy on the news and saw Rabbi Lookstein clearly there it bothered me. Rabbi Lookstein has been one who has tried to keep in good standing with RY-eg he has had RHS speak and teach at his schul nemerous times. There are clearly Orthodox Rabbis especially the CR ofIsrael who do such things-but clearly students of the Rav don’t-but he is not required to follow any specific posek-but certainly an activity which is outside of mainstream Orthodox practice.

MO POSTS: Might the RCA statement distancing itself from RHL’s participation also be a bit of payback? After all it was RHL who spoke out againt the RCA deal with the Israeli chief rabbinate on conversions.

RABBI STUDENT POSTS: I think "payback" is too harsh and cynical a term. It’s not inconceivable that he is already on bad terms with the RCA leadership and therefore they didn’t do him the favor of sweeping this under the rug. But I doubt that even that is true. I think there is an attempt to hold the line on RCA policy after a very public transgression (pardon the term) of it.

NACHUM LAMM POSTS: The rules for non-American rabbis seem very different. The Israeli Chief Rabbis- no MO they- participate in interfaith dialogue all the time. I suppose the British Chief (rightly) doesn’t feel bound by the Rav’s psak (if indeed that is his psak).

Muslims do not handle wine. I know that Arab waiters (I assume Moslem, but not neccessarily) in Israel have handed me unopened bottles of wine and said that I have to open them. Perhaps they’re all told that in (the likely) case that some are Christian, but (responding to Curious) this isn’t yayin nesekh but stam yaynam, which has little to nothing to do with avodah zara.

SHMUEL POSTS: R Meir Soloveichik is the associate rabbi at KJ. He is also the grandson of R Ahron Soloveichik and R YB Soloveichik whose stance on the relationship between Jew and gentile is widely publicized. They must have some interesting conversations.

ANON POSTS: While I havent spoken to Rabbi Lookstein about this, I think it is clear (i) he would generally not do this and would tell people they cannot do this and (ii) he felt it was important this time. RHL in the 90s was an Oslo supporter, but post the Intifada and 9/11, has become much more right wing and was a very strong supporter of George Bush’s policies on terrorism and Israel. While he never explicitly said so publicly, it was quite clear from comments he made in sermons and in preludes to the prayer for the government in shul, that he was and is very worried about what the new president will mean for Israel and the safety of the Jewish people everywhere, and he felt that having no Orthodox rabbi attend would be viewed as an insult and further risk alienation from Obama. I understand that, when he was able to speak to the president after the service, he mentioned Obama’s comments in Sderot in July (that he would do whatever it took to protect his daughters) and urged him to stick by that.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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