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Rabbi Lookstein Defends Himself Against Critics

lookstein.jpg[By Michael Orbach / Special to The Jewish Star]

The Rabbinical Council of America appears to have backed away from its earlier rebuke of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein for participating in a prayer service with President Barack Obama at the National Cathedral on the morning after the inauguration (reported first by YWN).

“Rabbi Lookstein did not represent the Rabbinical Council of America in attending that service and therefore we have no comment on the matter,” said Rabbi Basil Herring, executive director of the RCA, on Monday.

An RCA statement issued last Wednesday and reported by JTA said, “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,” and “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.”

“To go into a cathedral, in this case an Episcopalian cathedral in the main sanctuary is certainly, by most accounts, not appropriate,” said Rabbi Herring, offering a direct criticism of Rabbi Lookstein, the longtime rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan, and head of the RAMAZ School.

The RCA’s position is based on responsa against interfaith dialogue by Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l.

Reached by phone Monday evening, Rabbi Lookstein said that he was “happy not to discuss this [matter] publicly.”

“If Rabbi Herring said I did not represent the RCA, he’s right and I did not represent the RCA. I think I represented Orthodox Jewry,” Lookstein said, noting that he was invited to attend the service by a member of the President’s staff.

In a letter to his RCA colleagues Rabbi Lookstein defended his attendance at the prayer service, citing what he said were halachic and historical precedents.

Failure to attend would have been an “insult from the Orthodox community,” he added. The event was not an interfaith dialogue, he said, but an invitation from the President who is, in Rav Lookstein’s words, “A man of incredible importance to the fate of our holy community in the land of Israel and here.”

Rabbi Lookstein quoted the Shulchan Aruch, “in Yoreh Deah 178:2 that a person who needs to be close to the government may wear even the Torah- prohibited garments of a gentile in order to represent the Jewish community well.”

He also noted that in the United Kingdom chief rabbis regularly are summoned by the monarch to Westminster Abbey, seat of the Church of England. Similarly, he said chief rabbis of Israel have also appeared in churches; Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, chief rabbi of Haifa, attended the funeral of the late Pope John Paul II several years ago.

He also mentioned the experience of Rabbi Michael Broyde, a member of the RCA-affiliated Beth Din of America, whom he said told him that the government of Israel once asked him to represent Israel “on a very important matter” that require him to attend a worship event in a church. He sought and received permission from Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg, known as the Tzitz Eliezer, who “told him directly that if it was a matter of significant importance to the Israeli government, then he should go wearing his kipa and looking as rabbinic as he could.”

Speaking in Rabbi Lookstein’s defense, fellow RCA member Rabbi Yosef Blau, the Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, agreed that Rabbi Lookstein had a basis for his action.

“What he did certainly has precedents in England and Israel in dealing with heads of government,” Rav Blau said.

“I have a sense that this partly reflects internal battles really within the RCA. It’s rather surprising that they allowed this kind of battle to come forward in the open way it did,” Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, told the Jewish Star.

“Future historians witnessing the enormous economic challenges facing the Orthodox community in particular are going to say that energy expended on such foolishness is shocking and perhaps a sign of very deep maladies within the rabbinic community.”

The episode also highlighted a leadership problem inside the Orthodox community, Sarna claimed.

“I think what this underscores is that there was no heir to Rabbi Soloveitchik; there is no one in the American Jewish community, or in the Modern Orthodox community, whose stature is such that you turn to him and he makes a decision and this is the last word,” Sarna said.

In the concluding paragraphs of his letter to the RCA Rav Lookstein wrote that when he had the opportunity to speak with President Obama he urged the President to remember the statement he made during a visit to Sderot during the campaign.

“If somebody was sending rockets into my house, where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that,” then-Senator Obama told reporters in Sderot last July.

When asked if he recalled his words the President, according to Rabbi Lookstein, responded with a “clear assent.”

Rabbi Lookstein finished his letter: “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.”

[LINK to Jewish Star]

12 Responses

  1. While I dont agree with Rabbi Looksteins actions in this case , or with his hashkafah in general, the fact that this title says “lookstein defends himself” without the proper title Rabbi is 100% degrading. It is also pure sin’at chinam. I would hope this was an oversight and will be changed immediately.
    Mashiach isnt going to come with slandering like this…

  2. This article should begin with “Rabbi” before Lookstein. You are causing machlokes not to write a proper title for him, regardless of his associations.

  3. wht do you people always know that the blame for “machloket” and “sinat chinom” goes to the yeshivishe crowd for their reaction instaed of the unacceptable actions and provocations of so called orthodox rabbis that cause the reaction. rav pam loved all jews and was well known. i was personally witness to a situation where for peace a person asked if he could attend his brothers wedding in a church on shabbos. Rav pams response was shabbos nu but to walk into a church absolutely not. so stop excusing all of the improper behavior and actions of Liberal minded people that permit anything and everything that they decide is necessary for peace

  4. Yasher koach to comments 1-4 who know how to disagree respectfully. The opposite to 5 -the tone of your comment is divisive and uncalled for. I see no indication that the commentators 1-4 are yeshivishe or not, and it is beside the point anyway. Why would you think that attending a brothers wedding in a church is more important or of equal importance to attending an event at the behest of the President -these 2 things do not seem to be the same at all and I think the Tziz Eliezer’s ZL psak cited in the article would seem to be more on point in this case. But the propriety of Rabbi Lookstein’s action is not for me or you to decide -we can ask our respective poskim and follow there advice should the President ever call us. However, we can speak and comment with respect as the first 4 commetators did.

  5. takingabreak:
    you need to separate what his action was , from writing “lookstein” without the proper title.

    No one is condoning his actions but to write an article about him and have a title call him simple “lookstein” is plain wrong.

    How about if someone liberal minded had written an article about r pam or any other rabbi who you personally hold in high regard, and didnt use the title rabbi. would you think it was sinat chinam and improper , or would you just say well he didnt agree with his actions…

    i think you get the point. you dont have to agree and you can argue, but respectfully.

  6. This was Rabbi Lookstein’s personal decision and NOT for k’lal Yisroel. It was NOT pikuach nefesh. It was wrong as per the p’sak of our rabbonim. He may have rationalized a reason for doing this,but that does not change the halocho. It should not be done. Interfaith services ,and being inside a church,is wrong. However,going into a Jewish temple (cannot call it a shul ,if it is not Torah-following) is worse than a church. A church without statues is actually not avodo zorroh.

  7. R. Barry Freundel of Washington D.C’s Cong. Kesher Israel once told me of the questions posed to him by Sen Joseph Lieberman when he was a candidate for Vice President. I asked R. Fruendel what mekorot he used to pasken. He told me there is a well developed body of Halachik material known as “Hilchot Shtadlanut.” It seems there are dispensations available for those who work in the public sphere at the highest level. That R. Pam told someone he cannot walk into a church to presrve peace in his family, probably has no bearing on issue of R. Lookstein doing so on the invitation of the President of the USA.

  8. Just which cheif rabbis of england met in a church? was it rabbi hertz, who said that the nes of giving birth at a 6:1 ratio was ‘an obvious exaggeration’, and indeed used pshatim from goyishe bible scholars? Titles dont mean much. Appearing in a church is bad enough – praying? that’s a whole other shaila, one that has no historic precedent – also, how can you be medameh milsa lemilsah so easily? Is rabbi lookstein a posek, or a principal? Is he qualified to pasken? Did rabbi lookstein write a teshuvah supporting himself, or just say he has halachik arguments supporting his decision? Anyone who does something wrong tends to quote halacha – as in, they will say that since before the mabul, people didnt eat meat, it’s a rayah to be a vegetarian! Many other examples come to mind – he should put out a teshuvha justifying his actions. Let the world, and the RCA, see just what he is basing his decision on, who knows? I’m no talmid chochum, he could be right, but since there does not seem to be any pikuach nefesh involved here(obama is not a tyrant like they had in the old days), I’d love to see something defending this. What does the shulchan aruch he quoted have to do with anything? Dressing like the goyim is now compared to davening with them in a makom tiflah? Is this the rayah he is talking about? It needs something more solid than that, and a teshuvah which was under very different circumstances from the tzitz eliezer. When it came to representing the israeli govt, that indeed is pikuach nefesh – but what iota of pkuach nefesh is involved here? He didnt have to say he is not allowed in a church – mutar lishnos mipnei darchai shalom, say anything, im sure he could have thought of some way out of it.

    Plus, this article was way off base – there are leaders who have the final world, although this brandeis guy probbaly doenst know who they are – rav elyashiv, reb chaim kanievsky, and rav shteinman(and in america, to a large degree, reb dovid feinstein, rav belsky, reb elyah ber, and reb shmuel kaminetsky). The problem he describes is inherent in MO ideology – you cant ‘blindly’ follow anyone since after all, rabbis make mistakes too, right? we should follow whoever we want and not be beholden to any authority, is what they preach – this is not a ‘lack of leadership’, it is a self-imposed lack of acknowledgement.

  9. As an Orthodox Jew, I am insulted by his statement “I think I represented Orthodox Jewry.” Maybe Modern Orthodox Jewry, but definitely not Orthodox Jewry as a whole. Who appointed him as their representative? I definitely didn’t!

    One other point: From his statements, it appears like he is defending himself and rationalizing his actions as an afterthought. Did he even ask a sheila from a respected poisek before hand? Quoting from the experiences of others is not enough. It is very difficult to state “precedence” when using as a comparison situations that occurred in Eretz Yisroel or other parts of the world, and especially during other times in history, which may have no relevance to the situation at hand.

  10. He was representing Orthodox Jewry because that’s who the president believed he was representing. Obama may not yet be sensitive to our internal divisions. And RHL certainly did not daven inthe cathedral- look at the transcript of his very pareve remarks.

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