Friday, January 23, 2009

Rabbi Lookstein’s Interfaith Moment

I don’t know him at all. I never even met him. But I have certainly heard of him. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein is one of the most distinguished Modern Orthodox rabbis on the American scene. He is the long term rabbi (50 years) of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and has been Principal of the Ramaz School for over 40 years. He is also an instructor in homiletics at Yeshiva University. His reputation runs far and wide in American Orthodoxy. The associate Rabbi at his Shul is Rav Ahron Soloveichik’s grandson, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik.

It is not my intention to bash Rabbi Lookstein. But sadly I must question what he did last Wednesday. After a similar invitation was declined by Rabbi Hersh Weinreb of the OU, Rabbi Lookstein was asked to participate at an interfaith service at an Episcopalian Church – The National Cathedral - in their main sanctuary.

He accepted and recited a non denominational prayer along with various members of other religions. This is prohibited under Jewish Law. Rabbi Gil Student has a post on this subject where he tries mightily to give Rabbi Lookstein the benefit of the doubt - a Limud Zechus - but ultimately disagrees with him too.

I understand why Rabbi Lookstien did it. I sympathize with his reasons. If it were me I would have had an almost irresistible temptation to accept. But I doubt that I would have in the end. The idea of going into a church and saying a prayer with Christian and Muslim clergy is anathema to me. The issues involved here supercede his rationale for doing it.

Rabbi Lookstein probably looked at it in a sort of Eis La’asos way of ingratiating the Jewish people with the new administration through his participation. That is a very laudable goal. Turning it down he felt would have been counter to the interests of the Jewish community. Had he backed out after accepting it would have made him – and us - look very bad.

It should be made clear that Rabbi Lookstein is no Darren Kleinberg. Rabbi Kleinberg is a graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah -where I'm told this is the hottest topic of discussion right now. Rabbi Kleinberg actively seeks such venues and happily participates in them if it suits his overarching goal of pluralism. YCT has actually repudiated him for some of his actions. Rabbi Lookstein would never do the kind of thing Rabbi Kleinberg has done. Not once did he do so in his illustrious 50 year career as a respected Orthodox Rav - until now. His intention here is pure. That is clear. His reasons seem to be based on the fact that a Chilul HaShem might result if he didn’t participate.

But which is the greater Chilul HaShem? I cannot conceive of participating in any way in an interfaith service with Christians in a church - no matter how benign the words! So while I sympathize with Rabbi Lookstein – and while I understand that he generally does not endorse interfaith services - he has nevertheless done so here and crossed a line in my view.

The Rosh Yeshiva of his Alma mater, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was very clear about such participation. He said that one may not participate interfaith dialog - let alone an interfaith service.

I am not alone in my views. The Rabbinical Council of America has clearly dissociated themselves from it. In a statement to JTA they 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"

What this has done is legitimize the act. When a prestigious religious figure crosses a line it gives cover to a Darren Kleinberg for doing the same thing - but not for the same reasons. Even though I’m sure that Rabbi Lookstein had no intention of doing that - it doesn’t matter. Rabbi Kleinberg will now forever be able to point to a precedent. The special circumstances here will make no difference to him.

It seems President Obama wanted the participation of an Orthodox Rabbi. That is to his credit. He values our support. But the President is not a Posek. A respectful no would have been difficult - but the right thing to do. That is what Rabbi Weinreb did. I wish Rabbi Lookstein had done the same.