By Michael Orbach
Jan. 27, 2009 / Special to TheJewishStar.com
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.
"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."