Sunday, January 25, 2009

Rabbi Lookstein's Prayer

The Jblog-o-sphere has reacted predictably to R' Haskel Lookstein's participation in the National Prayer Service celebrating the inauguration of President Obama. Some choose to condemn, some with a long baseline of American Orthodox policy see it as a good thing.

Reading the JTA piece, it looks to me like this was R' Herring shooting from the hip, in a CYA manner. This was not a considered RCA (Rabbinical Council of America, the organization of YU-trained rabbis) response on letterhead, it appears to be a JTA reporter calling up R' Herring for a response. The response was tepid, if there really is such a policy in place against a) entering churches, b) participating in interfaith services, as modern instantiations of the Torah's harsh rejection of non-Jewish religions.

Zogt R' Herring:

"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."

So he's not saying R' Lookstein did the wrong thing, he just said that this is against policy (is there such a policy, aside from a narrow interpretation of the Rav on interfaith dialogue?), and that R' Lookstein did not do so as a representative of the RCA. No personal censure, nothing, just "not according to our policy". Which looks more avoidance of condemnation from the Right, than like actual disapproval.

If one looks, one can find lots of snifim lehakel, reasons why one might be lenient here: it's a Protestant, not a Catholic church, so no statues (most of the modern statements about churches are expressed in terms of Catholicism, which has a greater claim to be idolatry); it's not interfaith dialogue, but a collection of ministers offering [mostly] non-denominational prayers that the new administration be a good one, guided by God and morality, and praying for the government is praised by Jeremiah; it was a summons to do honor to the ruler, rejection of which might be viewed as mored bemalchut, lèse majesté. All of which leads me to believe that R' Herring was caught off guard, without time to think about it and give a considered response.

Here's the sum total of R' Lookstein's words at the ceremony:

"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."

Nothing offensive [or is he praying to the king?] here.

R' Lookstein sent a letter explaining his actions, found here. He gives precedents from the English Chief Rabbis, and a relevant psak from the Tzitz Eliezer, approving of such actions. Among other things, he tells us in the original JTA article that he consulted with others "absolutely committed to halacha." Does this mean poskim? Or the leadership of his synagogue? I don't know.

Similarly, R' Shaul Robinson at Lincoln Square this Shabbat, while explaining why one should not go into a church, enthusiastically supported R' Lookstein for this action, on the grounds that refusal would be tantamount to lèse majesté.

My mother offered another explanation - once the Conservative and Reform rabbis were in attendance, R' Lookstein's non-attendance would have sent the message the the Orthodox do not approve of the new President. But the RCA itself had sent a letter congratulating Obama.

In fact, this last reason casts more doubt on the well-considered nature of R' Herring's answer. By sending a letter congratulating Obama, which presumably went through some group review and approval process, the RCA made it imperative that, if invited, one of their own must go. Otherwise they would be sending conflicting signals - we like you, but we'll decline your invitation to pray for you. By making this statement of R' Lookstein violating "policy", R' Herring puts R' Lookstein into a Catch-22, something I'm sure he would not have done, given some time to think about a reaction.

I'm not sure how the RCA can now explain itself without admitting to some egg on its face.


tzvee said...

Don't you think that instead of disavowing all knowledge of his actions, the RCA would have been better served to claim RHL as their emissary?

thanbo said...

I don't know R' Herring's motivations. Or the situation - was he called at the office, or during his morning coffee, or buttonholed in the elevator?

Of course, in a proper statement they certainly should have endorsed him as their emissary, while adding a caveat about the extraordinary circumstances that allowed R' Lookstein to enter a church. That way, all bases are covered. Now, I don't know.

Garnel Ironheart said...

This is a mess. I've read multiple articles on this issue, even managed to offend a few people with my (now deleted) take on the matter. But from what I've read, here's what I figure:
The decision was a given: Rav Lookstein was going to go. Yes, he could find halachic support for this as well as precedent, albeit in other countries, not in America. But he question can be seen in a metahalachic perspective as well. Going into churches, participating in public multifaith worship, both of those are things Jews just don't do except in exceptional cases. A Jewish chief rabbi going to Westminster Abbey? Well given the (thankfully discontinued) tradition of British monarches of beheading those religious figures they don't like, British Jewry may have developed a survival type acceptance of this kind of visit. I don't know if that would work in America.
Another perspective: did Rav Lookstein NEED to go? Yes, I know he wanted to, and felt it was necessary, but did he absolutely NEED to be there? Would anyone have turned around and said "Hey! There's no Orthodox Jew here! Didn't we invite one?" if he had declined?