Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Wrong for rabbi to participate?

Orthodox group: Rabbi violated rules by joining National Prayer Service
By Jacob Berkman . January 21, 2009

NEW YORK (JTA) -- The main Modern Orthodox rabbinical association says a
prominent member violated its rules by participating in the National Prayer

A Rabbinical Council of America official told JTA that Rabbi Haskel Lookstein,
the religious leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City, broke
the organization's rules by participating in the service Wednesday at the
National Cathedral on the morning after Barack Obama's inauguration.

"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," the RCA said in a statement. "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."

The RCA said that Lookstein's participation was problematic both because the
service was held in the sanctuary of a church, which Orthodox Jews are
prohibited from entering, and because it was an interfaith prayer service,
which the RCA discourages for fear that such participation could allow
missionaries to legitimize their argument that Jews can indeed embrace Jesus.

"To go into a cathedral, in this case an Episcopalian cathedral in the main
sanctuary, is certainly by most accounts not appropriate," the executive
director of the RCA, Rabbi Basil Herring, told JTA. "If one wants to visit the
Sistine Chapel to view the art of Michelangelo it is problematic. There is no
political perspective here that says you should not do it because it is
politically sensitive. Of course it is a purely religious question."

Herring was adamant that the RCA was not taking a political stance, noting
that the organization sent a letter to President Obama congratulating him and
expressing confidence that "with the help of God, you will build on the
respect and good will that you have earned to lead a united country in a
successful confrontation with the daunting challenges that we face both within
and without."

The RCA has been in conversation with Lookstein, but at this point is not
seeking to sanction him, a source familiar with the situation said. But, the
source added, any RCA member can suggest that another member be brought before
a disciplinary board for violating rules. It is not clear if any member
intends to do so.

Lookstein joined six representatives of various religious communities,
including Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the executive vice president of the United
Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, in reciting portions of a nondenominational
responsive prayer. Most of the overall service was nondenominational, but
there were a few distinctily Christian reference.

Lookstein said he was satisfied with his decision to participate.

"After consultation with people who are absolutely committed to halacha, I had
originally decided to do it because I felt it was a civic duty to honor the
new president of the United States. That is why I originally agreed to do it,"
Lookstein said. "But the people who spoke to me about it indicated it was an
important contribution to the Orthodox community because it is only right for
the Orhtodox community to be supporting the president in a visible way when he
is being supported by representatives of the Conservative and Reform

Lookstein said he did not want a conflict with his colleagues in the RCA and
did not anticipate one.

"I would be very sad if that happened," he said.

Lookstein said he had two conversations with Herring about his participation.
In the first, Herring tried to dissuade Lookstein from participating. In the
second, he did not.

"Had I pulled out it would have been something of an insult from the Orthodox
community, which was at least the way I felt," Lookstein said.

He also said that he heavily weighed the halachic implications of his move,
and though he would not ordinarily participate in an interfaith prayer
service, especially one in a church, in this case he felt "there were other

"If I reached a decision to do it, since I am very careful about shmirat
mitzvot, you should conclude that I felt halachically this was the right thing
to do," Lookstein said. "I am not going around and making a decision for the

Lookstein, who read a religiously neutral statement scripted by National
Prayer Service organizers, called the experience very moving.

He also met Obama after the reading and recited to the new president the
blessing Jews say when they come into the presence of a king -- only after
Obama gave him permission.

"I thanked him for his support of Israel and I urged him to remember the
unforgettable statement he made in Sderot, where he said, 'If anybody would
shoot rockets into my house while my daughters were sleeping, I would do
anything in my power to make sure they wouldn't do it again,' " Lookstein
said. "He responded with a clear assent."

The other four religious representatives to read part of the prayer were
Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America; the Rev.
Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners; Uma Mysorekar, president of the Hindu
Temple Society of North America; the Rev. Suzan Johnson-Cook, senior pastor of
the Bronx Christian Fellowship in New York City; the Rev. Carol Wade of the
Washington National Cathedral; and Kirbyjon Caldwell, senior pastor of the
Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston.

Earlier in the program Rabbi David Saperstein, the Reform movement's top
representative in Washington, was to recite Psalm

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