NEW YORK (JTA) — The main Modern Orthodox rabbinical association says a prominent member violated its rules by participating in the National Prayer Service.
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."
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 movements.”
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 concerns.”
“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 world.”
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 121.
According to another source, the Obama team was looking specifically for the participation of an Orthodox rabbi.
One person in attendance said that Sen. Joe Lieberman, the one-time Orthodox candidate for vice president, told him that it was an incredibly important and a very positive thing that the Orthodox community was represented.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersch Weinreb, the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, was rumored to have been approached by the Obama team, but declined the invitation — paving the way for Lookstein to appear.
Weinreb would neither confirm nor deny that he was asked to participate, but stood by the RCA’s rule, which is based on an edict from the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Modern Orthodoxy’s longtime spiritual leader. Orthodox rabbis, according to Soloveitchik, should not engage in theological debate or participate in interfaith services, but they should absolutely work with religious officials of other faiths on matters of social welfare, freedom and hunger, Weinreb said.
"I have no comment to the whole thing," Weinreb said. Referring to Lookstein’s decision to accept the invitation, he added, "Obviously he has justification for doing what he did."
One of Weinreb’s high-ranking lieutenants, the O.U.’s top official in Washington, Nathan Diament, was in attendance at the National Cathedral, according to several sources. Diament would neither confirm nor deny that he was there, but Weinreb said that an O.U. employee in attendance was there representing himself, not the organization. Diament and Obama attended Harvard Law School together.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The initial version of this story contained information attributed to an unnamed official at the Rabbinical Council of America about the right of RCA members to file complaints against their colleagues. The information was intended to be shared on an off-the-record basis, but due to a miscommunication was mistakenly included in the article by JTA.