On Rabbi Lookstein’s Judgment


I was privileged to have Rabbi Lookstein as a teacher during my rabbinic studies at Yeshiva University. While his class met only one day a week for a year, the practical advice that he offered was based on Torah scholarship, his many years of experience and his desire to mentor a next generation of Jewish leaders.

As students we appreciated his good judgment and the fact that he stood on the shoulders of his legendary father, Rabbi Joseph Lookstein. He mentored us in dealing with families at times of their joy and sadness and it was clear that he was a caring shepherd to his wonderful flock at Kehilath Jeshurun to his dear students at Ramaz. Through the years I have been the beneficiary of inheriting some of his congregants who have moved out to the suburbs and I have admired the perpetual appreciation that they have toward Rabbi Lookstein. I have co-officiated with him at weddings and funerals, attended an important meeting with him at the White House and I remain in awe of his professionalism and goodness. This is aside from knowledge of his efforts for Soviet Jewry and his important book on the silence of much of American Jewry during the Shoah.  

While I am not exceptionally close to Rabbi Lookstein and he is not aware of my writing this article, I feel the need to stand up for one of the most respected rabbis in our country and one of the most admired rabbis in Rabbinical Council of America, where I am currently serving as president.

It is with this good will that I feel towards Rabbi Lookstein that as the president of the RCA I issued a public statement supporting the Rabbanut’s {the Israel Chief Rabbinate] decision to categorically accept any conversion that Rabbi Lookstein has been involved in. I felt that the actions of the Petach Tikvah Beit Din, in rejecting the Rabbannut’s endorsement, was a major error, reflecting their lack of knowledge of the prominence of Rabbi Lookstein as a leading rabbi and God-fearing Jewish leader. I felt that his legacy of good judgment and work on behalf of the Jewish community was being publicly challenged. It was clear that many in the Jewish community, including members of his congregation and graduates of Ramaz felt the same way.

It is therefore extremely ironic and troubling that just days later his judgment regarding giving an invocation at the Republican National Convention was not only being challenged but generated a petition from alumni of the Ramaz School, which Rabbi Lookstein headed for decades, that said all the good works he has done in his career would be “flushed down the toilet for 10 minutes on stage in Cleveland.” It added: “This is the single action history will remember you by, and history will not be kind.” Many of the comments of the signatories went even further in their virulent attacks on Rabbi Lookstein. No rabbi has absolute privilege from criticism and people are free to express their difference of opinion in this area. However, the jumping to a negative conclusion was similar to the judgment of the Petach Tikvah Beit Din. Short on facts and context.

Perhaps, if the author and the signatories had spoken directly to Rabbi Lookstein they would have understood the nature of a rabbinic invocation. An invocation is not an endorsement of a particular candidate or even of a political party. It is an opportunity provided by both of the major political parties in our great country to show appreciation for the democratic process and even to offer subtle words of ethical guidance. Anyone familiar with this process would understand that Rabbi Lookstein’s attendance at this event would be no more of an endorsement of Donald Trump’s troubling statements than giving an invocation at the Democrat National Convention would be an endorsement of Hillary Clinton’s support of the Iran nuclear deal or of her handling of classified security documents and the ethical issues raised by these actions.

What was most striking to me was how the author and signatories of this petition could suggest that an entire career of supreme dedication to his students, congregants and Klal Yisrael, could be wiped out with one action with which they disagreed.

Obviously, in extreme cases of rabbinic abuse or malfeasance, the entire history of the perpetrator must be called into question. But that was not the issue. One can disagree with Rabbi Lookstein’s judgment on this matter but how expediently and passionately could all of his great actions and decision-making be thrown away? Have we reached a point of such extremism and divisiveness that within 24 hours a great man can be undone by angry critics?

I personally may not understand why Rabbi Lookstein pulled out from speaking at the convention, but before criticizing him, I would call him and ask him to present his perspective. And even if I disagreed with his response, he has earned more than enough credit for me to respect his judgment and not to publicly embarrass him with a personal categorical condemnation.

Our community needs to take a step back and evaluate our judgment of how we use social media to attack great personalities, without filters and perspective. Rabbi Lookstein and our community deserve better.

Rabbi Shalom Baum is rabbi of Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck and is president of the Rabbinical Council of America.