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Orthodox rabbi explains why he defied peers to participate in Obama prayer service

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

February 2, 2009 | 4:07 pm

Rabbi Haskell Lookstein received a standing ovation for his sermon a few weeks ago, when he explained to his congregation why his decision to participate in the National Prayer Service following Barack Obama’s inauguration was the right thing to do as an Orthodox rabbi – contrary to the admonition he got from a national Orthodox umbrella group.

While the Rabbinical Council of America worried that his participation transgressed a longstanding ban against interfaith dialogue – if we talk to them, we legitimize them, the reasoning goes – Lookstein believes having the Orthodox voice as part of the national conversation overrides that concern. He also dismissed the notion that Jews are forbidden from entering churches because it would give the appearance of impropriety. In fact, Lookstein told his congregants at Kehillath Jeshurun on New York’s Upper Eastside, it is the RCA that should worry about appearing improper, quoting one congregant who asked, “What world are they living in?”

Lookstein said:

A week ago Monday, I received an urgent call from Rabbi Basil Herring, Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Council of America, who told me that a certain Rabbi, who shall remain nameless, called him very upset, because he said he had been asked to participate as the Orthodox representative in that service and that he had declined and why was Haskel Lookstein being allowed to represent Orthodoxy. Parenthetically, I checked on that report and discovered that the whistle blower had in fact never been asked to participate in the first place. That said, Rabbi Herring proceeded to tell me that if I did participate I would be violating the Rav’s [Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik] explicit ruling on not engaging in interfaith dialogue and that, under any circumstances, it was against halacha to go into a church. I told him I thought it was my civic duty to accept this assignment. Rabbi Herring advised me that sometimes members of the RCA are called before the Vaad Ha-kavod [ethics board] and face disciplinary action for this kind of behavior.

Lookstein consulted a rabbi who assured him there was firm halachik grounding for him to be part of this national moment. Lookstein describes the meaningful if denominationally pareve service, with quotes from the Old Testament and universalist blessings. And giving credence to Lookstein’s instincts that he should not give up this opportunity to speak truth to power, he had a meaningful encounter with the new president:

From his sermon:

We were cautioned by our “handlers” not to engage in conversation with the President because fifteen people had to have their pictures taken. Nevertheless, as I watched the first three people take their pictures and make small talk with the President, I was determined to say something significant to him, about which I had thought in advance. I asked him if I could recite a blessing. He said, “Of course.” I then recited the blessing that one is supposed to pronounce when one meets a King – a President is the closest thing we have to a King. Baruch ata a-donai E-loheinu Melech ha-olam shenatan michevodo l’vasar vadam. Blessed art Thou our Lord our God, King of the universe who bestows His Glory on human beings.” The President and his wife thanked me.

I then continued, and said, “Mr. President: thank you for your strong support of Israel. We will always remember your unforgettable statement in Sderot.” He knew exactly what I was referring to. It was in Sderot many months ago 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.” The President responded to me with a clear assent. I then said to him, “May God bless you!” He replied: “You know that Barack means blessing.” I said, “Of course, but blessing is baruch; you have to be able to say the ‘ch’ sound.” He broke into a big smile and said: “It’s a little too early in the morning.”

The RCA has not brought disciplinary action again Lookstein.

For the text of the sermon, click here.

 

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