Rabbi Leads Church Services

The Rabbinical Council of America criticized Rabbi Haskel Lookstein for leading services in the National Cathedral.

Avraham Zuroff ,

Obama kippa
Obama kippa
Israel News photo

Rabbi Bassil Herring, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), has criticized a prominent rabbinic member of its organization for leading services in the National Cathedral.  The service were part of U.S. President Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremonies.

“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,” said the RCA 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."

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the senior Orthodox rabbi at Manhattan’s Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, offered prayers to the new President in an ecumenical service held Wednesday, the day after Barack Obama’s inauguration.

The RCA stated that Rabbi Lookstein’s participation was problematic because the service was held in the sanctuary of a church, which is banned from Jewish entry by Jewish Law.  In addition, it was an interfaith prayer service, which the RCA discourages for concern that such involvement would lend credence to missionaries who might argue that Jews could embrace the founder of Christianity.

Rabbi Herring emphasized that the RCA’s considerations were related to Jewish Law, and not political. He even mentioned that his organization sent a letter of congratulations to the new President. The letter expressed confidence that "with the help of G-d, 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."

Rabbi Lookstein joined six representatives of various denominations. Although most of the interfaith service was non-denominational, there were a few Christian references mentioned. Nevertheless, Rabbi Lookstein stated that he was glad to participate.

“After consultation with people who are absolutely committed to halacha [Jewish law], 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,” Rabbi Lookstein stated. “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 Orthodox community to be supporting the president in a visible way when he is being supported by representatives of the Conservative and Reform movements.”

Rabbi Lookstein stated that he did not anticipate a conflict with his colleagues. Although Rabbi Herring had tried to talk Rabbi Lookstein out of participating in the ceremony, Rabbi Lookstein refused. “Had I pulled out, it would have been something of an insult from the Orthodox community, which was at least the way I felt,” he explained.

After weighing the religious issues, stating that he would not ordinarily participate in an interfaith prayer service, especially in a church, he felt that “there were other concerns” in this case.

“If I reached a decision to do it, since I am very careful about shmirat mitzvot [the observance of Jewish precepts], you should conclude that I felt halachically this was the right thing to do,” Lookstein stated. He noted that his decision was for an isolated case.

The rabbi read from an ecumenical prayer prepared by National Prayer Service organizers, and called his experience "very moving." After the reading, Rabbi Lookstein met with President Obama, and recited the blessing that a Jew recites when in the presence of a king.

“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 stated. “He responded with a clear assent.”