Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Sunday, 1 February 2009

Why Rav Lookstein Was Wrong

All right, it's a less provocative title than its now-deleted counterpart but I'm going to reiterate what I said before. I strongly disagree with Rav Haskel Lookstein's decision to attend a prayer service in a church to celebrate Barack Obama's ascension to the U.S Presidency.
For those with short attention spans, Rav Lookstein was invited to represent Orthodox Jewry as part of the presidential inaugral festivities. This service took place in a church and was attended by representatives of almost all major faiths in America as well as Conservative and Reform rabbis. Early articles on the subject emphasized the importance of not saying "no" to such an important invitation. After a reprimand by Rabbinical Council of America, Rav Lookstein fired back by noting that he had followed due halachic process in coming to his decision. He cited decision in our holy literature as well as historical precedents involving other rabbonim participating in multi-faith ceremonies and entering churches.
Despite that, I disagree with him. Here, on a point-by-point basis, is why:
"I did it because I recognize this as my civic duty to support the new President," Lookstein told the Daily News on Wednesday night.
"Under general circumstances, I wouldn't participate in an interfaith service. This was a special situation, and out of a spirit of patriotism and support, I felt like this was the right thing to do."

As a citizen of the country he lives in, a Jew certainly has to be a loyal member of that society. He has an obligation to observe the laws of the country, pay his taxes and be a decent member of his community. However, this is not because it is "the right thing to do" but because it is the decision of halacha that this is so. If halacha said we cannot pay taxes to non-Jewish governments, then civic duty be damned, we could not pay taxes. (Fortunately halacha is enlightened enough to recognize the duty a Jew has to his host country) Further, there is no civic duty to attend a church service to honour a new president. It may be a once-in-a-lifetime privilege and opportunity, but it is not a duty.
This event was not an interfaith dialogue or meeting.
Yes it was. It was a specifically interfaith dialogue to show that all major faiths and denominations in the United States support the new government.
Many clergy were invited, and I felt that the interests of our Orthodox community would be hurt if no one from our community participated.
Exactly how educated about Judaism is the new president? Is he aware of the differences between Reform, Conservativism and true Torah observance or does he assume, like too many North America Jews, that Orthodoxy is just another denomination within a greater Judaism? If he does, then there is no point to an observant Jew showing up. Two other Jews were already in attendance.
Further, how does Rav Lookstein define "our Orthodox community"? He does not represent the Chareidi/Agudah portion of American Orthodoxy. He does not represent Mizrachi. So he could only be present on behalf of a portion of the Orthodox community of North America.
The Shulchan Aruch notes in YD 178:2 that a person who needs to be close to the government may wear even the Torah- prohibited garments of a gentile in order to represent the Jewish community well.
Yes, but it is also clear from the context that this refers to a time and situation in which Jewish interests are either in danger or potentially so. Furthermore, this particular halacha has no relevance here. It's one thing to wear a nice suit to meet the president but this particular psak doesn't add that one can enter their places of worship.
The prohibition to enter a church is grounded in the appearance of impropriety, rather than an actual impropriety
This is where I further disagree with Rav Lookstein. There is something about entering a church that goes beyond the actual halacha and into the most ephmeral aspects of Judaism. For nigh on 1800 years, churches across the world have been the centre of anti-Jewish sentiment. Their "saviour" who is displayed copiously in their churches is a potential repudiation of the basics of our faith. Over and above what the books say, this is something Jews simply don't do. There is too much hurt, too much blood spilt, to ignore.
It is well known that many Chief Rabbis of England have gone into Westminster Abby when summoned there by the King or Queen, and many other great rabbis have done the same to represent our community. The Chief Rabbis of Israel have engaged in similar activities, and, most recently, the Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen was involved in similar activities. In fact, he attended the funeral of the late Pope, John Paul II
In all these cases, the rabbi in question was either summonded by the ruling power or attended the event as a representative of the entire Jewish community. This prayer service was something else entirely. In this case, Rav Lookstein attended of his own free will as a representative of a portion of American Orthodoxy. Thus one cannot use the precedents cites as justification.
and the opportunity to say a few words directly to the President of the United States and begin to develop a relationship with the most powerful man in the world is a chance that our community can ill afford to miss.
Yet the Jewish community has not missed the opportunity, or was Rahm Emmanuel fired and I missed the announcement?
Every one of Rav Lookstein's justifications does not pass scrutiny. But worse, the damage done by his appearance in such a limited capacity is tremendous.
Although it is politically incorrect to remind people of this, as Jews we believe we have been chosen by God to represent His divine intentions here on Earth. For this, we were given His Torah and all the laws both the Written and Oral Laws contain. A Jew who accepts Torah miSinai and the authority of the halacha upon him is acting correctly. A Jew who doesn't isn't. That doesn't mean we must be hostile to our non-observant brethren. Far from it, we must be models of decency and integrity to show them and the world the benefits of a Torah-true lifestyle. But it also means that we alone have the knowledge of the true pathway to understanding God. "You alone have I known of all the families in the world" said God to us (Amos 3:2).
By appearing next to a Conservative and a Reform, Rav Lookstein has undone all of this. He has given the world the impression that Judaism is a denominational religion, just like Chrisianity, with multiple versions of "the truth", each equally legitimate. He has implied that Torah observance, far from being the right way to approach God, is nothing special, just one way amongst multiple denominations and religions.
I am certain he doesn't personally feel that way and I don't question his integrity or knowledge. But I think his decision was wrong and that he should not have attended the interfaith prayer service.

1 comment:

onionsoupmix said...

1. Judaism is a denominational religion. Everyone wants to believe they have the truth so they tell themselves that their way alone is ratzon hashem. Even within orthodoxy, each little group thinks it is following the one true path (MO, chabad, yeshivish, etc.) and everyone else is wrong.

2. The whole chosen thing is what people tell themselves so they feel better that they can't eat cheeseburgers on shabbos.

3. If you get your morality from halacha, good luck to you and tell Rubashkin we wish him the best of luck.