A Jew Goes to Church (God Forbid…)


The JTA reported today that the Rabbinical Council of America (which represents Modern Orthodox rabbis) has determined that one of its members violated its rules by attending an interfaith service in the National Cathedral as part of the Inauguration yesterday:

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.

I’m staggered and speechless but in the end, not surprised. I know all about the goy-phobias of traditional Judaism and this one is nothing new. I’m just thinking that this is so very sad, coming on the heels of yesterday’s incredible sense of national coming-together. I don’t know how any Christian could interpret this kind of attitude as anything other than flat out xenophobia…

35 thoughts on “A Jew Goes to Church (God Forbid…)

  1. There’s a big difference between coming together and coming together in a church.
    On a somewhat related note, having a National Cathedral makes me sick to my stomach.

  2. There really is a big difference – this is not about xenophobia, it’s a religious thing that is not aimed at anyone and does not harm anyone.
    And Gersh – having a National Cathedral, you’re right. Oh well.

  3. Are we shocked to find that the RCA does not allow women to sit with men during services? No. We should not be shocked by the RCA protecting a conservative halachic position.
    I should point out, however, that it is prohibited to pray in church because of fears of idolatry. It is not forbidden to pray in a mosque, because there is no such fear of idolatry.

  4. re: the national cathedral, the building belongs to and is run by the episcopal church.
    they called it the national cathedral presumably because its their big church in the nation’s capital. If you wanted to have a national synagogue, no one is stopping you- oh wait, Ohev Shalom has declared itself that already.
    I see no reason to be nauseated by this, unless you are offended by the existence of other religions.
    While it is worth noting that a decision based on halacha/jewish law may not be intended to give offense, I don’t think that people get a free pass at offensive behavior because they can find a line in a book supporting their decision, especially when there are other less offensive halachic positions available for the taking (i.e. the me’iri did not consider christianity to be avodah zara/ idolatry

  5. My initial thought is, “Thank G-d I’m Reform.” However, like most things in the real world there are valid points on both sides: we could argue them endlessly.
    What I find most disappointing is there is simply a “do not do this.” As I’ve heard many bosses say, “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” So, what is the RCA’s answer to what would have been appropriate? Completely shutting ourselves out of interfaith dialogue is irresponsible to the Jewish community as a whole. Mystery and secrecy only enhance some of the negative stereotypes.
    There is a place for dialogue on how we agree to disagree about G-d and scriptures, but more importantly there is a place for garnering understanding of our shared qualities. Such as, praying that the new President helps take this country in the right direction and peace and prosperity are shared values.

  6. Shalom Rav is a colleague of mine, but his critique is way out of line. Like it or not, traditional Jews choose not to pray with Christians and others in a “sacred space” that is not only not sacred to them, but clearly rejected by them. The Meiri notwithstanding,it is a stretch to then suggest even he would participate in an interfaith service in a church. For traditional Jews, even the Meiri, Christianity is false. It may have moral value and benefit to its practioners, it may produce wonderful people, but Jews do not accept the worship of Jesus. To call this a “goy phobia” is insulting, indeed to participate in a setting (a church) you reject as false is even more insulting. I think it is more of an Orthodox Jewish phobia that is at play here.
    That being the case, I think the RCA was stupid in issuing a statement. I personally do not mind Rabbi Lookstein attended. But I do resent the attitude of Shalom Rav in this case.

  7. Sarah M – Red Mass, for example, is held at the National Cathedral – seems over the line to me.
    And it’s not about whether its intended to give offense – if someone who keeps kosher refuses to have dinner at his friend’s non-kosher apartment does that make it offensive behavior?

  8. LB- so they, like many churches, have a mass in honor of politicians, some of whom attend- can you explain what is so nauseating about that?

  9. Not to get into semantics, but I didn’t call it nauseating. But yes, it does bother me – either the US is a secular country, with true separation of church and state, or it isn’t. Religious ceremonies to celebrate state affairs are not what a secular state does, and they do mix church and state.

  10. Shalom Rav-
    I’m not sure this really boils down to “goy-phobia,” as you called it. The RCA’s issue is halakhic, I’ve read in a few places online that Rabbi Lookstein was quite happy and enthusiastic about attending the prayer service, referring to the same sense of “national coming together” you write of. The RCA’s concern, I presume is that other Jews see Rabbi Lookstein’s action and take it to mean that it is permissible, halakhically, for Jews to pray in churches, which it is not. Rabbi Lookstein (or the other rabbis present) clearly did not participate in anything forbidden or impermissible. The RCA is also reportedly concerned that missionaries will take it to mean that Jews can accept Jesus. Like Rabi Herring said, “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.”
    I can understand the reaction that you have to this. It makes me consider halakhah theoretically and practically, and the differences in this case. I think in theory, the prohibition against attending services of a non-monotheistic faith, or even against entering places of non-monotheistic worship, is firmly rooted in Jewish law, and I think to chalk it up to “goy-phobia” looks past some of the more nuanced nature of some practices and customs as they relate to the law. In practice, I believe each observant Jew is aware of whether or not they are crossing boundaries they feel comfortable crossing, and clearly Rabbi Lookstein did not feel like he crossed any boundaries for himself, and presumably the RCA is concerned that other people might not be so aware of those boundaries (be that true or false). But certainly, in practice, an interfaith National Prayer Service wherever it be held (and this is even coming from an anarchist) is a different sort of affair, and as you mention, all the more so right now considering the state of the nation and the cross-roads we find ourselves at. But it should be noteworthy that the issue the RCA is taking is not that he participated in the prayer service, merely its venue.
    I don’t think it should be viewed as malicious in any regard, again I can understand your reaction. The fact is that the Modern Orthodox rabbi who was invited to participate in the National Prayer Service this morning did so, despite the venue being a church, not just that he read before the nation (and the world that was still watching) with a Conservative rabbi and members of many other faiths.
    I wonder how much this news will get outside the Jewish press. I hope that most Christians look beyond the RCA statement and see the act of “coming together” displayed by Rabbi Lookstein’s participation.

  11. This is interesting to read. For most of my life, my shuls were spare rooms in churches. Except for turning out pro-intermarriage, anti-Israel, unhalakhic, and a hippie, I seem to have turned out a model Jewish communal employee.

  12. re: the national cathedral, the building belongs to and is run by the episcopal church.
    they called it the national cathedral presumably because its their big church in the nation’s capital.

    As someone has said, the National Cathedral is no more “national” than the National League or National Car Rental.

  13. “Goy-phobia”? Halakhically, Jews are not to practice other religions. Jews are permitted to (and in everything left of the charedim, encouraged to) interact with non-Jews.
    Rav Soloveitchik’s opinion was that Jews and Christians were fundamentally different faith communities that can only coexist in peace if religious matters are not discussed by members of different groups. However, Jews can (and should) participate in faith-based efforts that promote legitimate secular goals (such as homeless shelters). The RCA’s official position agrees with this view.
    I really don’t see how it’s “goy phobia” if our laws are designed so that the Christian missionaries have fewer opportunities to try to convert us.

  14. I think its more shocking that the RCA has never condemed Rabbi Lookstein and KJ for reserving a baseball field on the Great Lawn every Shabbos afternoon in the warm months so congregants can play. I don’t think an eruv is intended for carrying bats, gloves and balls. Its a big public desecration of Torah Law.

  15. On a somewhat related note, having a National Cathedral makes me sick to my stomach.
    As BZ noted, you’re upset about the mere name “national”?
    All of this hysteria against even the most nominal of nods to our Christian majority makes me increasingly supportive of Christmas trees in the public space.

  16. All of this hysteria against even the most nominal of nods to our Christian majority makes me increasingly supportive of Christmas trees in the public space.
    But the National Cathedral isn’t “in the public space”, and no one is nodding to it — it’s a private Christian church nodding to itself.

  17. Maybe they should have done it at Adas Israel. Or better yet, the Islamic Center. Washington Hebrew Congregation? How about the Kay Spiritual Life Center? One of the smattering of Unitarian churches in DC?

  18. Jonathan:
    The only thing that matters is that the eruv exists, and thus the melachah of carrying is not an issue.
    What a person decides to carry within the eruv is his or her own business.

  19. “What a person decides to carry within the eruv is his or her own business.”
    Unless it’s muksah, having no purpose of use for the shabbos

  20. It seems to me that in a country where we hope to have relationships with our Christian neighbors, prohibiting Jews from entering others’ houses of worship is a barrier to that goal. I can’t imagine myself explaining to a good friend why I couldn’t attend her confirmation or her wedding. “Your religion is false” wouldn’t play very well (and doesn’t adequately express what I think about religion). “Someone might try to convert me” wouldn’t play very well either, nor do I feel very concerned about that. While I respect folks’ halakhic issues, I also respect the people I care about.

  21. Post 9/11 I went to an interfaith service in BJ and found it quite moving, even with crosses on the walls. Fortunately, I don’t follow Rambam and do not consider Christianity Idolatry from a Halakhic perspective.
    I wonder if these same Jews who consider Xtianity idolatry enough to not enter their churches also proscribe business deals 3 days before and after Sunday, i.e. all 7 days of the week, as are the implications of Masekhet Avodah Zara

  22. productive conversation would be for the RCA to say that non-denominational services are never actually non-denominational: they’re highly christian. Making that point would be like the old public school debates as to whether bible readings were non-sectarian. Catholics adamantly responded that the idea of personal bible readings was fundamentally protestant, and objected even to the protestant translation used. These were the first big religion in public school fights.
    In an era of increased religiosity in America where the questions of how religion interacts with the public sphere and what privileges and exemptions we confer upon religious groups this is an important question. Do we really expand the umbrella of diversity by asking Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist religious leaders to attend a service that has all the forms of protestant christianity sans the name ‘jesus’? Are there ways to change the medium and therefore the message? Forcing America to think about the ways in which our “neutral but tagged as faith-based” activities have all the forms of protestantism may help us broaden our definitions and understandings of what it means to be religious in this country. Im sorry that if the RCA refuses to attend these events they dont use the moment to start such a dialogue.

  23. Kari writes:
    The only thing that matters is that the eruv exists, and thus the melachah of carrying is not an issue.
    Nitpick: carrying isn’t a melachah.

  24. Between domains, yes. But the ontological status of reshut harabim d’oraita is uncertain, and it (definitionally) doesn’t include Central Park or anything else that could be enclosed by a kosher eruv.

  25. I think the definition of muqtsa is something that has no purpose on Shabbat. If there is an eruv and the equipment can be used on Shabbat, it is not muqtsa.
    So, is playing baseball permitted? Only if it’s activities can permitted, such as running and kicking up dirt, getting hurt, sliding into bases, and creating noise.
    The mishnah holds as R’ Shimon that moving a chair that inadvertantly creates a rut is not plowing, but is melakha she-eino mitkaven lei, and so is halakha. The tosefta states one may walk on grass on shabbat and not fear tearing it out. So, running isn’t an issue.
    Creating a sound, mashmia kol, usually refers to intentional or sound with instruments, so not an issue.
    Getting hurt on shabbat. This may be like shevut, an activity that is not a melakha per se, but is un shabbat like. One may not climb a tree or ride a horse on Shabbat or float on the water, according to the Yerushalmi, because it is uvdin d’hol. A good argument can be made that you shouldn’t do things that have a good chance or ruining your shabbat, such as getting hurt.
    The mekhilta says, six days show you do ALL your labor, and on the seventh rest, that is, all weekday activities must be done by Shabbat. So, on one foot, frisbee should be okay, tennis should be okay, softball may be okay, hardball I would avoid.

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