Monday, January 26, 2009

Back to the Middle Ages

This past Tuesday, January 20 was a wonderful and promising day for all Americans, indeed for all people of good will throughout the world. A new American president was sworn in. This is a president who has brought back to the American people a feeling of hope – that we can build a better future for our families and future generations. This new beginning represents as well a quantum leap that America has made in the quest for healing wounds festering for so long, marring the social landscape of this great country.

Barak Obama’s dramatic rise to power promises to heal the social fissures that have threatened for so long to rupture America, leaving it forever fragmented. That is why I was so disturbed to have read that the Rabbinical Council of America criticized Rabbi Haskel Lookstein for participating in the National Prayer Service marking the inauguration of President Barak Obama as the 44th president of the United States:

“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. 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.”

This position of the RCA is based upon a decision of Harav J.b.Soloveitchik, the spiritual father of modern orthodoxy who believed that there should be no orthodox rabbinic participation in interfaith services. While I am not suggesting that the Rav had it wrong, I am positing that what the Rav may have said a generation ago may not necessarily be applicable today. Apart from that, let’s not forget that the Rav presented his “Lonely Man of Faith” at St. John’s Seminary. In so doing he would have had to discuss points of Talmud and other rabbinic material. St. John’s Seminary is a building where religious text as well as services is conducted. While it may not be church, per say, the difference is purely semantics. The Rav clearly understood that lecturing at St. John’s would impact immensely on Christian thinkers without diluting the message of Judaism.

With regard to visiting a church, the law banning it is based upon the assumption that it is pagan. The Talmud Avodah Zarah prohibits entering pagan temples. In the Middle Ages Tosafot commented that going to churches while not being pagan was still questionable however because of “eyvah” it was permitted. “Eyvah” is a Talmudic principle that requires of us to maintain good relations with all people regardless of religious beliefs. This is the reason why British orthodox rabbis attend state functions at Westminster Abbey.

It so happens that the Rambam, the Meiri, the Maharal of Prague, the Noda Beyehudah and others such as the Tiferet Yisrael all declared that Christianity wasn’t pagan since it accepted divine revelation and had systems of laws and ethics. Taking this into account and the fact that the reason for being in the church is not to participate in non-Jewish prayer I can’t imagine why Rabbi Tzvi Hersch Weinreb declined the offer to participate in the National Prayer Service.

If anything we should be seeking darchei noam and participate in healing the divide that has plagued this nation for so long. It seems to me there is a double standard when the RCA, OU or Aguda lobby Washington for their narrow and parochial interests but refuse to participate in a national service, a symbolic gesture of coming together, of uniting as one humanity, seeking God’s blessings and guidance as President Obama set a new course for America.