Practice Preaching

Jewish Light Editorial

Pieces in Tablet, The Forward and beyond this week took to task those activists who dipped their pens in the online poison inkwell to rip Modern Orthodox Rabbi Haskel Lookstein for agreeing to deliver an invocation at the Republican National Convention.

As it turned out, after the public controversy, Lookstein withdrew and sadly took with him the words and advice of a very good man. An 84-year-old man who, in fact, has been recognized for his social activism and has served as one of the most important advocates on behalf of Russian Jews, and, in a way, of American Jews who desire to become Israelis.

But none of that seemed to matter to his critics, who ignored decades of good deeds to further their own cause of character destruction. You see, while the internet can be an agent for good, it often strips context from a person’s life to set up a flat, two-dimensional picture of whoever the trashing du jour is aimed at.

Critics of Lookstein’s proposed appearance at the Republican event suggested that Lookstein would have been serving as a “shill” for the Republican candidate Donald Trump, presumably because it is the rabbi’s relationship with Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner that led to the invitation for him to speak.

But the critics’ perceptions of what an invocation is, and what the speaker offers, were naïve and simplistic. For one, they  underestimated Lookstein, who had in the past delivered a prayer at the National Cathedral the day after President Barack Obama’s inauguration. Given his previous appearance at the urging of a president on the other side of the aisle, participating in this convention did not seem to be intended as an endorsement.

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Moreover, even if those who chastised Lookstein thought his mere presence would be seen as giving approval to the party’s candidate or platform, they don’t really understand what invocations are about.  Sure, some are political in nature, but many aren’t; often the spiritual leader is simply trying to present a moral infrastructure for what is to follow.

The sad fact here is that Lookstein’s invocation would have provided serious food for thought not only to Trump, but to the gathered delegates. Here’s part of what he was planning to say:

“We know that we are living in very dangerous times, when all of these blessings are threatened from without, by forces of terror and unimaginable brutality, and from within, by those who sow the seeds of bigotry, hatred and violence, putting our lives and our way of life at risk.”

Stout words, that would have reminded the attendees, delegates and candidates alike, that their own actions can be just as destructive to society as any outside, violent attacks.

Pity that Lookstein was forced from this week’s political pulpit. And particularly right now, as another aspect of his life work is under attack by, of all people, other rabbis, those on the religious right.

Lookstein has recently seen conversions he performs in New York called into question by rabbinical authorities in Israel. The Supreme Rabbinical Court essentially forced an American woman who came to Judaism under Lookstein’s tutelage to swear to her conversion in court, an act that inferred the rabbi’s oversight was somehow deficient.

This act incurred the ire of none other than Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky, who admires Lookstein for, among other things, furthering the cause of Russian émigrés as they sought Israeli citizenship. Sharansky had this to say about the Court’s conduct:

“Today’s decision by the Supreme Rabbinical Court, which effectively delegitimized a prominent rabbi in the American Jewish community, demonstrates why Israel is in danger of being delegitimized as a center of religious authority in the eyes of world Jewry. I call on the Government of Israel, which recognizes the vital importance of the Israel-Diaspora relationship, to take immediate steps to change the attitude of Israel’s religious authorities toward the spiritual leaders of the Diaspora.”

So there you have it. The esteemed rabbi was being attacked by progressives in America and religious ultra-conservatives in Israel, all in the same week. This for a man who in the ’60s found basis for the civil rights movement in his reading of Torah, and whose life work has been dedicated to Jewish inclusion and outreach.

It is quite a shame when people, even well-intentioned ones, don’t take a deep breath before launching feet first into the wide-ranging morass of internet petitions, criticism and condemnation. By all means, let free speech reign, but show a little respect for the good lifeworks of the person in question. Rabbi Lookstein’s deeds command more deference than this week’s political critics or Israeli rabbis showed. The life of a highly moral and capable man should not be cast aside with such ease.