NEW YORK (JTA) -- The main Modern Orthodox rabbinical association says a prominent member violated its rules by participating in the National Prayer Service.
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.
"To go into a cathedral, in this case an Episcopalian cathedral in the main sanctuary, is certainly by most accounts not appropriate," the executive director of the RCA, Rabbi Basil Herring, told JTA. "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."
Herring was adamant that the RCA was not taking a political stance, noting that the organization sent a letter to President Obama congratulating him and expressing confidence that "with the help of God, 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."
The RCA has been in conversation with Lookstein, but at this point is not seeking to sanction him, a source familiar with the situation said. But, the source added, any RCA member can suggest that another member be brought before a disciplinary board for violating rules. It is not clear if any member intends to do so.
Lookstein joined six representatives of various religious communities, including Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, in reciting portions of a nondenominational responsive prayer. Most of the overall service was nondenominational, but there were a few distinctily Christian reference.
Lookstein said he was satisfied with his decision to participate.
"After consultation with people who are absolutely committed to halacha, 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," Lookstein said. "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 Orhtodox community to be supporting the president in a visible way when he is being supported by representatives of the Conservative and Reform movements."
Lookstein said he did not want a conflict with his colleagues in the RCA and did not anticipate one.
"I would be very sad if that happened," he said.
Lookstein said he had two conversations with Herring about his participation. In the first, Herring tried to dissuade Lookstein from participating. In the second, he did not.
"Had I pulled out it would have been something of an insult from the Orthodox community, which was at least the way I felt," Lookstein said.
He also said that he heavily weighed the halachic implications of his move, and though he would not ordinarily participate in an interfaith prayer service, especially one in a church, in this case he felt "there were other concerns."
"If I reached a decision to do it, since I am very careful about shmirat mitzvot, you should conclude that I felt halachically this was the right thing to do," Lookstein said. "I am not going around and making a decision for the world."
Lookstein, who read a religiously neutral statement scripted by National Prayer Service organizers, called the experience very moving.
He also met Obama after the reading and recited to the new president the blessing Jews say when they come into the presence of a king -- only after Obama gave him permission.
"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 said. "He responded with a clear assent."
The other four religious representatives to read part of the prayer were Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America; the Rev. Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners; Uma Mysorekar, president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America; the Rev. Suzan Johnson-Cook, senior pastor of the Bronx Christian Fellowship in New York City; the Rev. Carol Wade of the Washington National Cathedral; and Kirbyjon Caldwell, senior pastor of the Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston.
Earlier in the program Rabbi David Saperstein, the Reform movement's top representative in Washington, was to recite Psalm 121.