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Rabbi Lookstein, what were you thinking?

The New York leader focuses on the tightrope he walks between right and left, failing to see it’s no longer his circus

I wrote this piece several days ago, before the start of the Republican National Convention, when news broke that Rabbi Haskel Lookstein had agreed to appear there, but then withdrew in response to a storm of criticism. In light of last night’s speech by the nominee, it’s clear that Rabbi Lookstein dodged a metaphoric bullet. To be forever associated with this particular event, which nominated a candidate who is using the same kinds of racial and religious scapegoating, fear mongering, and ultra-nationalism used by 20th-century fascist leaders, would have badly tarnished Rabbi Lookstein’s legacy.

* * *

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein has had a rough couple of weeks. First, the principal emeritus of the tony Jewish day school, Ramaz, and rabbi emeritus of its affiliated Upper East Side synagogue, Kehilath Jeshurun, was subjected to the indignity of the Israeli rabbinate rejecting one of his conversions, horrifying the intensely Zionist world of Modern Orthodoxy, which prides itself on its true-halachic-Jew cred. The rabbinate subsequently backpedaled, claiming the rejection was just a one-off, but the rift was already opened.

A couple of weeks later, the news broke that Rabbi Lookstein would be delivering an invocation at the Trump-nominating Republican National Convention, drawing intense criticism from the liberal side of the Jewish world. Multiple online petitions were launched, and within 24 hours, he withdrew. A giant of Modern Orthodoxy found himself in the crossfire between right and left, all at once.

Rabbi Lookstein’s willingness to associate himself with the Republican National Convention shocked many of his students and followers, who see him as a voice of post-Holocaust Jewish conscience. In his forward to Lookstein’s book, Were We Our Brothers’ Keepers?: The Public Response of American Jews to the Holocaust, Holocaust survivor and chronicler Elie Wiesel said:

Ask survivors; they will tell you: the indifference of the Allies and friends wounded them as deeply as the cruelty of the enemy. That the Nazis wished them dead seemed ‘normal’; besides, the Nazi propaganda hardly sought to hide that fact. But how is one to explain the passivity or the silence of the others?”

And in his own preface, Rabbi Lookstein wrote:

The temptation is strong to judge the past by the standards of the present, to expect public reactions and responses in the thirties and forties that would be the norm today and to assume that American Jews of that day understood what was happening to European Jewry and should have been equal to the challenge posed by the cataclysm through which they were living.”

The Holocaust has taught us where stirring up nationalist, racial and religious prejudices can lead, that silence is a form of complicity, and that those who lend their voices to the side of evil help legitimize it. We know that there’s a difference between the rhetoric of normal, everyday politics and dog-whistle bigotry. Or at least, we should — in no small part because we have had people like Elie Wiesel and Rabbi Lookstein to teach us.

But apparently, Rabbi Lookstein forgot. He was ready to appear at the convention that would hand the safekeeping of the nation to a fear-mongering, misogynistic birther who wants to ban Muslims and build a wall.

Upon withdrawing, he claimed in a widely disseminated email that he meant to be apolitical. If anyone should know that appearing at Trump’s nominating convention would be anything but apolitical, it’s Rabbi Lookstein. You don’t lead one of the most affluent and influential Jewish congregations in the world without understanding a thing or two about politics, PR, and power. You certainly don’t write a book about the world’s failure to oppose Nazism, and you don’t build an educational institution where “Never again!” is taught daily, without thinking deeply about the alarming anti-Semitism of right-wing American extremism. And you don’t miss the anti-Semitism of images like the one Trump tweeted of Hillary Clinton with a pile of money, a six-pointed star, and the words, “Most corrupt candidate ever!”

No doubt, some will balk at the comparison between Trump and Hitler. But, as Rabbi Lookstein well knows, if you wait for the tyrant to become Hitler, it’s too late; the time to stand against racism, bigotry, hatred, and injustice is always now; and participating in an unjust system ratifies it. Trump pits white Christians against everyone else; paints specific racial and religious groups as immoral, dangerous, and loathsome; churns out streams of propaganda designed to create fear and hysteria; scapegoats vulnerable minority groups; antagonizes not just the nation’s enemies, but even its allies; recklessly threatens to use not just our economic, but also our military might to resolve every conflict; offers thinly veiled appeals to white supremacy; and builds ultra-nationalist fervor that makes enemies of most of the world. He is not just another Republican candidate, and this is not just another convention. What hundreds of Rabbi Lookstein’s students and congregants want to know is, how could he have failed to see that?

But that’s just half of Rabbi Lookstein’s recent troubles. The other half is the conversion mess that immediately preceded the convention debacle — and this time, he got hit from the right. How is it that the same guy could fall out with both sides so spectacularly?

Ramaz and Kehilath Jeshurun are Modern Orthodox institutions balanced on a razor-thin line between modern America and traditional Judaism, an impossible feat that involves a certain amount of sleight of hand. They present themselves as conforming to traditional, halachic Judaism, but the rules bend and change, and blind eyes are turned. Mixed dancing and miniskirts are okay — until they’re not. Private observance is optional, but make sure to keep up appearances in the neighborhood. The obvious subtext: to the left are inauthentic, assimilated Jews; to the right are embarrassingly old-world shtetl Jews. We live in the sweet spot in between.

Once again, it’s instructive to look at Rabbi Lookstein’s own past words to get some perspective on the irony of his current situation. This is from a 1986 Newsday article:

Rabbi Lookstein has already dealt with Reform Jews who were shocked to hear him challenge their religious status and who could be married by him only after he converted them a second time….But Lookstein foresees an even more troubling problem he believes could arise over the dispute. He is principal of the Orthodox Ramaz School in Manhattan ‘where, believe it or not, we have had quite a few people meet who eventually married.’ He fears that ‘one day, we’ll have to check students’ backgrounds to make certain of their religious standing’ because Orthodox parents will want assurances that the school’s pupils are fully Jewish.”

Today, it’s not Lookstein’s community questioning whether other Jews are real Jews, it’s the Israeli rabbinate questioning whether his converts are. Rabbi Lookstein and his brand of Modern Orthodoxy have always tried to have their cake and eat it too — to be modern and enlightened, but also traditional and small-C conservative. Unwilling to admit that halacha itself might be problematic in the American context, and seduced by the prospect of occupying the desirable niche of authentic-but-cool Orthodoxy for well-connected Jews, Rabbi Lookstein and his institutions have been so focused on the tightrope they walk that they’ve failed to notice it’s no longer their circus.

The Jewish world, like the secular one that produced Trump, is ever more polarized. Even as the majority of American Jews have embraced tolerance and openness, orthodoxy has moved right, seeing Ramaz and KJ as first cousins to Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, egalitarian, and post-denominational apikorsim (heretics). And after a lifetime trying to represent an Orthodoxy that satisfies all, Rabbi Lookstein is confronted with the reality that, instead, he’s alienated most.

About the Author
Tamar Wyschogrod has been writing and editing news in print and online for a couple of decades. She is currently copy editor of New Jersey Monthly Magazine and has launched a second career in family management. She blogs about topics of the day with a view from the left, but through jaundiced eyes.
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