Leading U.S. rabbi welcomed Obama, now stands accused of idolatry
Feb 20, 2009
By Anshel Pfeffer
By Anshel Pfeffer
Last update - 15:24 20/02/2009
When I was a child of about six, a black-coated man tried to push me out of the Manchester synagogue where my family had davened for more than three decades, built on land my great-grandfather had purchased. My father rushed to my defense, only to be harangued himself, in angry Yiddish, by my persecutor.
Outside, he tried to explain what had got the gentleman all worked up. I was wearing a T-shirt with a small logo of Alfa-Romeo Motors on it. By now some readers will be nodding their heads, implicitly understanding the root of the trouble. For those still baffled, the Alfa Romeo symbol contains a dragon and a red cross. Still haven't gotten it? Exhibiting a cross, no matter how oblique, in some Orthodox synagogues is like entering a mosque swigging a bottle of Red Label.
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York would never have made the mistake of wearing a cross, certainly not in shul. But he nevertheless is in hot water for a similar "Christian" offense to Orthodox sensibilities: He attended a joint interfaith prayer service commemorating President Barack Obama's inauguration, contravening the rules of the Rabbinical Council of America, of which he is a member. And what's worse, he did it in a church.
It is not yet clear whether the RCA will discipline Lookstein for his actions, but the statement put out by the organization - "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" - does seem a bit ominous.
There are two issues at stake here. One is the participation in interfaith services, which most Orthodox rabbis believe is wrong since it could legitimize Christian missionaries' argument that Jews can embrace Jesus. I'll leave that one to the theologians. The other issue is the lingering feeling of suspicion and historical fear that many Jews still feel toward Christian symbols, and the concern that by entering a church and appreciating the architecture, the music and the service, one may be infringing upon the Torah's prohibition of avoda zara (idolatry).
And while nobody says that entering a cathedral and marveling at the nave equals converting to Catholicism, the Talmud has strict instructions on not even enjoying avoda zara.
But here we are in rather murky waters. It is almost impossible to live a normal life in western society without being surrounded constantly by Christian symbols. Even the most ultra-Orthodox rabbi routinely carries crosses and pictures of churches around with him in his wallet, on the coins and banknotes issued by almost every central bank in Europe.
Outside of Israel that doesn't mean anything. But at the age of eight, upon arriving for my first day at an Israeli religious school, I was sternly told by the mathematics teacher that I must not write the full plus sign, but instead should leave off the bottom leg. On keyboards in the computer room, half the offensive signs were scratched off. My protests - that I knew what a cross looks like and a plus sign is not a cross - were to no avail. The Jewish school I attended in Manchester was just as religious, but no one there would have dreamt up an idea as ridiculous as truncating the plus sign.
So when is a cross just a cross, not a crucifix? And when is sitting in church simply fulfilling "a civic duty to honor the new president of the United States," as Rabbi Lookstein said in his defense, not a desecration of one of the Ten Commandments? Indeed, the good rabbi wasn't the only Orthodox Jew in Washington's National Cathedral that morning. Attending the service was also Senator Joe Lieberman and a handful of other frummer machers.
Are Jews allowed to drive Alfa Romeos without breaking the symbol off? Can they listen to Mozart's Requiem so long as they don't understand the Latin? Can much of the renaissance paintings and sculptures be appreciated despite the fact that they were commissioned for cathedrals and monasteries and usually contain Christian themes?
Even within Orthodox circles, the answers to these questions diverge wildly. Some rule unquestionably that this is avoda zara and therefore art galleries and concert halls are off limits, let alone a tour of a historic and architecturally fascinating church. Others laugh at the idea of calling this modern-day idolatry, and look at all these things solely for their cultural value.
There is, of course, a political aspect to all this. The RCA is under fire from the more conservative U.S. ultra-Orthodox elements for being too liberal. That is probably the reason it felt the need to censure Rabbi Lookstein. But I doubt that anyone there really thinks for a moment that he was committing one of the three cardinal sins. One hopes he can at least rely on the support and understanding of the members of his own congregation.
This doesn't mean that the concept of avoda zara is meaningless in the 21st century.
But that's another theological debate for another place. Meanwhile, for those who might be worried at the lack of clear guidelines of how to avoid avoda zara, it would probably be best to adapt the common-sense definition of pornography - "I know it when I see it."