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The Jewish Community Owes Rabbi Haskel Lookstein an Apology

The general ignorance, assumption of worst motives, and vitriol that greeted Lookstein’s abortive decision to speak at the RNC sounded more like Trump than his opposition

Yair Rosenberg
July 18, 2016

This afternoon, the Republican National Convention will commence in Cleveland, Ohio—and it will do so without its original opening speaker. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the respected former spiritual leader of Manhattan’s Modern Orthodox Kehilath Jeshurun congregation and the Ramaz School, was initially slated to deliver the convention’s kickoff prayer. The 84-year-old rabbi accepted the slot at the behest of his congregants Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, whose conversion to Judaism he oversaw. But as is now well-known, Lookstein pulled out after his prospective appearance was met with a cavalcade of criticism.

This was Lookstein’s right, and I personally feel that he made the correct decision in reconsidering. Likewise, the American Jewish community was fully within its rights to object to Lookstein’s role. What was not right, however, was the ugly, spiteful, and ignorant manner in which much of that criticism was leveled against a man whose decades of service surely earned him the benefit of the doubt.

In the hours after Lookstein’s convention appearance was reported, not one, not two, not three, but four different Change.org petitions were launched in response. As the famous rabbinic saying goes, “one Jewish opinion, several redundant petitions.” Indeed, it would have been funny if some of their contents hadn’t been so troubling.

The first and by far most popular petition was also the worst offender. Signed by 832 people before Lookstein withdrew, its title proclaimed, “Rabbi Lookstein — You May Speak for Trump, But Not in Our Name.” Channeling the essence of internet outrage culture, it proceeded to assume the absolute basest motives on Lookstein’s part, while simultaneously evincing utter ignorance of how prayers at the national political conventions actually work.

“We, the undersigned, are outraged that Rabbi Haskel Lookstein…has decided to lend his blessing to Donald Trump and speak at the Republican National Convention,” the petition began. “To embrace Trump and Trumpism goes against all we’ve been taught.” Thus, right off the bat, the protest presumed that (a) Lookstein intended to endorse Trump with his appearance, and (b) that such political approbation is the function of a prayer delivered at the Republican or Democratic National Conventions. Both of these assumptions are false.

In fact, there are two kinds of faith leaders who attend these quadrennial events. On the one hand, there are those who genuinely identify with the political party they are appearing with. On the other, there are those clerics who participate in order to bring a moral voice to our country’s political proceedings, without any intent to endorse a candidate or express a political preference.

In 2012, I profiled both rabbis who appeared at the national conventions. At the RNC, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik clearly identified with the party at hand. But at the DNC, celebrated Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe told me in no uncertain terms that his appearance did not constitute an Obama endorsement. Often, spiritual leaders of Wolpe’s school appear at prominent events for both parties to underscore their neutrality. For them, it is about offering a prophetic perspective, not partisanship. Lookstein, who famously delivered a prayer for Obama the morning after his 2009 inauguration, falls squarely into this category.

Yet none of Lookstein’s most caustic critics seemed to be aware of this political or personal backstory. Thus, in their ignorance, they felt completely justified in asserting that the rabbi intended to ratify Trump’s bigotry, endorse his proposals, and apologize for his enabling of anti-Semitism, all on the RNC stage. From the first petition:

Rabbi Lookstein, do you also shrug in the face of virulent, violent anti-Semitism? Do you also believe that ten million Mexicans should be deported? Do you really want your grandchildren to grow up in a racist fantasia in which we will somehow construct “the wall”?

Rabbi Lookstein, all the good work you’ve done in your life – everything you’ve done for your community, for the plight of Soviet Jews – will be flushed down the toilet for ten minutes on stage in Cleveland. This is the single action history will remember you by, and history will not be kind.

It never seems to have crossed the petitioners’ minds that this did not actually make any sense given Lookstein’s history of social justice activism or his nonpartisanship. Having already divined Lookstein’s devious designs, the petition darkly concluded by warning that “the future of our country, not to mention your own legacy, is at stake.” (Two other more perceptive petitions offered more nuanced objections—and garnered less than 250 signatures combined.)

The absurdity of this hyperbole was immediately exposed when Lookstein withdrew and released the text of his intended prayer. It read, in part:

We thank you for our constitutional government that has created and fostered the American ideals of democracy, freedom, justice and equality for all, regardless of race, religion or national origin. Almighty God: 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.

In other words, Lookstein had no intention of sacrificing his convictions on the altar of Trump. He planned to speak truth to power on arguably the most consequential convention stage of our lifetimes. Rather than a chillul hashem, a profanation of God’s name, the headlines would have heralded a kiddush hashem, a sanctification of God’s name: “Ivanka Trump’s rabbi implicitly rebukes Donald Trump’s campaign at the start of the Republican National Convention.”

Whether this potentially positive outcome was enough to outweigh the chance that Lookstein’s presence might offer an inadvertent Orthodox imprimatur to Trump’s campaign is debatable. Whether Lookstein intended to jettison his legacy and “embrace Trumpism” is not.

Why does this matter? Because it reveals that Donald Trump has made greater inroads into our community than we’d like to admit.

I yield to no one in my disgust for Trump, his candidacy, and what they represent. I have written at length on this subject, to the extent that I have become a favorite target for Trump’s white supremacist supporters on social media. I’ve chronicled the toxic nexus of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism among his backers, and I’ve been photoshopped into gas chambers and concentrations camps by them for doing so. Back when many liberals were still treating Trump’s candidacy as a joke at the Republican party’s expense, I went on a New Republic podcast to argue for the radical proposition that Democrats should cross over into the Republican primary to vote for Trump’s opponents, given the extraordinary threat he posed.

But to defeat Trump, it is not sufficient to beat him at the ballot box. His form of political discourse—the assumption of base motives, the ignorance, the all-encompassing anger—must be repudiated. If instead, in order to oust him, we become like him, Trump will have won after all.

In this respect, the treatment of Lookstein by those who profess to oppose Trump does not bode well. Confronted with a choice they disliked from a rightly respected rabbi, many in the American Jewish community chose the politics of personal destruction over honest engagement. They imputed the worst to their opponent, when a cursory Google search would have offered reason for reticence. They mistook the stridency of their sentiments for strength. They spoke categorically about a political process they did not understand. In other words, while claiming to speak in opposition to Donald Trump, they sounded quite a lot like him.

As the Republican National Convention commences, many American Jews will be congratulating themselves for being on the right side of history. But building a moral society doesn’t just mean making the right choice every four years at the polls; it means making the right choices every day in between. And if the Lookstein affair teaches us anything, it’s that we still have a lot of work to do on that score.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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