Sunday, January 25, 2009

I don’t need to have an opinion on the National Cathedral saga

[First: This week's Haveil Havalim and this month's Kosher Cooking Carnival are out!]

If I had a dime for every time someone has asked me, since Wednesday, what I think about Rabbi Haskel Lookstein’s participation in the worship service at the National Cathedral last week, and the Rabbinical Council of America’s semi-public disapproval…

First: I am נוגע בדבר (I have a conflict of interest), because I am a big fan of Rabbi Lookstein. In my smichah days he volunteered his valuable time every week – on an erev Shabbos, no less! – to teach much-needed Homiletics classes for the guys. I have used his CDs teaching proper chazanus for Yamim Noraim. I have seen him to be a sincere baal chesed, someone who will move שמים וארץ (heaven and earth) for Torah and for Am Yisrael. And that’s even before we get into his distinguished career in rabbanus and at Ramaz.

Second: I am נוגע בדבר (I have a conflict of interest) because renowed poskim, who are my halachic mentors, have already issued rulings on the matter. I am familiar with their read of both the facts on the ground and the relevant halachic sources and precedents, and I see nothing I can add to their expressed perspectives.

Third: My opinion doesn't change anything here; there is no practical purpose to voicing an opinion on this.

But beyond all of that, I think that onlookers like myself need a dose of humility here.

I taught an adult education class the other day (on the issue of Lying for Peace, משנים מפני השלום), and we came to the gemara in Bava Metzia (23b-24a) which says, “A Torah scholar may lie about three topics: (1) Whether he knows a tractate, (2) Intimate details of his marriage, and (3) His host’s hospitality.”

I explained the first case, in which a scholar is asked, “Do you know a certain volume of gemara,” and he denies knowing it well. The scholar does know the subject, but, as a matter of humility, he claims ignorance. (Presumably this is not where he is asked a question by someone wishing to learn Torah or needing a halachic decision, but that’s a topic for another discussion.)

A large segment of the class – an adult class! – could not fathom the logic here. I explained that this is a matter of humility, but they still didn’t get it. These are very good people, strong members of society, but the idea that one would humbly deny his strengths was entirely foreign to them.

I think this is a function of society itself. We are taught, encouraged, demanded to promote ourselves, lest we be overlooked, or lest we look down upon ourselves. Humility is just not valued; if anything, it’s considered a character flaw, some function of a lack of self-esteem.

Rabbis are especially expected to have opinions. If a rabbi answers a question on a proba interview - "Do you feel that the State of Israel embodies Mashiach" or "What do you think is the single greatest threat to Judaism today" - with anything less than 100% certainty, he is assumed to be waffling in order to hide offensive opinions. Certainly, it cannot be that he is simply... uncertain. And if he is uncertain, well, then, he would not be a good leader.

It seems that people believe "leadership" has less to do with leading and more to do with talking.

This is what I see in the constant insistence upon having a comment on any and every issue, National Cathedral services and otherwise. There really is nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know.”

And especially when that’s the truth.


  1. Probably the wisest thing anyone has said about this issue.

  2. Thank you; I was hoping it would make sense to someone other than myself.

  3. Oh thank goodness - when I read the first thing a Torah scholar is allowed to lie about, I thought they were going to say he was allowed to say he DID know something when he actually didn't. :)

    But you might consider that people are asking you because they trust your judgement, as someone whose character and wisdom they personally know, over and above some poskim unknown to them.

    And also, because we're all really trying to navigate the issue of joining/participating in the larger secular culture all the time, and look to our leaders to give us solid examples of right behavior - not having heard or seen a response from Lookstein to the RCA's action, it's hard to know what his take on the halachic issues were.

  4. Hi Tzipporah,
    1) I agree that well-intentioned people ask with that idea in mind - but this is exactly my response, that I can see both sides and can't really choose between them.

    2) Rabbi Lookstein did send an explanation to the RCA's internal email list, but I understood it to be confidential. Others seemed to have looked at it as public; I know it has now been published in various places, including JTA.