Four years ago I was asked to deliver an invocation at the Democratic National Convention. Half my congregation was thrilled, the other half outraged. The outraged members insisted that I was endorsing the President’s policies, including many they considered to be counter to Israel’s interests. I had no place, they insisted, endorsing anyone.
I completely agreed. I did not and never have endorsed a candidate, right or left. But then and now, I believed that an invocation is a prayer, not an endorsement. I gave the invocation because I was asked and insisted I would do the same for the Republican Party. Later my words were tested at a dinner for Republican Jewish party in Los Angeles. When invited, I had no trouble offering a blessing there. These are the major political parties that govern our nation. Both should be blessed. That is what clergy are supposed to do; we do not only bless those with whom we agree.
Now Rabbi Haskel Lookstein has withdrawn from offering a blessing at the Republican National Convention. As the Rabbi who converted Ivanka Trump, he was invited to offer an invocation. Rabbi Lookstein is among the most eminent and respected Rabbis in the country. His probity and learning are renowned. Yet several petitions immediately circulated demanding that he back away from speaking. In the face of the storm, he did withdraw, declaring that what should be religious has become political.
That decision is a shame for all of us. I certainly do not blame Rabbi Lookstein; he faced pressure far greater than anything I ever faced. Yet he might have taken the opportunity to say what he does believe, even if it was at odds with one or another candidate. When I was asked to speak, shortly after the Democratic Party debated whether to omit “Jerusalem” as the capital of Israel out of its platform, I made sure to include it in my benediction. Despite the fact that former Breitbart writer Ben Shapiro reported the exact opposite of what I said, I thought it was a golden chance to affirm values that were precious in the forum I was given.
Although some Rabbis have taken the opportunity to pray for the success of this or that candidate, to do so is to narrow the religious message. God does not live in red or blue states. We pray that God’s spirit might motivate all people to do good.
Rabbi Lookstein’s presence would ennoble any gathering. I’m glad he was invited. I regret both the protests and his withdrawal. People constantly complain of polarization. Yet protesting a prayer is the most blatant appeal to ‘sides.’ If we cannot accept bipartisan clergy, what is to become of us?
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