Friday, July 22, 2016

All about Invocations: Rabbi Lookstein, Balak and The RNC

It’s hard to believe, but the issue at the beginning of the week involving speakers at the Republican National Convention—at least for Jews—was the invocation. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein had been invited to deliver the invocation for the RNC and, at the last moment, demurred, saying that it had become political, and that wasn’t his interest (by the way, it’s worth tracking down the text of his invocation, which is available online). Rabbi Lookstein is best known these days as the rabbi who did the conversion for Ivanka Trump, but he’s also very well known in the Modern Orthodox world as the rabbi of Kehilath Jeshurun and, even more importantly, the former head of the Ramaz day school. It was, in fact, alumni of Ramaz as well as others in the modern orthodox world who petitioned and rallied to ask Rabbi Lookstein to reconsider, resulting in outcries from some that this was censorship or that somehow his constituency was trying to mute him or make this political. Rabbi David Wolpe even suggestedin Time that it was a shame that he had had his arm twisted and was prevented from making a blessing, noting that a blessing should non-partisan.

What can we learn from this tempest in a teapot? What implications are there for us out of this refusal to speak at the RNC, even in blessing?

Yehuda Kurtzner from the Hartman Institute wrote this week online about this convention and this election as being a Hora’at Sha’ah. The Hebrew phrase refers to a moment of, as former Israeli supreme court justice Menachem Elon calls it, temporary emergency legislation. It is crisis management dealing with something new, something which no precedent could have anticipated. We know Hora’at Sha’ah best from the idea of pikuach nefesh, or saving a life. We know that saving lives trumps all other halacha—one is permitted to violate mitzvoth with abandon so long as it is with the intent of saving lives. Likewise, there are other circumstances where one must put aside precedent, put aside what might work in normal circumstances, and act with great urgency.  
This week in our Torah portion Balak, king of the Moabites, summons the prophet Baalam in order to curse Israel. He sees the threat that Israel brings as it marches through the wilderness toward the promised land, and summons the prophet to use a well-worn tactic; the cursing of the people so that they may fall in battle against Moab and be unsuccessful. But Baalam and, later, God, remind Balak that these circumstances are not normal. This isn’t just a people, this is God’s people, and so normal precedents are out the window. Despite being invited (and paid) to curse Israel, Baalam instead does the exact opposite, and blesses and praises Israel. The old rules don’t apply as they would against some other Canaanite tribe; this is Israel, and Baalam can only say over them, “Ma Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov—How good are your tents, O Jacob.”

So what do we learn? That, it seems, we are in a moment that could be described as Hora’at Sha’ah, where the normal rules, the boundaries that keep us intact, seem to be out the window. Normally, yes, an invitation to give an invocation at the RNC should be seen as a moment of bipartisan blessing, or a moment to be mildly subversive and speak some modicum of truth in the moment. But this is not like other times. We are in a different moment in our history, one where the usual rules and ideas no longer apply. We are in a moment of hora’at sha’ah, a moment of crisis, and we need to conduct ourselves accordingly. We must act and speak with the urgency that this moment demands, and as God reminds Baalam, we must act in holiness. May this be so. Amen.  

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