President Obama’s Prayer Service

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I. The Issue

There was a recent disagreement over participation in an interfaith service at the National Cathedral celebrating President Obama’s entrance into office. R. Haskel Lookstein was one of six representatives from multiple religions who recited non-denominational prayers out loud.

He said: “May the President, Vice President, Members of the Cabinet, Governors of States and Territories, Mayors of Cities, and all in administrative authority who are empowered by our sacred trust lead this nation with wisdom and grace as they seek to serve the common good” (JTA).

In response, the RCA stated that this participation was contrary to their official rules, although there is no intent to punish R. Lookstein in any way (Daily News, USA Today, JTA, JPost, Arutz Sheva).

What I’d like to do here is to attempt to explain what R. Lookstein was thinking and why the RCA is right even if R. Lookstein is justified in doing what he did. I certainly have no intention of dismissing R. Lookstein, who is an accomplished rabbi. This is more of an attempt to justify his actions while pointing out that they are based on a minority view.

II. Entering A Church

The Mishnah (Avodah Zarah 11b) states that you may not travel on a path that leads only to a city where there is an idolatrous celebration. Why? Most commentators explains that it is because of chashad, i.e. maris ayin — people will think that you are going to worship that idol. This is also the reason assumed by the Shakh (Yoreh De’ah 149:1), who cites the Tur, and seems to be the normative position. On this Mishnah, the Rambam writes explicitly in his commentary that this rule clearly implies that you may not enter a house of idol worship.

However, the Ritva (Avodah Zarah 11b) quotes a view that it is because the more people that go to the city or travel on the road to the city, the more honor is given to the idol. You are not allowed to travel on that road because doing so is honoring the idol. Additionally, the Toras Chaim (Avodah Zarah 12) explains the Rambam as understanding that going to the city or traveling on the road is indirectly benefiting from the idol. Therefore, traveling on the road and going to the city is elevated to a much stronger prohibition.

The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 17a) goes even further and states that you should distance yourself from a house of idol worship. Not only may you not enter it but you should try to avoid it. (Regarding whether you should go out of your way to avoid one, see Minchas Elazar 3:44 and Rivevos Ephraim 3:496 in the name of R. Yitzchak Isaac Liebes.)

III. Churches Today

But does this apply to Christian churches today? There is a long-standing debate among halakhic scholars over whether Christianity is considered polytheism (and therefore equivalent to idolatry) or monotheism. While Christians will argue that their belief is monotheistic, they are not necessarily sufficiently convincing. Let us assume that we accept that their religion is monotheistic, as the Rema (Darkhei Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 151:6) and Shakh (Yoreh De’ah 151:7) hold.

However, this is not directly relevant to our discussion. Even if Christianity is not considered idolatrous for Gentiles (i.e. Noahides), it is still forbidden as idolatry to Jews. For example, the same Rema who permits Gentiles to be Christians, still considers crucifixes to be idolatrous objects that are forbidden to Jews (Yoreh De’ah 141:1). And the Shakh (151:17) struggles to understand how we can rent apartments to Christians if they bring statues into their Jewish-owned apartments. See also R. David Tzvi Hoffmann, Melamed Le-Ho’il vol. 1 Orach Chaim no. 16.

Therefore, it seems to me that we are still not allowed to enter churches, even if we accept that Christianity is not polytheistic and is permitted to Gentiles. R. Chaim Palaggi (Chaim Be-Yad, no. 26) writes this explicitly.

IV. Extenuating Circumstances

There is room to suggest that supporting and honoring the President allows for leniencies. The Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Avodah Zarah 11:3) allows someone close to political figures to adopt Gentile practices. The Beis Yosef (Yoreh De’ah 178) suggests two reasons for this: 1) it indirectly saves Jewish lives and therefore overrides even biblical prohbitions, or 2) the Sages defined what falls under this prohibition and they allowed this. According to the first reason, we could suggest that other prohibitions would also be set aside for someone close to the President. However, the second reason seems to be the one favored (cf. Taz, ad loc. no. 5). That notwithstanding, the Darkhei Teshuvah (178:20) quotes the Shulchan Gavohah who permits rabbinic prohibitions for those close to political figures. See also Mishnah Berurah (224:13) and Responsa Kesav Sofer, Orach Chaim no. 37. It seems clear that it is politically important for Jews to publicly honor the incoming president, particularly rabbis who have (or want) some kind of connection with him.

V. Entering the Church

Based on all of the above, we should say that you may not enter a church under normal circumstances. Indeed, R. Eliezer Waldenberg (Tzitz Elizer 14:91), R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 3:129) and R. Ovadiah Yosef (Yechaveh Da’as 4:45) all prohibit entering a church nowadays.

However, you could argue that in a case where everyone knows that you are not there for Christian worship but only for a funeral or out of respect for the President, there is no maris ayin and it should be permitted. In fact, the Ritva (Avodah Zarah 11b) states (in his first explanation) that the prohibition of entering a church is only on a church that is normally not used for other things. This is presumably because otherwise there is no maris ayin. If that is the case, then the general prohibition against entering a church would not apply. The secondary obligation to avoid churches might be set aside due to the extenuating circumstances.

In fact, even if there is a prohibition of maris ayin, it might also be set aside. While there is a debate over the strength of that prohibition (see the Ran to Avodah Zarah 12b), let us assume that it is a regular rabbinic prohibition (cf. Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 157:3). As above, a rabbinic prohibition is set aside in these circums
tances. If so, then we need not be concerned with the other reasons offered for prohibiting entering a church (benefiting from the other religion or honoring it) because they also seem to be of rabbinic origin and are therefore also set aside for this particular extenuating circumstance.

However, I am not aware of any halakhic authority who has permitted this. There have been occasions like this in the past, such as state weddings and state funerals, where authorities have, to my knowledge, consistently ruled strictly. R. Ovadiah Yosef (Yabi’a Omer, vol. 2 Yoreh De’ah no. 11) is one example. R. Chaim Binyamin Goldberg (Bein Yisrael Le-Nokhri, Yoreh De’ah ch. 27 n. 20) quotes what I think is the Beis Ephraim (vol. 2, no. 11) who prohibits entering a church even for purposes of darkhei shalom. On the other hand, it was reported that R. Shear-Yashuv Cohen attended Pope John Paul II’s funeral in church.

VI. Interfaith Service

In addition to violating RCA norms regarding entering a church, R. Lookstein also participated in an interfaith service. It isn’t clear to me exactly what is wrong with an interfaith service that contains only neutral, non-denominational language, but I assume it has to do with legitimating the other participants in the service, including non-Orthodox and non-Jewish clergy. I’m not sure what the exact prohibition is for that but I wonder whether it is rabbinic or biblical. If it is rabbinic, then we have reason, given the extenuating circumstances, for permitting it as well.

VII. Conclusion

I’m not sure what R. Lookstein’s halakhic rationale was for doing what he did. What I tried to do here is discuss the possibilities. He clearly did not have the majority position on his side but it might be possible to construct a minority position to defend his actions. Despite that, it still violated RCA policies that are not designed to handle this unusual circumstance. It could be that the RCA only objected because they want to make it clear that the do not generally permit such actions. So my theory is to resolve all difficulties and to declare that everyone was right — R. Lookstein has minority opinions on which to rely and the RCA has a policy based on majority views. However, all of this was written in haste and there is plenty of room for debate on a number of issues.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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