Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, was invited to give the opening invocation on Monday afternoon at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. After initially accepting this invitation to address the RNC, Rabbi Lookstein was pressured by some of his congregants and Ramaz alumnae not to do so. These alumnae believed that offering a prayer at this convention would be tantamount to an endorsement of Donald Trump, a candidate whose speeches have been criticized as being filled with hatred and bigotry directed towards minorities. After coming to the conclusion that the prayer was perceived by many of his graduates as “political” and not “Rabbinic,” Rabbi Lookstein declined the invitation.
Is the invocation prayer at the national party convention indeed political? What is the purpose of such a prayer? To answer this question, we must first consider the prayer for the national government, which is recited in our shul and in many others across the country. We see a precedent for such as prayer as early as in Sefer Yirmiyahu, where the prophet Yirmiyahu tells those who were exiled after the destruction of the first Temple, v’dirshu et shlom ha’ir…v’hitpal’lu ba’adah el Hashem ki bishlomah yihyeh lakhem shalom – “seek the welfare of the city… and pray to God on its behalf because by its peace you will have peace (Yirmiyahu 29:7).” This verse in Yirmiyahu reflects a goal that is self-serving – pray for the welfare of the government so that you will benefit. When the city has peace, so will you.
Striking a different tone, the mishna in Pirkei Avot (3:2) states that we should be mitpalel bishlomah shel malkhut she’ilmalei mora’ah ish et rai’aihu chayim b’la’o – we should “pray for the welfare of the government for were it not for fear of the government, a man would swallow up his neighbor alive.” The mishna seems to be highlighting a more general function of the concept of government. It seems to suggest that under conditions of anarchy, man’s suppressed baser instincts would rise to the surface and dominate his social behavior. As such, the mishna instructs us to pray for a stable government, so that anarchy does not ensue.
The sources in Yirmiyahu and Pirkei Avot reflect two different goals for a prayer for the government, and I believe that their differing perspectives are at the crux of the debate over the propriety of Rabbi Lookstein’s address. Would an invocation by Rabbi Lookstein have, in effect, been tantamount to an endorsement of Donald Trump? If we believe, as the source in Pirkei Avot suggests, that a prayer for any government is simply a statement of values of democracy, freedom, liberty and justice, then the prayer is apolitical. However, if we view this prayer through the lens of sefer Yirmiyahu, and view it as a self-serving prayer for the success of a particular government, then perhaps we can better understand how some might perceive the invocation at a political party’s convention as an endorsement of that party and that party’s candidate.
In Israel, where religion and politics are intertwined, I would argue that the perception of a prayer as being political is far greater than in America, when there is a clear separation of church and state. Certainly Rabbi Lookstein, known to be one of the most respected and principled Rabbis in America, viewed the prayer generically and not politically. Those who publicly criticized him for initially accepting the invocation invitation should have understood that.