Defending Rabbi Haskel Lookstein
I met Rabbi Haskel Lookstein in 1981, about a week before my wedding.
I had made aliyah four years earlier and had brought my Israeli fiancé to New York, so we could be married in my parents’ apartment in Manhattan, in the presence of immediate family and close friends.
Being a secular Israeli, my husband-to-be was hyper aware of the paradox of personal status in the Jewish state. On the one hand, all recognized marriage licenses from anywhere in the world are validated by the Israeli Interior Ministry; on the other, non-Orthodox weddings in Israel are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate and therefore cannot be registered by the state either.
To put it in lay terms, Jews of all stripes can wed where they please and in any fashion – other than in the Jewish state. If it sounds loony, that’s because it is.
Since there was no question as to our being halachically Jewish – Jews according to Jewish law – we could have gotten married in Israel with little difficulty, though, as someone who had moved to Israel from abroad, I would have had to produce my parents’ ketubah (writ of Jewish marriage) to the rabbinate as proof. But we were flying to America for the ceremony for reasons that had nothing to do with matters of religion and state. It was merely a personal choice. Furthermore – a fact that got lost in all the rabbinical bureaucracy — I wanted a religious wedding.
As a lawyer and a pedant, my fiancé not only insisted on having an Orthodox rabbi under our chuppah (wedding canopy), but one who was recognized by the Israeli rabbinate. Otherwise, he said, when our future children grew up and wanted to get married, they could run into a problem.
To avoid a potential pitfall, I asked my family for help. Since my parents knew many Conservative rabbis, but were not sure which Orthodox ones were acceptable in Israel, my sister took it upon herself to do the research. This involved going to the office of the city’s Orthodox rabbinate and asking whether it had a list of New York rabbis recognized in the Jewish state.
The clerk who greeted her answered in the affirmative.
Relieved that she had not made the trip in vain, my sister asked if she could receive the list, or at least peruse the names on it.
“That will cost you 50 bucks,” he said.
Appalled, my sister told him what he could do with the list — and the organization’s chutzpah at turning their own “high” standards into a racket. She therefore exited empty-handed, and we were back at square one. This was ridiculous in any case, as in Judaism, it is legally binding if a man tells a woman that she is sanctified to him in the presence of witnesses.
It was then that an Orthodox family friend directed my parents to Lookstein, not only recognized in Israel, but respected in both rabbinical and government circles there. This was fortuitous, because at the time, he was still serving as the principal of the Ramaz School in their neighborhood, and his widowed mother happened to live in their building.
Before my fiancé and I arrived in New York, my mother phoned Rabbi Lookstein to explain our situation – something I imagine in retrospect that could have caused ill ease on both sides. After all, though they had heard of each other and likely even met, my parents were not members of Rabbi Lookstein’s congregation. Furthermore, the rabbi had never laid eyes on me. So when, at my request, my mother asked whether I had to go to the mikveh (ritual bath) ahead of the wedding, he said something along the lines of, “Yes, but if you’re trying to find out if I collect mikveh certificates, the answer is no.”
Nevertheless, he was magnanimous and agreed to be the rabbi at the wedding. He simply asked that the bride and groom come to meet with him.
This we did shortly after our arrival from Israel, and the conversation was memorable. Despite his warm welcome, he seemed somewhat reserved. I interpreted his guard to be the result of feeling that we were basically treating this whole thing like a necessary pill we had to swallow – for reasons that had nothing to do with Judaism or marriage, or caring at all which rabbi did the deed, as long as we had the proper “certificates.”
Putting myself in his shoes, I imagined he was viewing our endeavor as cynical — typical Israelis working the system to prevent mishap. I knew I would have experienced such a sensation if I were in his place. Looking around his office, whose walls were lined with photos of Israeli leaders, I wanted to connect with him; to assure him that I was not taking any of this lightly or for granted.
Rabbi Lookstein grew increasingly surprised as our conversation progressed. I explained that, truth be told, I actually wanted an Orthodox wedding. Israeli rabbinical bureaucracy aside, I was seeking a ritually “sound” event. I was not interested in a watered-down, fancied-up or feminist version of a Jewish wedding. Nor did I want to “exchange rings” under the chuppah or forfeit the circling of my groom seven times. I also told him that the question about the mikveh that I had put to him through my mother was a function of anxiety about all the arrangements I had to tackle in a short time – not a test as to whether he would check some stub to verify that I had performed the immersion.
For his part, he explained that the girls at Ramaz typically fought for the opposite – and therefore, he had made assumptions about me. By the end of our session, he was freely coaching my fiancé and me about keeping a kosher home, while passionately discussing current events in Israel.
Then, as we were about to leave his office, he looked at my manicure. “Tell the mikveh attendant that I said you don’t have to cut your fingernails,” he said, smiling. It was a kind and intimate gesture I have never forgotten.
Today, Rabbi Lookstein’s religious credentials are being challenged in Israel. More precisely, a conversion he performed is being deemed illegitimate by the Jewish state’s Chief Rabbinate. The appeal before the Supreme Rabbinical Court was heard on Wednesday. As his supporters – among them Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky – rally around him, I feel the need to defend his standing.
Many people seeking to convert to Judaism do so through Conservative and Reform rabbis. This is their choice, and if they — and the children of the women among them — marry anywhere other than Israel, it is a problem-free option. But the woman whose conversion by Rabbi Lookstein is being rejected sought and underwent an Orthodox conversion, which is no easy process.
Shame on the Israeli Chief Rabbinate for casting aspersions on it.
Ruthie Blum is the managing editor of The Algemeiner.