Rabbi’s church appearance stirs scrutiny

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Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld speaks at an interfaith prayer service in a church before Mayor Muriel Bowser’s inauguration. The rabbi explained his decision to take part in the event to his congregation prior to his speech. Photo by Suzanne Pollak
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld speaks at an interfaith prayer service in a church before Mayor Muriel Bowser’s inauguration. The rabbi explained his decision to take part in the event to his congregation prior to his speech. Photo by Suzanne Pollak

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld’s participation at an interfaith prayer service before D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s inauguration Jan. 1 at the First Congregational United Church of Christ required him first to pose and answer two questions of Jewish law:

Could he as an Orthodox Jew participate in an interfaith service? And could he even step inside a church?


Herzfeld, a modern Orthodox rabbi who leads Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue in the District, explained to his congregation he took the unusual step “to offer words of scripture and prayer” at the service because “Christianity today is not the same as Christianity of the Middle Ages.”

Bowser, he said, “has always been a friend who we can count on.”

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Herzfeld made his case at length a week before the inauguration. He said that Christians shouldn’t be viewed as “idolators” of old, whom Jews should avoid.

“I can’t sit comfortably with this classification of any of the Christian people I know – whether Catholics or Protestants – as a seductive theological group who we should avoid interaction with as they are trying to seduce us with their worship,” he told his congregation.


“I have a problem with this as I consider the Christians I know to be holy people who worship a monotheistic God in a way differently than I do. And that’s OK for them. They shouldn’t worship the way I worship as they are not Jewish. Only Jews should worship like Jews.”

There are disputes within Jewish law regarding whether “someone who is loyal to Halacha would take part in something like this,” said Rabbi Yonah Berman of Congregation Kadimah-Toras Moshe in Boston, a modern Orthodox congregation. “This is why Rabbi Herzfeld had to explain it to his congregation. Different people may fall on different places on the issue. He’s an Orthodox rabbi in good standing,” who made his decision on his understanding of Jewish law and consultations with other scholars.

A spokesman for the Rabbinical Council America, the central organization for modern Orthodox rabbis, said there are two reasons why a rabbi should not preach in a church. “There is the question of icons and statues,” which can suggest idolatry, “and whether the religion is monotheistic.” The trinity, accepted by some Christian denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church, is viewed by traditional Judaism as idolatrous.

There was no cross or icons on display at last week’s interfaith service.

The RCA did not comment on Herzfeld’s action. Its response was very different in 2009, when Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City participated in a post-inaugural prayer service for President Barack Obama at the National Cathedral during which Lookstein recited parts of a nondenominational prayer along with other religious representatives.

At the time, RCA criticized Lookstein in a statement: “The long-standing policy of the Rabbinical Council of America, in accordance with Jewish law, is that participation in a prayer service held in the sanctuary of a church is prohibited.”

The RCA opposed Lookstein’s action because it said Orthodox Jews are prohibited from entering a church and because an interfaith service could give credence to the argument of missionaries that Jews can embrace Jesus, JTA reported at the time.

“This event was not an interfaith dialogue or meeting,” Lookstein responded. “It was an invitation from the new president of the United States – a man of incredible importance to the fate of our holy community in the land of Israel and here – to meet him in prayer. Many clergy were invited, and I felt that the interests of our Orthodox community would be hurt if no one from our community participated.”

At play is tension between modern Orthodoxy’s two aims of participating in general society and strict adherence to Jewish law.

“Orthodox rabbis are repeatedly invited to take part in American national political history,” Berman said. “To me, that’s great. We’re offered the opportunity to take a central place in such a moment as an inauguration of a president or a mayor.”

“If asked what I’d do, I’m not sure,” he added. “I’d probably try to find a way to be involved.”

Suzanne Pollak and David Holzel are WJW senior writers.

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