Rabbi Haskel Lookstein (born March 21, 1932) is an American Modern Orthodox Rabbi who serves as the spiritual leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and was principal of the Ramaz School.
In August 2015, the congregation announced that Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz would assume the role of senior rabbi as of January 1, 2016. As part of the transition, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein will assume the role of rabbi emeritus, Rabbi Elie Weinstock will be granted the title of "Rabbi," and Rabbi Roy Feldman will remain as Assistant Rabbi.
Lookstein started first grade at the Ramaz School in 1937, the year it was established by his father, Rabbi Joseph Lookstein, who was then senior rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun. The school was named in honor of Joseph Lookstein's grandfather-in-law and predecessor in the pulpit, Rabbi Moses Zevulun Margolies.
As a child in the 1940s and 1950s, Lookstein would maintain a "shul scorecard," tracking the weather, the subject of his father's sermon, the details of any special occasions and the number of congregants in attendance, which hovered in the 200s, depending on the subject of the sermon.
Lookstein received his undergraduate degree from Columbia University and took a master's degree at Yeshiva University. After receiving his rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in 1958, he was offered pulpits in Detroit and at the Sephardic Temple in Cedarhurst, New York. He had also been offered a position as assistant rabbi serving under his father, Rabbi Joseph Lookstein, a choice that he was warned against. In the end he decided for his home congregation, and was installed as assistant rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, serving under his father, on June 14, 1958.
He married the former Audrey Katz on June 21, 1959, in a ceremony held at Congregation Kehillath Jeshurun and conducted by his father, assisted by Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Joseph M. Baumol. The couple planned to visit Israel on their wedding trip.
In 1966 The New York Times devoted an article to Rabbi Lookstein's May 14th sermon on the weekly Torah portion of Behar / Bechukotai, in which Lookstein described the Talmud as a model for a modern civil rights manual. In the sermon, he characterized the 25th chapter of the Book of Leviticus, which is read at the beginning of Parashat Behar, as "one of the most profound sources" for the social consciousness of religion during the Civil Rights era; and went on to explicate the relevance of the Talmud, noting, for example, that it holds that no man is free if he does not have economic opportunity or the right to live where he chooses.
Rabbi Lookstein's political activism began with repeated visits to the former Soviet Union, and numerous rallies on behalf of Natan Sharansky and Soviet Jewry, and it continued with activism on behalf of the Jews of Israel and worldwide.
Following the death of his father, in July 1979, Rabbi Lookstein assumed the position of senior rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun. Filled with concern at the responsibility of filling the role served by his father as the congregation's leader, he was reassured after his father's funeral by his mother, who said, "Haskel, you'll sit there; that was dad's seat," and shortly thereafter: "Well, you'll finally have a nice office" – successfully assuaging his worries.
He was selected by Newsweek magazine as the most influential Orthodox pulpit rabbi in the United States in 2008, ranked second nationwide behind Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe of Los Angeles. Newsweek's rankings were based on success in congregational growth and inspiration, leadership in the community and within his denominational movement and the ability to serve the spiritual needs of his congregation.
Lookstein has a vision for a more open and centrist Orthodox Judaism.
Controversy over President Obama's National Prayer Service
On January 21, 2009, Rabbi Lookstein was one of three rabbinical participants in the National Prayer Service at the National Cathedral, representing, loosely speaking, the orthodox Jewish contingent. The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the primary American modern-orthodox rabbinic association, initially took exception to his presence, stating that "participation in a prayer service held in the sanctuary of a church is prohibited"; and adding: "Any member of the RCA who attends such a service does so in contravention of this policy and should not be perceived as representing the organization in any capacity." After its initial statement was publicized, however, the RCA subsequently softened its stance. Rabbi Basil Herring, its executive director, issued a new statement saying simply: “Rabbi Lookstein did not represent the Rabbinical Council of America in attending that service and therefore we have no comment on the matter."
- Heilman, Uriel. "For first time in 100 years, outsider tapped to lead Looksteins’ N.Y. shul", Jewish Telegraphic Agency, August 3, 2015. Accessed August 4, 2015. "The Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side voted last week to hire as its new senior rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, who for two decades has led the Montreal congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, 83, who has been at the helm of Kehilath Jeshurun since the death of his father, Rabbi Joseph Lookstein, in 1979, will become rabbi emeritus.... When Steinmetz becomes senior rabbi, Associate Rabbi Elie Weinstock will become KJ’s “rabbi”; rabbinic assistant Rabbi Roy Feldman will retain his role."
- Mark, Jonathan. "Rabbi Lookstein Remembers It Well," The Jewish Week, June 11, 2008. Accessed October 13, 2015.
- Staff. "MILITARY MORALE IS LINKED TO FAITH; Rabbi Israel Miller Equates Worth of Man and Arms -Other Sabbath Sermons", The New York Times, June 15, 1958. Accessed January 21, 2009.
- Staff. "Audrey Katz Bride Of Rabbi Lookstein", The New York Times, June 22, 1959. Accessed January 21, 2009.
- "Talmud Is Called Civil Rights Guide; Rabbi Cites Relevancy for Social Problems Today," The New York Times, May 15, 1966. Accessed January 21, 2009.
- 14 May 1966 = 24th of Iyyar, 5726, Hebrew Date Converter. Accessed January 21, 2009.
- Saxon, Wolfgang. "Joseph H. Lookstein Dead at 76; A Rabbi and Orthodox Educator; Responsibilities Increased," The New York Times, July 15, 1979. Accessed January 21, 2009.
- Staff. "Top 25 Pulpit Rabbis in America", Newsweek, April 11, 2008. Accessed January 21, 2009.
- Open Orthodoxy: Haskel Lookstein at the 2010 Sanford Solender lecture of the UJA-Federation of NY.
- Grossman, Cathy Lynn. "Rabbi chided for role in a church service for Obama," USA Today, January 21, 2009. Accessed October 13, 2015.
- Orbach, Michael. "RCA tones down prayer service rebuke," The Jewish Star, January 27, 2009. Accessed October 13, 2015.