Rabbi Joseph Lookstein zt”l

One of America’s pioneering Modern Orthodox rabbis, Rabbi Joseph Lookstein zt”l, was the legendary rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York’s Upper East Side for almost 56 years. His accomplishments are legion: he founded the Ramaz school, led many Jewish organizations, and served as the President of Bar-Ilan University from 1957 to 1967, transforming the fledgling university into one of the foremost academic institutions in Israel. For over half a century, Rabbi Lookstein was one of the great Mizrachi leaders in the United States, playing a critical role in galvanizing American support for the State of Israel.

In honor of his 43rd yahrzeit on the 18th of Tammuz, we are proud to republish portions of the eulogy for Rabbi Lookstein given by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm zt”l. May his memory be a blessing for all of Klal Yisrael.

 

I feel woefully inadequate to the task of speaking the eulogy for my teacher, my colleague, and my friend, Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein. ln truth, there is only one person who could do justice to this occasion in honor of Rabbi Joseph Lookstein, and that is Rabbi Joseph Lookstein. Who else but that master orator could compose the proper farewell for so distinguished a man?… 

My own relationship with Rabbi Lookstein began thirty-two years ago, when I took his course in Jewish Sociology at Yeshiva College. I remember how impressed I was by this vital, jovial, articulate, and knowledgeable man… A few years later, I was his student in the Homiletics and Prac­tical Rabbinics courses that he gave for many decades at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. What a gifted teacher he was, what a scintillating lecturer! I felt enormously flattered when, towards the end of these courses, he invited me to be his rabbinic assistant at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun… This was an apprenticeship in which he taught me the fundamentals of the art of the rabbinate and that profoundly influenced my following twenty-four years in that profession…

He was genuinely unforgettable. He was a giant in stature, and tall in our esteem. He was probably the greatest rabbinic orator of his generation of rabbis, certainly of the Or­thodox rabbinate. He was a master of rhetoric, and blessed with a sense of the dramatic, with epigrammatic brilliance, with an intuitive gift for timing, and with a marvelous and redeeming sense of humor… a creative homiletician of the first rank. As a raconteur, he captivated his audiences. To be in his company was to become alive. In the infinite variety of situations in which he found himself, there was always a twinkle in his eyes – sometimes funny, often delightfully mischievous, always benevolent. His undulating, arched eyebrows asked provocative questions, and his twinkling eyes punctured any pretense in a disingenuous or foolish answer…

He was born in an era when worlds were in collision. An im­migrant Jewish generation had come to these shores, all too ready to cast overboard its sacred traditions, its tallit and tefillin, along with its painful memories of poverty and persecution in Europe. Others, aghast at this mindless cultural-religious vandalism, advocated an equal and opposite reaction: isolation, ghettoization, pulling out of the broader streams of history and society. Rabbi Lookstein accepted neither counsel, but opted in­stead for living in two cultures. In the course of this integra­tion, the tensions and controversies and polemics were un­nerving. But they engaged him fully, for he accepted them as a challenge. He never shirked his duty. He never fled from before a machloket le’shem shamayim… 

Rabbi Lookstein was a staunch member of Mizrachi, when Zionism was often berated and bitterly attacked by fellow Or­thodox rabbis and leaders. He had to overcome opposition of both the left and the right in lsrael as he joined the late Dr. Pinchas Churgin and others in founding Bar-llan University, where he remained Chancellor until his death. He taught us… the centrality of the State of Israel to Jewish life; the possibilities of living both as fully Jewish and as creative members of society at large; the imperatives of ahavat yisrael (the love of lsrael) and ahavat ha-briyot (the love of humankind)… 

Farewell, revered teacher, worthy colleague, dear friend and, above all, esteemed rabbi! Where you are going, before the celestial court, they will ask you many questions. Do not just answer them. Rise to the occasion – as you always did here on earth. Deliver your greatest derashah, preach your most magnifi­cent sermon!… Inspire them, as only you can, to pay more loving attention to those Jews the world over whom you led and loved; to the State of lsrael caught in a web of tension and perplexity and jeopardy; to a humanity struggling to retain a modicum of dignity and security…

Lech be’shalom – go in peace.

© 2022 World Mizrachi

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