A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 9.9.22

September 9, 2022


I’d like to begin by reminding everyone of our first Elul program which will take place this Sunday at noon. We’ll explore some of the themes of the High Holy Days through the music of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and others as we prepare for these days of introspection. The program will be hybrid – live in the EMJC courtyard (i.e. outdoors!) as well as on Zoom. I hope you’ll join us.


In the meantime, I stumbled upon an article in the Guardian newspaper this past week that has taken up an inordinate amount of intellectual space in my brain. The headline read “Thousands of baptisms invalidated by priest’s use of one wrong word.“ It turns out that while performing baptisms over the past 10 years, a Catholic priest in Phoenix AZ had been saying “we baptize you“ instead of “I baptize you.“ As the article states, “The fount of knowledge on the matter is the Vatican’s 2020 congregation for the doctrine of the faith… [which] affirms that baptisms administered with modified formulas are invalid, including: ‘We baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’,”


As a consequence of this mistake, the priest, Fr. Arango, resigned from his position, undoubtedly in utter mortification. Theologically, from a Catholic perspective, the potential results of his gaffe are nothing less than eternal damnation. For the true believer, there could be no worse fate (caveat: I am no scholar of Catholic theology).


This story was no doubt met with eye-rolls and shrugs by countless secular readers. My response was decidedly different; for me, it was the most Jewish thing I had read in a long time. I recognized it immediately as a simple stringency of religious law. If you live in a world where halacha – Jewish law – dictates all or some of your lifestyle, then there would be nothing strange or shocking about the Church’s response to the priest’s error. Sometimes, though, it takes an outside story to get us to reflect on the inside story. And this article raised, once again, many questions about the nature of religious practice, and what our relationship is to it as liberal Jews.


I bring this up because in different ways, this is a question that interests me and is one that I grapple with a lot. As “observing” (if not observant) Jews, our relationship to halachic observance is one of constant evaluation. If I observe Shabbat by not riding my bike (or driving my car) unless I’m riding to shul, then I am in “conversation” with the halacha. Jewish law is informing my practice, but I am interpreting it in such a way that works for my lifestyle.


For a halachically observant Jew, that (particular) conversation does not exist. The halacha exists to “put a fence around Torah.” The Torah says I may not work on Shabbat. If I ride a bike, there is a risk that the bike will break down – the chain could come off, I could get a flat tire – and if I were riding it on Shabbat, I might be tempted to repair it, thus violating a cornerstone precept of Shabbat observance (this is only one aspect of a complex halachic discussion around bikes). So while there may not actually be anything wrong with riding my bike on Shabbat (and some very important halachic authorities acknowledge that), still, I’d better “put a fence around” Shabbat observance by simply refraining from bike-riding. (A teshuva on bicycle riding by one of the great 20th century poskim/legal decisors asks the question “If you are so concerned about the bike breaking down, shouldn’t you also forbid sitting in a chair on Shabbat? It too might break.)


Of course, the observant Jew (or Catholic) would say, once you start making decisions for yourself, it’s a slippery slope. Fr. Arango meant no harm – he believed he was performing his priestly duties correctly. But if he were allowed to make modifications to the “formula,” then where does that end? From the perspective of the religious establishment, we can brook NO deviation from the accepted way (“halacha” means “way,” by the way), because that threatens the entire venture. In a certain sense, that’s simply the nature of organized religion: the power structure must be maintained because the consequences are dire: for Catholics, damnation (in this case, among other things); for Jews, violation of the mitzvot and a straying from God’s will – and that never ends well.


There’s a potential High Holy Day lesson in here too – a lesson on forgiveness. I don’t know how the Church is going to deal with the aftermath of Fr. Arango’s mistake, but in halacha, we have the concept of b’di-eved, “after the fact.” B’di-eved is used to indicate something that was not done in an optimal manner, but post facto, once it was done, it is acceptable. Better it should be done l’chat-chila – properly, from the outset – but if it wasn’t, there is room for leniency. Needless to say, this does not apply to any gaffe (halacha can be utterly inflexible at times) – but I could see “We baptize you” falling under that category, especially considering the seriousness of the consequences. Ultimately, when it comes to religious law or doctrine, humans make the decision about whether something is to be forgiven, or tolerated, or not. This is true in our own lives too: we decide whether to forgive others or not, and often, we choose the most “stringent” story and opt not to forgive, when a “lenient” position would do just as well. Father Arango’s story affords us a valuable reflection point – how do we find room for forgiveness without letting go of our standards?


I understand the Church’s position on the baptism issue. And I hope that Fr. Arango and all those affected come through this ordeal whole and happy. In the meantime, let’s all take some time to evaluate the role of forgiveness in our lives and our relationships. After all, the Days of Awe, the Days of Repentance and Forgiveness, are just over two weeks away! 


Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed and forgiving Shabbat,


Rabbi Sam Levine