A few years ago I had a conversation with a good friend about some of the differences among Christian denominations. Having been raised a Quaker and now identifying as Jewish, I did not have much understanding of the rituals involved in more traditional Christian worship. Even though I had attended different church services for weddings or funerals, I lacked understanding of the subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) differences in formal rituals and beliefs. I was fairly sure of the differences between Catholics and Quakers, for example. But, I was still confused about the many Protestant religions and the differences among them.
My friend is an accomplished professional woman, who is able to speak eloquently off the cuff on a number of subjects. She could have provided me with a great deal of technical theological information. But she is also blessed with an excellent sense of humor. While I don’t remember much from that conversation, her explanation of baptism remains: “It depends on whether you sprinkle or dunk.”
It is absolutely not my intent (nor was it hers) to make light of a sacred ritual that has deep spiritual meaning for millions of people around the world. But wouldn’t it be fair to ask: Does it really matter so much whether baptism is by sprinkling a small amount of holy water on the forehead rather than immersing the entire body in it? Is it not baptism itself that is important? My friend’s concise rendering of what is essentially a complex subject, however, reminds me of Rabbi Hillel (first century BCE), who was challenged to explain the Torah while standing on one foot. Given that the Torah and the resulting body of law and interpretation is, to say the least, very extensive, the challenge likely seemed impossible. But it was accepted and Hillel said:
“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”
Like so many others, I have been struggling to channel my fearful concern for the future of our nation into positive and meaningful thinking and action. It is so easy to become shackled by the constant stream of negative comments on social media or decisions by those in power that are clearly hateful to our “neighbors.” I desperately want to give in to the desire to stick my head in the sand and wait out the next few years, hoping that someone else can figure out how to make things better. But I have been trying to use both of these statements to help frame my approach to the many deep differences that are in such sharp focus in our world today.
It is precisely during times like these, when it is so tempting to be fearful, to shrink into hibernation, build walls and moats and “wait it out,” that it is spiritually necessary to resist fear, reach out, tear down walls and Speak Truth to Power.