TFN no.5755.9 153-158


May a Jewish Chaplain Perform a Baptism?



Jewish chaplains serving in hospitals are occasionally asked to baptize children. Is it ever permissible for a Jew to perform a baptism? If so, under what circumstances? May a rabbi baptize a child? (Elena Stein, Los Angeles)



The hospital chaplaincy, as it has developed in North America, can in some ways be described as an interfaith ministry. The chaplain offers pastoral care to patients of differing religious beliefs. The question must therefore arise: in providing counseling and compassion to the patients and family members in their charge, ought chaplains to ignore the principles and boundaries established by their own religious traditions? More precisely: when a patient or the family requests from the chaplain an act or a rite which will be a source of comfort to them but whose performance is at odds with the chaplain’s religion, does pastoral duty demand that he or she accede to their request?


With respect to baptism, the situation might be described as follows. An infant born prematurely has been in the hospital’s neonatal intensve care unit for several weeks or months. During that time, the chaplain has visited extensively with the baby’s parents and has developed a close pastoral relationship with them. The infant has now taken a turn for the worse, and the parents want the child baptized. They ask the chaplain, who is Jewish, to perform the ritual. Perhaps they do not belong to a church; perhaps their relationship with their minister is distant or strained. Or perhaps they simply look upon this Jewish chaplain, who has walked with them through a most difficult period of their lives, as their pastor. For whatever reason, the parents have concluded that this ritual would be most meaningful if performed by this chaplain. Such requests are not unheard-of.1 Should the chaplain say “yes”?


We think not. We are aware of the special bond that can exist between chaplains and those whom they serve. We recognize that the “congregation” of a Jewish hospital chaplain consists predominantly of non-Jews, and we know that in order to minister to patients and families the chaplain may need to adopt a style and manner of religious discourse that is not a particularly Jewish one. The chaplain must counsel them and pray with them in a religious language that they understand, whether or not that language accords with the chaplain’s Judaism. For all that, however, it is inappropriate in the extreme for a Jewish chaplain to perform a Christian sacrament.


It is inappropriate, first of all, because some Christian communions do not recognize the efficacy of a baptism performed by a non-believer or one who is not an ordained minister of the Church.2 A Jewish chaplain who baptizes a child may thus implant in its parents the mistaken belief that a valid sacrament has been administered. This would violate the spirit of the rule lifney `iver lo titen mikhshol, “do not place a stumbling-block before the blind” (Lev. 19:14), from which our tradition derives a general warning against deceiving those unable to discern the truth for themselves.3 In this situation the Jewish chaplain is the agent in the creation of a falsehood, a lie, something clearly to be discouraged.


It is also inappropriate for a Jew to baptize a member of a denomination which would recognize that act as a valid sacrament. A prime example is the Roman Catholic Church, which accepts baptisms performed by laypersons and non-Catholics. It does so because, in Catholic theology, the power of a sacrament is ex opore operato: its efficacy lies in the rite itself and not in the subjective disposition of the minister or of the person receiving it. The minister need not be righteous, Catholic, nor even Christian; he need only have the intention of “doing what the Church does”: i.e., of administering a proper Christian sacrament.4


This teaching, we should point out, arose in response to events in Church history: for its own internal reasons, the Church accepts as valid those sacraments administered by non-Catholics.5 But these reasons are irrelevant to our thinking. We are Jews; we have standards of our own by which we determine our actions. And by those standards it is inconceivable that a Jew who celebrates a baptism can possibly intend to “do what the Church does.” The sacraments, we are told, are “visible signs chosen by Christ to bring to mankind the grace of His paschal ministry.” Baptism, in particular, is “the sacramental representation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ,” an absolutely necessary condition for salvation.6 For this reason, say two leading contemporary Catholic theologians, “be he saint or sinner, so long as he intends to administer the sacrament and uses the appropriate ceremonies, it signifies…the objectively valid pledge of God’s grace, the historical tangibility of his salvific will in Jesus Christ for the life of the individual and of the Church.”7 A Jew cannot believe this. Jewish faith does not hold that humankind is in need of spiritual rebirth by means of ritual acts which confer upon the recipient the salvific effects of the death of Jesus. For this reason, whatever the Roman Catholic Church thinks of baptisms performed by non-Catholics, a Jewish chaplain cannot serve as its agent in bestowing salvation. When Jewish chaplains “administer the sacrament” they perform a rite whose essence is a denial of the validity of their own religious tradition. They cannot do this and simultaneously maintain their religious integrity.


The argument can be raised, of course, that theology is irrelevant. The chaplain can assert that “what I dispense is comfort, not salvation. These people have asked me to conduct a ceremony from which they can derive spiritual strength, and as their pastor it is my duty to help them nurture that strength.” To this, the obvious response is that theology does matter. Baptism is much more than the sprinkling of a few drops of water. A child’s family requests baptism precisely because it is a sacrament, a rite charged with religious meaning. It speaks to them out of their own Christian religious commitment. And regardless of their level of theological sophistication, that commitment is rooted in the acknowledgement of such doctrines as original sin, the atoning death of Christ, and the power of a Church-mediated ritual to effect salvation. All of these, obviously, constitute a negation of the most basic Jewish religious self-understanding. Baptism is thus not simply an instrument of pastoral care. Its power to comfort an individual or a family lies in its evocation of a world of religious symbolism and theological doctrine which a Jewish chaplain does not share.


To say that we do not share in the basic commitments of Christian theology, in turn, is more than a bland statement of fact. We are talking about the drawing of boundaries, an activity which, however difficult it is at times for us moderns, is absolutely essential if we wish to preserve our religious distinctiveness as a people. Like Christianity, Judaism is a religious tradition which possesses its own integrity. That integrity is compromised when Jews act so as to suggest that legitimate religious boundaries do not exist. The rabbis give expression to this truth when they speak of the commandment uvechukoteihem lo teileikhu, “you shall not conduct yourselves according to their laws” (Lev. 18:3). The details of this principle, which adjures us not to “imitate the Gentiles” through the conscious adoption of their religious practices, are complex.8 No objective indicator exists that will tell us precisely when the prohibition has been violated. And we Reform Jews, whose ritual innovations have often been attacked as “imitation of the Gentiles,” should be extremely reticent to invoke it. Yet while we have defended ourselves from this charge, we have also recognized the importance of preserving our religious separateness. This Committee, in particular, has urged that Reform Jews take care to preserve an identifiably “Jewish” core of observance in the face of the assimilationist and syncretistic tendencies of our day.9 For this reason, the caution of Lev. 18:3 “remains a constant and forceful warning” even to Reform Jews.10 In our case, this caution demands that the Jewish chaplain refrain from celebrating baptism, a rite which proclaims the central message of Christian faith. To do otherwise, to perform the baptism, is to violate the essential boundaries that distinguish the two religious traditions.


The chaplain’s duty, it is true, is to offer compassion and spiritual comfort to patients and families. But this comfort must not be purchased at the cost of the chaplain’s religious integrity. It is precisely when those whom we serve regard us as men and women of faith, moral fiber, and religious integrity that we–clergy in general and chaplains in particular–are able to provide comfort at all. And we barter away this integrity when we act as though theology and belief do not matter, when we celebrate rituals that declare a message that we do not and cannot accept, when we forget who and what we are. This is doubly the case when the chaplain is a rabbi, for as Jewish “clergy” we are looked upon as official spokespersons for Judaism, as models of Jewish belief and practice. It is our job to locate the boundaries, to observe them, and to point out their existence to our people. If we stop doing that job, however well-meaning our intentions, we will eventually lose our standing in the eyes of our people and cease to function as rabbis.


In saying this, we intentionally run counter to a distinct trend in North American culture. There is a tendency, due perhaps to the popular culture of secular Christianity, to view all clergy as interchangeable to some degree and to view them as fundamentally different from lay people, for having certain esoteric knowledge and skills which laypeople do not possess. We see this tendency within our own community. There is an unspoken presumption that all clergy have a special expertise and efficacy that no “lay person” can have.11 This presumption means that it is quite likely that we shall in the future confront an increasing number of questions such as this one. It emphatically does not mean, however, that we, as rabbis who have the capacity to respond to reality as well as to observe it, must acquiesce in the reduction of our role to that of interchangeable clerical parts. Such a fate does not raise our pastoral and spiritual standing among those we presume to serve; indeed, it debases it.


To repeat: a Jewish chaplain, lay or rabbinic, should not perform a baptism. He or she may take whatever steps are necessary to arrange and to facilitate the ceremony, for such is the chaplain’s pastoral responsibility. He or she may (and perhaps should) be present at the baptism, provided that it is performed by another minister or lay person. It is inappropriate for the chaplain to conduct the rite or to take part in its liturgy.



Phyllis B. Toback, “A Theological Reflection on Baptism by a Jewish Chaplain,” Journal of Pastoral Care 47 (1993), pp. 315-317. See, e.g., the Westminster Confession of Faith, the dominant credal expression of English- speaking Reformers and Presbyterians, sec. 27, par. 4: “there be only two sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the gospel, that is to say, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord: neither of which may be dispensed by any but a minister of the Word lawfully ordained.” Sifra ad loc. Catholic Encyclopedia (New York, 1967), 12:806-812; 2:65-66. The doctrine was formulated during the Donatist controversy of the patristic era and reaffirmed during the Reformation by the Council of Trent. Its intent is to proclaim that a sacrament is a valid rite of salvation solely because it is a sacrament, mediated by the Church. Its efficaciousness does not depend upon the fitness of the priest, as the Donatists argued, nor upon the faith commitment of the recipient, as many Protestants believed. Catholic Encyclopedia, 12:806; 2:62-63. Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgimler, Dictionary of Theology (New York, 1981), pp. 350-351. While all this is true in theory, there is some question as to the validity of a baptism performed by a nonbeliever. “The practice today” is to rebaptize an infant when it is known that the original baptism was performed by a minister whose doctrinal and liturgical practice are incorrect; Catholic Encyclopedia 2:66. See BT. Sanhedrin 52b; Yad, Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 11:1; Tur YD 178 and Beit Yosef ad loc.; Resp. Maharik, # 88. See (among others) our responsa 5754.5 (Gentile participation in Synagogue Ritual), 5753.13 (Apostates in the Synagogue), 5752.3, “Jewish Bhuddists Wishing to Join Temple”; “Amazing Grace” (CCAR Journal 39:3 [Fall, 1992], pp. 65-66); ARR, # 71, pp. 241-242 and # 94, pp. 314- 317; CARR, # 61-68, pp. 98-112. See CCAR Responsa Committee, no. 5751.3, for a detailed analysis of uvechukoteihem lo teileikhu and its applicability to the Reform setting. This tendency is reinforced by institutions such as the military chaplaincy, which serves in some important ways as an interfaith ministry, and the university chaplaincy, a position in which even a rabbi is expected to perform some functions that maintain at least the outward forms of Christian practice.

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.