The Leviticus:8 Project
You shall faithfully observe My laws: I the LORD make you holy. Leviticus 20:8
I have lived in the Washington, DC area for over thirty years and traversed the four quarters of the city for that entire time. The city is divided by Capitol Street in three directions and Constitution Avenue in the fourth, and they are known, most uncreatively, as NW, NE, SW and SE. L’Enfant’s mathematical approach to naming the streets created the circumstance that the same intersection of, say, 9th Street north-south and G Street east-west can occur in four different places. Hence, every DC address (even the named diagonal streets) enjoys a suffix locating it in a quarter.
I have a regular meeting on Capitol Hill and I park in the same block each time. (I will not reveal its location because free street parking is a scarce commodity in that neighborhood.) On my way to that meeting, I always pass a classic Roman Catholic church. So when I received an invitation to attend the bipartisan interfaith worship service before the opening of the 116th Congress at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church at C St. and 2nd St. SE, I knew exactly where it was. Doors opened at 8 for the 8:30 service. I was there at 7:55, walked in and took a seat near the back of the beautiful sanctuary. A handful of people in attire ranging from business dress to disheveled were in the pews. At exactly 8:00, two priests took their place and began conducting daily mass.
How nice, I thought. The regular mass before the public event. I listened to the prayers and settled in for a beautiful homily about the origins and sacredness of ritual (more on that in a moment). By 8:10, I was still the only not-a-Catholic in the place. I slid behind a pillar and pulled out my phone to see the email that invited me. It was then I realized that I was at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church at C St. and 2nd St. NE.
I made the six-block walk in sufficient time to take my place in the right pew, feeling pretty foolish about the rookie mistake, but grateful that I had to endure only one set of comments about “that must be the rabbi.” The bipartisan interfaith service was wonderful. But I must admit I enjoyed the morning’s homily at the other place better.
The priest spoke about the evolution of exacting rituals he observed in conducting the mass. He offered an intentionally humorous illustration of the proper way to be positioned with the thumb and forefinger at exactly shoulder width, know delightfully as the “canonical digits.” He told us that even though the practices are nowhere to be found in Scripture or teachings of the early church fathers, nonetheless medieval authorities declared that a priest whose hands are positioned too narrowly or too widely has committed a mortal sin. He referred to the ruling with gentle deprecation as “Pharasaic.”
I wish I had the ability to access verses of the Bible from memory. If I had been able to pull this one up, it would have made my point to him much more effectively. (I didn’t stay to converse, but I did send him an email praising his message but introducing myself as a Pharisee. He was gracious and appreciative in response.) I am sure there are many ways to become holy, just as there are many expressions of holiness. But one of them, documented right here in the middle of the middle of the Torah, is to observe faithfully God’s laws. It stands to reason that the more diligent one is in behavior and intention (in Hebrew keva and kavvanah), the more one is centered in the realm of holiness. Scriptural or not, the daily mass was sanctifying because it conformed to necessary details, just as the Pharisees (my rabbinic ancestors) created the details of Jewish law, a map rather than an obsession.
So it made perfect sense to me that the canonical digits had to be held at the just the proper intersection of shoulder and arm. Let’s call that intersection, for the sake of argument, C St. and 2nd St. SE. If they drifted north or west of that location, they simply would be in the wrong place. As I was. But it did not mean that there was no worth to my accidental arrival in the wrong quarter.
It is not the first time I have heard a Christian clergy member use “Pharisaic” disparagingly. I get it – the title is all over Christian Scripture as the foil for the “superior” teachings of Jesus. (Ironically, he was likely a Pharisee himself.) It is a shorthand for the approach that the law itself is more important than its purpose. (The notion is debated extensively in the Talmud.) All these centuries later I think it is lazy not to understand how troubling that appropriation is, but it is hard to convince a city that still uses a racist name for its football team that it ought to reconsider Holy Scripture.
But if we are stuck with the name, then it is worth considering where it does not lead us to holiness. At this writing, the head of our government has used the law itself to subvert its purpose, and not just in shutting down the government for his own political purposes, but many times over to try to force the law to validate his prejudices. There are stories about people like that in Scripture, Jewish and Christian both. They aren’t Pharisees. And they don’t make anyone holy.