CCAR RESPONSA

Contemporary American Reform Responsa

89. Extending the Privilege of Burial from the Synagogue

QUESTION: The congregation, which has already permitted funerals of members and their children to use the synagogue, wishes to discuss an extension of that permission to parents and other close relatives of members. Is this in keeping with Jewish tradition? What is the underlying principle through which the Talmud distinguishes between "public and private funerals?" What is the basic objection to any funeral in the synagogue? How has tradition and Reform Judaism treated this subject? (Rabbi N. Hirsh, Seattle, WA)

ANSWER: Your letter has mentioned Solomon B. Freehof's responsum on the subject (Reform Responsa for Our Time pp. 95 ff). This responsum favors the restriction of funerals in the main synagogue to leaders of the congregation and important communal figures, while small chapels or assembly halls usually connected with the synagogue may be utilized for other funerals. The appropriate references in post Talmudic codes and Talmudic literature are cited for this decision.

As we look at the notions behind the Talmudic restrictions, we can see that the scholars considered death as the ultimate separation from God, for the dead are unable to serve God or to carry out his mitzvot (Shab. 30a, 151b). For that reason, no person should discuss any Biblical verses on a cemetery or near a corpse, nor should one wear tefilin or carry a Torah in the cemetery (Sem. 13; Ber. 3b, 18a; Midrash Genesis Rabbah 96; Midrash Qohelet Rabbah 7, 2.5). The Torah, after all, is designated as etz hayim, the tree of life. The Bible also constantly deals with the theme of lifeless idols in contrast to the living God (Is. 42.19 21, 44.12- 21, etc.). These thoughts have been given practical expression through the exemption of mourners before burial (onen) from most acts of prayer. They do not wear tefilin, recite the sh'ma, the blessing before or after meals, nor do they respond with amen after any benediction. The Talmud also exempts them from the need to execute any positive commandments (Ber. 17b; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 341.1).

As we proceed further, we will see that the question of ritual defilement is also involved. A human corpse represents the highest category of defilement (tumah) (B. K. 2b; Pes. 14b) and is the source of the ritual uncleanliness. It defiles for seven days (M. Oh. 1.14). One authority claimed that even distress upon hearing about the death of a relative without any contact with the corpse produced defilement (J. Pes. 8.7). Clearly there were strong negative feelings about death, and the dead were kept as far from anything sacred as possible. The only exception lay in the rabbinic treatment of a met mitzvah, a corpse without relatives. The high priest, who could not defile himself even for his own mother and father, was obligated to participate in the burial of the met mitzvah (Meg. 3b; Yad Hil. Ovel 3.8). A full treatment of the Biblical and rabbinic concepts of death, mourning and defilement maybe found in Emanuel Feldman's Biblical and Post-Biblical Defilement and Mourning.

This long standing aversion to any contact between the dead and the sacred has influenced the use of the synagogue for funerals. When this was discussed in the Talmud (Meg. 28b), there was a division of opinion between the Babylonian and Palestinian authorities, with the former more permissive than the latter. Later, Rashi stated that any funeral which involved the entire community, in other words communal leaders, was permitted from the synagogue. His decision was made on practical grounds as no other facility in the Jewish community could accommodate the crowd.

By the time of Maimonides (12th century), communal leaders were regularly buried from the synagogue (Yad Hil. Tefilah 11.7). The Shulhan Arukh (16th century) extended the privilege to scholars and their wives (Yoreh Deah 344.19). Sixteenth century Poland was more democratic and permitted others to be buried from the synagogue (Ohalei Yaaqov, p. 74). The centuries have witnessed a gradual relaxation of the ancient restrictions as the apprehension over the "separation" between God of the dead diminished. I should, however, add that some modern Orthodox authorities strongly oppose funerals for women in the synagogue (W. Leiter, Bet David #198; Greenwald, Kol Bo Al Avelut pp.96 ff; A. Yudelewitz, Bet Av 357.4).

The American Reform movement has gradually relaxed the restrictions on the use of the synagogue for funerals as indicated by the patterns set within your congregation. My congregation has followed the same pattern and has permitted funerals of members and their dependent children. We have not gone further as all other adults should and can join the congregation. This path is open to all as we regularly waive dues in instances of financial hardships and welcome all to affiliate.

In summary, there is no reason to restrict the use of the synagogue for funerals from the point of view of the development of Jewish tradition. A congregation may, however, limit the use of its facilities to members as in all other matters.

October 1983

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