(Vol. LVI, 1946, pp. 125-127)
QUESTION: Recently I conducted a funeral for a member of my congregation. I was told that a Masonic service would precede the regular religious service. I thought it would be of an incidental nature, but it proved to be of twenty minutes' duration and, to my amazement, seemed to be constructed on a pseudo-religious line that might well have satisfied the spiritual scruples of a number of people.
There were references to the "Grand Master of the Universe," and prayers were read for the soul of the departed, at least two of which seemed to be direct readings from the Christian Book of Common Prayer (one of them The Lord's Prayer). An apron was placed on the coffin by the "chaplain" of the Lodge (an all-Jewish one, by the way), and each Mason present--clad in white gloves and apron-- placed a sprig of evergreen on the coffin as they solemnly paraded past.
To me the ceremony had all the earmarks of a separate cult, and I felt that as far as the membership might be concerned my participation as a rabbi was almost superfluous...
I do not know if this question has ever been discussed before, but to me it seemed like a separate religious service with obvious Christian and pagan roots, one that is entirely out of keeping with either Liberal or Orthodox Judaism. And the question also arises in my mind: If the Masons see fit to hold a funeral service, might not also the Knights of Pythias, the Elks, Lions, Moose, and who knows how many other fraternal and other organizations do the same thing?...
ANSWER: Among the principles controlling rabbinic decisions, there is one that partakes more of the nature of policy than of legal propriety. Our teachers were very much concerned with the need for maintaining amicable relationships with the larger community. When not called to compromise their religious position or any important belief and practice, they consulted the "ways of peace" before attempting to resolve a difficult situation.
The funeral rites of fraternal organizations, however designated, are harmless pageantry. They are intended as a spectacular tribute to a departed member. The primacy of the religion of the deceased is fully affirmed when the rabbi insists, as he should, that the rites of the synagogue take precedence over the fraternal ceremonies. After the Jewish service has been completed at the home or in the Chapel, outside participation, when desired by the family, may well be countenanced, even if one cannot approve of all the details of the elaborate ceremonial.
The fraternal associations with which men of our faith are affiliated, contend that their rituals are free from sectarian bias. The examples cited by the correspondent would tend to disprove the denominational overtones and clear christological implications. At any rate, it might not be taken amiss if the rabbi suggested the omission of a given reference or rite.
To ban by Conference resolution all participation of fraternal bodies in the service for the dead, because of minor objections to some of the utterances, would evince a degree of intolerance not at all conducive to the peaceful relations we should strive to maintain among the citizens of a community.
Israel Bettan and Committee