Contemporary American Reform Responsa

90. Funeral Without Rabbi or Cantor

QUESTION: Is is appropriate for a funeral service to be conducted by a family member or a friend of the family without a rabbi or cantor present? Does this diminish in any way the authentic Jewishness of the service when family members or friends conduct the service? (Rabbi D. Polish, Hollywood, CA)

ANSWER: There is absolutely nothing in traditional literature or in modern Reform decisions which demand the presence of a rabbi or cantor at a funeral, or for that matter, at any other Jewish religious occasion. State or provincial law may require an "ordained clergyman" to preside over a wedding ceremony, but Jewish law has no such stipulation. We have been, and remain, a religion without clergy, and we continue the historic role of the rabbi primarily as a teacher, judge, and religious leader rather than a functionary at specific occasions.

The evolution of the rabbinate to its present state in which the rabbi leads services and conducts weddings, funerals, etc., is part of the specialization of modern society as well as the feeling of inadequacy on the part of many Jews, Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, in conducting Jewish ceremonies. The desire to have matters go smoothly, to remove the burden of preparation and the anxiety for specific life cycle occasions has led most Jews to rely completely on the rabbi or a cantor for rites of passage and other ceremonies. This may be useful, but as a long term trend it is not healthy, for our vigor lies in the ability of the ordinary Jew to execute any Jewish rite and thereby to perpetuate Judaism wherever he may happen to be.

There is nothing in our tradition which would in any way diminish the authentic Jewishness of a funeral service conducted entirely by family and friends.

June 1986

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.