CCAR RESPONSA

Funeral of a Child of Mixed Marriage

5751.7

She'elah

A rabbi has been asked to co-officate with Christian clergy at the funeral of a 16-year old boy who died tragically in an automobile accident. His mother is Catholic and his father Jewish. The boy was enrolled for a few years in religious school, but was never called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah. His parents are not currently members of the congregation. The clergyman has assured the rabbi that, at the request of the family, the service would be non-sectarian and that nothing would be said to offend Jewish ears. The cemetery too is non-sectarian.

The rabbi has been was invited to lead the mourners' Kaddish and has asked whether it was proper for him to co-officiate in this manner.

Teshuvah

The following questions arise:

1. Is this the funeral of a Jewish or Gentile child?

2. When should rabbis agree to co-officiate with non-Jewish clergy?

3. What other considerations should be addressed?

1. The religious status of the child is not in doubt. The Halakhah would consider him a Gentile since he was born of a Gentile mother and was not converted. Neither would the boy meet the requirements of the patrilineal definition of the CCAR, for while he attended a Jewish religious school for a while he did not affirm his Jewishness in a "timely public and formal fashion," as required of him in order to be acknowledged a a Jew.1

2. If the rabbi had been asked to be the sole officiant at the funeral, the propriety of his/her accepting this task would not have been in question. That constellation was first discussed with regard to non-Jewish spouses, and there were no obstacles to the rabbi's participation.2 Rabbis have also officiated on other occasions in keeping with the Talmudic dictum to keep peace with the gentile community, mipnei darkhei shalom, a rule which has been incorporated in the codes.3 Nor is there an objection with regard to reciting the Kaddish for a Gentile.4 The whole matter was explored in detail by R. Solomon B. Freehof in a responsum published in 1957.5 We see to it that the dead are buried with dignity and that the mourners are consoled.

Does the matter of co-officiating alter these conclusions?

A funeral is not an "interfaith service" of a civic nature, in which Reform rabbis generally participate.6 Rather, it is a service which performs a specific religious rite and thereby focuses on the identity of the deceased.

In the case of the burial of a non-Jewish spouse the deceased's identity is not at issue, and the rabbi's participation is understood as an act of comforting the surviving partner. Here, however, the dead boy's religious identity is unclear and the rabbi's co-officating gives rise to the impression that the boy had two religious identities, the existence of which we have declared inadmissible.7

Further, another long-established principle comes into play. What we do must not only be right, but should also be perceived as being right. We should not act in a manner which will create falso impressions (mipnei mar'it ayin). The rabbi's participation would appear to affirm the Jewishness of the child, along with his Christian identity. Therefore, even if the service does not contain specific christological references the rabbi should not co-officate. We draw a definite line between ourselves and Christian practice. In an age in which boundaries were not as blurred as they increasingly tend to be in our time, it might have been possible to arrive at a different answer, but for us the setting of boundaries has become an important aspect in the maintenance of our Jewish identity. Participation in the ritual would give the appearance that the child was considered Jewish.

3. However, we do not counsel the rabbi to turn away from a family that is in the throes of bitter tragedy. On the contrary, we believe that there is a meaningful role for Jewish spiritual guidance and participation.

Responding to the invitation to participate in the ritual, the rabbi might give the following answer: I find myself unable to co-officiate in the ritual, but I will assist the father in fulfilling his own religious duty to say Kaddish for his son. I will sit with him in the pew and help him to perform the mitzvah.

In this way, religious boundaries are observed, as are the two principles of mipnei mar'it 'ayin and mipnei darkhei shalom. The presence of the rabbi provides a measure of consolation to the father, and the father himself is encouraged to express his feelings in a Jewish way.

Notes

  1. See Rabbi's Manual (1988), p. 226.
  2. American Reform Responsa , ed. Walter Jacob, # 95.
  3. Based on BT Gittin 61a;Tur Yoreh De'ah 367 rephrases the law to read: mishtadlim bikevuratam kemo she-mishtadlim bikevurat yisra'el, "we participate in their burials as if they were Jews." See also Rambam, Mishneh Torah , Hilkhot Avel 14:12, and Melakhim 10:12, supporting his position with references to Ps. 145:9 and Prov. 3:17. There is some speculation on the meaning of Rashi's interpretation of the Gittin passage; see Rashba and R. Nissim Gerondi (commentary on Alfasi, folio 28a).
  4. Oshry,, pp. 69 ff.
  5. American Reform Responsa , #124.
  6. See Contemporary American Reform Responsa , ed. Walter Jacob, # 167.
  7. Ibid., # 61.

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.