I was always anxious when I received that call – the call from the funeral home indicating that a loosely affiliated family or completely unaffiliated family had lost a loved one and needed a rabbi to officiate at the funeral. Of course it’s never pleasant to officiate at any funeral, but I found the funerals for “lapsed” Jews particularly taxing. On the one hand, a fellow Jew is in pain and in need of my services; I couldn’t refuse. On the other hand, as an Orthodox rabbi, my expectations and standards of a Jewish funeral were likely to be beyond the comfort zone of the typical uneducated non-practicing Jew. How could I balance my religious integrity with the expectations of an assimilated grieving family?
While I rarely if ever turned anyone away, I would often lament the dilemma that officiating at these ceremonies caused me. How could I compromise the standards of Jewish practice that I hold sacred? And yet, why should I impose them on people for whom such rituals might be foreign or even offensive?
Colleagues, family, and in particular my wife, would always tell me that I had it all wrong. These disaffected Jews were likely to be looking for tradition at time of chaos in their lives. It was my job, they would say, to provide them with the stability of our millennia-old tradition. This lifecycle event could be the perfect opportunity to bring these mourners back into the fold.
I was always uncomfortable with this approach. Something rubbed me the wrong way about introducing religion into people’s lives when they were at their most vulnerable. It seemed manipulative. I wanted to share with people a robust, intellectually vibrant vision of Jewish life that would appear compelling to someone on their best day — not their worst. I strove to steer clear of taking advantage of anyone’s vulnerability in the face of bereavement to push him or her into observance of Jewish law.
And yet, countless times, my wife’s advice proved to be correct. In the face of death, so many mourners were searching for the meaning of life in their tradition. Despite my reticence to coax anyone into religion in the midst of bereavement, many sought out lives of greater Torah observance in the wake of loss.
Having left the pulpit behind after making aliya two years ago, I imagined that this issue was all behind me. Yet, I couldn’t help but revisit it in the aftermath of the bereavement of a good friend and former congregant here in Israel. Her sister, a wife and mother of two small children, died one short month after being diagnosed with cancer. With no sensitivity to the shock and trauma of this loss and on no substantive halakhic ground, the religious establishment challenged the departed’s status as a Jew, denied the family the opportunity to eulogize their loved one, and tried to dissuade them from attendance at the burial. Unlike the assimilated Jews mentioned above, my friend is devout and well-educated. She is someone who has the utmost respect for religion, tradition and rabbis. Yet, all of that veneration couldn’t contain her anger over the treatment that her family received in the religious establishment’s handling of her sister’s death. I have never seen her so disappointed in rabbis, whom she usually respects and reveres.
I am sure she will maintain her faith despite her disappointment. In the end, the funeral turned out to be a meaningful and appropriate ceremony, but that in no way excuses the unpleasantness of the arrangements leading up to it. It was heartrending to witness a process, that in my experience can draw hearts closer to Torah, turn into a hillul Hashem (a desecration of God’s name). If this was an isolated incident then perhaps it could be pardoned if not justified. But unfortunately, it is only one of innumerable stories of mistreatment at the hands of institutional Judaism in Israel. So many voices cry out as the establishment entrusted with preserving Torah tarnishes its reputation. I wish I could do more than complain; I wish I had a program for improving the system or replacing it with a better one. I don’t, but I couldn’t let this incident that touched so close to home pass without raising a voice of protest.