American Reform Responsa
92. Funeral Rites of Fraternal Orders
(Vol. LXIV, 1954, pp. 75-77)
QUESTION: Many of us, I learn from personal inquiries, are annoyed by a problem that arises from time to time. When called to officiate at a funeral, we are often informed by members of the family that representatives of the Masons or of some other Lodge, to which the deceased belonged, will participate in the service. I, for one, am at a loss to know how to handle the situation. The participants of the fraternal groups are not always members of our own faith, and the service they use, while not antagonistic to our tradition, introduces a strange element into our ritual. Then, too, the funeral service is at times conducted in the Temple auditorium, where the favorite symbols of the Lodges seem quite incongruous with our Jewish modes of worship.
I also do not know of any fixed order of procedure, which all rabbis follow. Shall these participants perform their rites before or after my religious service? Shall I permit them to insert their part into the service I conduct.
I should appreciate a word of guidance in this matter.
ANSWER: The question raised, while not altogether new, presents a number of aspects not dealt with in previous responsa.
It was in the report of the Committee on Responsasubmitted to the Chicago conference, in 1946, that the general question of outside participation in the services for the dead was briefly discussed. The statement of the Committee read in part as follows:
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…. 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. (CCAR Yearbook, vol. 56, pp. 125-127)
From this general principle, we presume, none will care to dissent. The question, therefore, is no longer whether or not we shall countenance the prevailing practice, however annoying it may prove to be at times. The problem today is to discover, on the basis of our age old tradition, some principle or method of control that shall enable us to preserve the dignity and integrity of our own religious expression without interfering with the customary rites of the fraternal orders.
It is well to remember, in extenuation of what we are witnessing today, that the Lodge delegation, or its “Ritual Team,” makes its appearance at a given funeral not at the behest of the Order but at the invitation of the bereaved family, and, commonly, in pursuance of the express wish of the deceased. The “pretty” service of his Lodge had so impressed itself upon him that among his last instructions he did not fail to include the specific request that his own obsequies shall be graced with the words and symbols of his fraternal ritual.
For one reared in the Jewish tradition, such a wish is the expression not simply of personal vanity. From earliest times the Jew has been taught to do honor to the dead, to mourn their loss, to lament their departure. In fact, to accompany the dead to the grave is a solemn religious obligation, from which not even the diligent student of Torah is exempt (Yoreh De-a 361). In times when funeral processions were the order of the day, it was customary to lengthen the line of march in order to induce large numbers of people to join the procession, thus adding greatly to the honor paid the dead (Sefer Hamat-amim, Bar Minan, p. 16). It is even said of Joseph that he deliberately caused Jacob’s casket to be carried “to the threshing-floor of Atad, which is beyond the Jordan” (Gen. 50:10), in order to attract some Moabites and Ammonites to his father’s funeral procession (N.Z. Berlin, Ha-amek Davar).
The levaya, which makes it obligatory to accompany the dead to their resting place, is an old and honored practice. To it we owe the deep respect we have for the dead and the dying, as well as much of the pomp and ceremony we often encounter at funerals. It is perhaps when we come to view the fraternal rituals as part of the levaya, which is designed merely to pay homage to the dead, that we can assess their true worth and assign them their proper place.
However elaborate and pretentious the Lodge service may be, it is in its essential nature nothing but the open expression of respect for a deceased member. As such, it fulfills its purpose. The Lodge, through its “Ritual Team,” thus participates in the levaya and does honor to the departed. But the Lodge is not a religious body in any official sense, and its representatives cannot be said to perform religious functions. Their “rites” have no relation to the words of comfort and consecration spoken by the rabbi in the name of the religion of the deceased. Hence, while recognizing the right of any group to honor the memory of one of its members in its own set forms, the rabbi will carefully avoid giving the impression that he, as the spokesman of Judaism, attaches any religious significance to those forms. He will not permit the intrusion of any of these forms into his own traditional service. Nor, if the obsequies take place in the Temple, will he acquiesce in any arrangement that would sanction the simultaneous performance of other rites besides those sanctified by his Jewish tradition. It is only fit and proper that in its own House of Worship, and while engaged in practicing its own rites, every congregation shall bear rule and speak its own religious language.
Once the primacy of the religion of the deceased is affirmed by the rabbi and established in the minds of the people, the question as to whether the religious service, conducted at home or in a funeral parlor, shall be preceded or followed by the fraternal rites, will lose much of its significance. Different rabbis will view the matter in different lights. Then, too, the special conditions prevailing at the time will help determine the issue. But, questions of precedence aside, it is the rabbi who is in charge of the religious service and upon whom must devolve the responsibility of deciding all such questions as pertain to the proper conduct of his office.
Such rites should be placed at the end of the funeral service, where they do not detract from the Jewish religious mood or message.
Responsa Committee (1980)
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.