RABBI PARTICIPATING IN A CHRISTIAN FUNERAL
A rabbi in San Francisco was asked by the husband of a Christian woman, who had attended his service and who had left a specific request for him by name in her will, to officiate at her funeral. He stated that any prayer the rabbi would say would meet with his approval; that his wife was very fond of this rabbi and asked that he officiate. (From Louis J. Freehof, San Francisco, California.)
THIS question is discussed in Reform Jewish Practice, Volume I, p. 144. But since it is referred to briefly, it must be useful to discuss the matter fully.
The Talmud (b. Gittin 61a) states that when the corners of the field are left unharvested for the benefit of the poor, then we must not prevent non-Jews from gleaning among the Jewish poor. The motivation for this humane brotherliness is stated in the passage: “mipne darche shalom,” “in order to follow the paths of peace.” To follow the “paths of peace” is a widespread motivation in the law.
Sometimes the principle is stated negatively: “mishum ayva, ” “in order to avoid hatred.” But both phrases mean virtually the same thing: “to avoid hatred, to increase peace.” A number of examples will be sufficient to illustrate the many-sided use of this humanitarian principle which is, of course, also practical and self-protective: A Jew moving from a house must remove the mezuzah if a non-Jew will now occupy the house. Yet, if removing the mezuzah will offend the new tenant, the mezuzah should not be removed (Yore Deah 291:2). Also, it was forbidden to have business or social dealings with non-Jews within three days of their festivals. But “for the sake of avoiding hatred and promoting peace,” the law now is that we may have contact with them in their holiday period and may even give them gifts (YoreDeah 128:12).
This prevalent motivation used in the Talmud (Gittin 61a) for permitting non-Jews to share in the agricultural charities (the corner of the field, etc.) is used in the same Talmudic passage as follows: We sustain the poor of Gentiles with the poor of Israel; we visit the sick of Gentiles as with the sick of Israel; and we bury the dead of Gentiles with the dead of Israel, because of the paths of peace.
The only restriction placed upon this humane mandate is in the commentary of Rashi, who limits the meaning of the word “with.” He says that “with” does not mean to bury Gentiles in Jewish cemeteries. The same explanation is given by the 12th century Italian rabbi, Isaiah of Trani (Tosfos Rid). But both are clear that we should conduct the funeral and console them. That this is not merely a passing statement in a Talmudic discussion is evident from the fact that it is taken as law by the later codifiers, Asher ben Yehiel in the Tur, and Joseph Caro in the Shulchan Aruch (Yore Deah 367:1). “We bury the dead of non- Jews and comfort their mourners.”
Thus it is clear that Jews and the Jewish community should include in their charitable acts (whenever necessary) the burial of the dead of Gentiles. In fact, even when a Gentile funeral is conducted by Gentiles (as is, of course, usually the case) any Jew seated as the procession passes is in duty bound to rise out of respect and to accompany the funeral symbolically for four cubits (Kol Bo Hilchos Avelus, page 86c). This is cited also by Joseph Caro in his “Beth Joseph” to the passage cited from the Tur.
Thus if, for some reason, a Christian family asked that a Jewish funeral director should take charge of the funeral, he could not refuse to do so on religious grounds. Or if it were the body of a Christian when there is no one to take care of the funeral, it would be commendable, according to Jewish law, for the funeral director to do all that was needed. He would request some Christian cemetery to accept the body and provide a grave, but the Jewish funeral director should take, if necessary of course, the responsibility for the funeral arrangements.
While this is a general humanitarian requirement, nevertheless some may question (as in your inquiry) whether it is proper for a rabbi to conduct the funeral and give a eulogy. The law does not make distinctions in such matters between rabbi and people. But clearly whichever Jew officiates, rabbi or not, he is permitted to give a eulogy. The eulogy is especially mentioned in the form of the law as given in the Tosefta (Gittin Chapter 3) . Of course, it goes without saying that the rabbi cannot with propriety read Christian trinitarian prayers. He may read from the Psalms, for example, and preach the usual eulogy.
All this is so clear in the law that it is strange that it should be questioned, or that a rabbi should have to explain himself for officiating at a Christian funeral. The same law in the Talmud which recommends such humanitarian action also includes “healing their sick.” No one would ever question the propriety of a Jewish hospital serving non-Jews. But there is no difference in the law between feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and burying the dead.
Except for the restriction mentioned by Rashi against burying Gentiles in a Jewish cemetery, the law is definite that all funeral services, whenever necessary, should be provided for them. This is the recommendation of the Talmud and, judging by its continual restatement in the later codes, it can be deemed to have the force of law.