RR 143-146

Memorial Service in a Christian Cemetery

The rabbi had been asked to participate in a com munity memorial service on Memorial Day. This serv ice will be conducted jointly with a number of Christian ministers and will take place in a Christian cemetery. Is it proper from the point of view of Jewish law and custom for the rabbi to participate?

If the rabbi is a Cohen, then the question might arise as to whether he may enter any cemetery, since a Cohen must avoid the “uncleanness of the dead” (Tumas Ha-Mes). However, with regard to non-Cohenim, no such possible objection can arise, inasmuch as all the old laws of uncleanness and cleanness (Tuma and Tahara) do not apply to Israelites since the destruction of the Temple. (See Maimonides, Yad Tumas Ochlin XVI, 8: “All that is written in the Torah and in the tradition concerning the law of uncleanness and cleanness applies only with regard to the Temple and its holy things and heave offerings and tithes.”) In fact, of all the old elaborate laws of cleanness and uncleanness, all that remain are the laws of Niddah and the priests’ avoidance of contact with the dead.

But even if the rabbi is a Cohen, the weight of the law would indicate that there is no objection to his going to a Gentile cemetery. While contact (Magah) with any dead body is forbidden to the priest (except with those of his own close relatives), nevertheless the uncleanness of being in the same enclosure (Ohel) with the dead, as differing from direct contact, applies only to Jewish dead. In other words, there is no objection for a Cohen to be in the same house or in the same hospital or in the cemetery with Gentile dead, since they do not give uncleanness by enclosure. Therefore there is no objection, even for a Cohen, to entering a Gentile cemetery. There are, indeed, some objections, but they constitute a small minority.

Therefore, although it is not prohibited by the laws of cleanness (for any Jew to go to a Gentile cemetery), is it proper that he should go there and participate in prayer? The best answer to this question is the actual fact that, from the earliest times, Jews did visit Gentile (even pagan) cemeteries, in order to pray there. In fact, this custom is indicated clearly enough in b. Taanis 16c, where mention is made of the custom of going to the cemeteries after the regular fast-day services were over in order to pray there. What was the purpose of praying in the cemetery? The Talmud gives two explanations, one, that the dead may intercede for us. Another rabbi gives this explanation: that when we are in the cemetery, we realize that we are all like those there, virtually dead, unless we do repentance. The Talmud then asks what the practical difference is between these two explanations, and the answer which it gives is that the difference becomes clear with regard to the visiting of Gentile cemeteries; that is to say, when we go to Jewish cemeteries the first explanation applies: we ask the Jewish dead to intercede for us. When we go to Gentile cemeteries we are not asking those dead to intercede for us, but the presence of the dead humbles us with the thought that we are all virtually dead unless we repent.

This custom of worshiping in Gentile cemeteries certainly continued, because Isserles mentioned it as a custom in Orah Hayyim 579 : 3. Caro says that after the fasting services we go to cemeteries to weep and to plead. (The two verbs that Caro chooses are clearly based on the two explanations given in the Talmud for cemetery visiting.) Isserles then adds: “Therefore, if there are no Jewish graves available, we go to Gentile cemeteries”; to which Abraham Abele Gombiner (“Magan Abraham”) says: “We go there even though we supplicate and plead.” Thus there was a long, enduring custom for Jews to go and pray in Gentile cemeteries. So there is no objection for members of a Jewish congregation to attend the memorial service in question here.

But the rabbi is asked to do more than just participate in the prayers as a member of a congregation. He is asked to lead in the prayers in behalf of the Gentile dead (and also, of course, in behalf of the Jewish dead). May he do so? On this the entire tradition, beginning with the Talmud, is clear. The well-known passage in b. Gittin 61a says: “We sustain Gentile poor with Jewish poor. We visit Gentile sick with Jewish sick. And we bury Gentile dead with Jewish dead, for the sake of the paths of peace.” The Tosefta (ed. Zuckermandel V, end) has a phrasing more specifically to our purpose. It says: “We eulogize the Gentile dead [Maspidim] and comfort them and bury their dead because of paths of peace.” All this was not merely a chance, noble statement buried in the literature, but it was understood all the way through the tradition as a task that we are morally bound to fulfill. The only question that comes up in later debate is the word “with” in the Tal mudic phrase, “We bury Gentile dead with the Jewish dead.” Rashi is clear that this does not mean that we bury them in Jewish cemeteries, but in their own. Later scholars were concerned that this Talmudic statement should not be taken to mean that there should not be separate Jewish cemeteries. But of our duty to bury and to eulogize the Christian dead there has never been any question.

A late authority, Simon Sofer, of Eger (in his “Hisor’rot Teshuva” I,166), reaffirms the duty to officiate at the burial of, and to eulogize, the Gentile dead. In fact, he is concerned with the possibility that the Talmudic phrase “for the sake of the paths of peace” might be too narrowly interpreted so as to mean that we do all this in order to achieve good will. He is careful to indicate that when Maimonides cites this law (Yad Melachim X, 12), he also cites the Psalm: “For the Lord is good to all and His tender mercies are over all His works.” In other words, when officiating at a Gentile funeral, we are not guided by self-interest but by the awareness of God’s fatherly love for all His children.

A rabbi may therefore not only participate in a memorial service in a Gentile cemetery, but it would not be an overstatement to say that according to Jewish law and tradition it is his duty to do so.