Gentiles and Jewish Mourning Rites
The non-Jewish parent of a non-Jewish member of our synagogue has died. The non-Jewish member wishes to observe shiv`ah and have a service each night at home. Is there any reason why he should not do so? Should we use the “Service for a House of Mourning” provided in Gates of Prayer, or is there something more appropriate? Is it permissible to recite El Malei Rachamim? (Joel Morgovsky, Chair of the Ritual Committee, Monmouth Reform Temple, Tinton Falls, NJ)
This she’elah asks that we consider the question of boundaries in our religious communities: the boundaries that distinguish between Jews and Gentiles and the boundaries that delineate our religious and communal responsibilities toward the non-Jews in our midst. These lines of definition are difficult to draw to the satisfaction of all, and since every congregation must confront this issue, it is not surprising that different versions of such boundaries exist within our movement. Our Committee is similarly divided as to the best response to the case before us. We are in full agreement, however, that boundaries must be set and that they must reflect a process of careful and thorough Judaic thinking.
The first boundary to be considered is the one that determines membership in our synagogues. We proceed from the presumption that formal membership in our congregations is reserved for persons of the Jewish faith. Again, while each congregation makes its own decisions in these matters, the essential purpose of synagogues is “to promote the enduring and fundamental principles of Judaism and to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people.” It is therefore inappropriate for those who are not Jewish to enjoy formal membership in a Jewish congregation. While our she’elah speaks of a “non-Jewish member” of the congregation, this person is more accurately understood as the spouse of a Jewish member. The non-Jewish spouse of a member should not hold office in the congregation or in any of its auxiliary organizations, nor should he or she vote at congregational or committee meetings. On the other hand, the spouse may attend religious, social, and educational activities and share in the fellowship of the congregation.
This brings us to our second boundary, that which distinguishes Jew from non-Jew. As we have noted, the Gentile spouses in our midst are welcome to take part in the activities we offer, and we most certainly encourage them to attend and to worship at our religious services. It is therefore not surprising that those who do so may find much meaning in our religious life, to the point that they wish to adopt some Jewish observances as their own. The problem with this, to put it plainly, is that these observances are not theirs; they are ours. We do not look upon Jewish rituals and ceremonies simply as instruments for the attainment of spirituality, satisfaction, and comfort. They are rather the means through which we Jews define ourselves as a religious community, rehearse our sacred history, and express our distinct identity. Their meaning for us is primarily a Jewish meaning. It is by keeping these observances (and, at times, by introducing change and innovation into them), that we fully participate in the tradition that we have inherited from Jews in ages past, that binds us to all Jews today and that we seek to pass on to future Jewish generations. It is for this reason that, though the non-Jews in our midst may attend and worship at our religious services, there are clear limits as to their participation in our synagogue’s ritual life. Our rituals, again, are expressions of our Jewish identity, an identity that the non-Jews in our midst, so long as they do not choose to become Jewish, do not share. It is inappropriate for them to participate in our religious life as though they are Jews when in fact they are not Jews.
Our she’elah is a clear and difficult test of these boundaries. This non-Jew, grieving at the death of his parent, has discovered a source of comfort in the observance of dinei avelut, traditional Jewish mourning rituals. He wants to “sit shiv`ah” and asks that we organize for him a service or “minyan” in his home each night of that seven-day mourning period so that he might say Kaddish. We would certainly do so for a Jewish congregant; is it appropriate for us to do so for him? There are some strong arguments that would cause us to say “yes.” This non-Jew violates no ritual prohibition by observing Jewish mourning rites. He is already welcome at our synagogue services, where he may say Kaddish along with the congregation. Moreover, though he may not be a formal member of the synagogue, he is a member of our congregational family. He has shared our “fellowship”; he is in a very real sense one of us. It is our human and pastoral inclination to minister to him in his time of sadness. If the customs of Jewish mourning bring him strength and solace, why would we wish to deny these to him? On the other hand, we cannot forget that dinei avelut are indeed the customs of Jewish mourning, practices that enable Jews to express grief in a way that links them to the life and heritage of our people. For us to arrange a “minyan” for this individual is a well-intentioned act of kindness, but it also confuses the boundary between Jew and non-Jew; it blurs the distinction (central to our existence as a religious community) between being Jewish and doing Jewish.
In considering our question, therefore, we are pulled in different directions by the persuasive power of two sets of concerns, each of which makes legitimate demands upon us. How do we balance these concerns and establish the boundaries appropriate to this case?
- One member of our Committee recommends that no service be held at the home of this non-Jewish mourner. He should be invited to attend any regularly scheduled synagogue service and to say Kaddish there. El Malei Rachamim may also be recited, but again, only at a synagogue service and not at a “shiv`ah minyan” specially arranged for him. The strength of this approach lies in its insistence on the standards of Jewish propriety: a “shiv`ah minyan” is a Jewish mourning custom, a means of expression rightfully reserved for Jews. Most of us reject this suggestion, however, on the grounds that it pays insufficient attention to the personal, emotional needs of one who is, after all, part of the congregational family. He finds meaning and comfort in the rites of Jewish mourning; we want to find an appropriate way for him to participate in those rites.
- What is the “appropriate” way for this individual to observe Jewish mourning rites? Some of us would permit the community to arrange a regular “shiv`ah minyan” for him at his home. The liturgy for this service would be the same as used for all such services, whether the Gates of Prayer‘s “Service for a House of Mourning,” as mentioned by our sho’el, or the regular weekday services. Kaddish and El Malei Rachamim may be recited. There is no ritual or halakhic objection to this procedure, so long as the service is led and conducted by Jews-and not by the Gentile mourner–and the Kaddish is recited by a Jew or by the entire company, as is the custom in most Reform communities. In the absence of such objections, some of us see no reason to exclude this member of our family from an observance that will bring him strength and solace.
- Finally, some of us feel that the “service” at this individual’s home should not be the regular liturgy or the “service for a house of mourning.” Instead, the service might consist of special readings, perhaps including the study of text, followed by Kaddish and El Malei Rachamim. To do otherwise, in this view, would give the impression that this person is participating in our religious life as though he is a Jew. Those of us who take this position believe that the boundary between Jews and non-Jews-a boundary without which we do not exist as a distinct religious community-would be more clearly marked in this way. And all of us, no matter which proposal we favor, believe as one that this boundary must be honored.
CCAR Responsa Committee. Mark Washofsky, chair; Walter Jacob; Yoel Kahn; Debra Landsberg; David Lilienthal; Bernard Mehlman; Rachel Mikva; W. Gunther Plaut; Leonard S. Troupp; Moshe Zemer.
- See Suggested Constitution and By-Laws for Congregations Affiliated with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, adopted by the Joint Commission on Synagogue Administration of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, April, 1984, Article V, Section 1.
- Suggested Constitution, Preamble.
- See R. Solomon B. Freehof, Recent Reform Responsa, no. 12, at p. 65: “Jewish congregations consist of Jews by birth or conversion. All who wish to come into Judaism are welcome. No sincere applicant for conversion will be rejected. But we cannot allow the transformation of a Jewish congregation so that it ceases to be the family