A story attributed to the Buddha tells of a mother desolate with grief over the death of her young child. Distraught, she comes to the Buddha begging him to bring her child back to life. "You must bring me," he tells her, "a mustard seed from a home that has never known sorrow." The bereaved mother begins the search for such a mustard seed and soon learns that loss and bereavement are universal experiences. She returns to the Buddha better able to accept her child's death.
This tale underscores the reality that we all experience death and loss. Our responses to death, however, are culturally defined. The Hindu cremation pyre, the Catholic wake, the shiva observance in Judaism (the initial seven-day period of intense mourning) are all manifestations of our need to mourn a loss and we turn to familiar rituals to help us do so. For interfaith families, the death of a loved one can give rise to questions, and the solutions we come up with can either facilitate, or impede, a healthy grieving process.
As the rabbi of a Reform congregation, I serve the needs of many interfaith families. I am also called upon to help bereaved interfaith families who are not affiliated with any synagogue. I am frequently asked about the "proper" role of the non-Jewish survivor in mourning rituals. In responding to the grief of mourners, regardless of their religious identity, I try to remember that one of the more significant mitzvot (commandments) in Jewish life bids us to bring comfort to mourners.
My primary responsibility is to help the family constellation begin to process its grief appropriately. To the non-Jewish survivors of a deceased Jew, I explain that, according to Jewish law, the obligations of mourning fall upon first-degree Jewish relatives: parents, spouse/partner, siblings, children. These responsibilities include the observance of shiva (the initial seven-day mourning period), sheloshim (the thirty-day mourning period which includes shiva) and yahrzeit (the observance of the anniversary of the death.)
A non-Jewish survivor is neither required, nor expected, to take on these obligations. Not infrequently, the non-Jewish survivor is estranged from the faith tradition of his or her upbringing. He or she may have been living for years within the orbit of Judaism and Jewish practice. When death intrudes, the non-Jewish survivor may feel bereft of the traditional sources of comfort which a faith tradition provides, or that survivor may naturally look to Judaism for guidance.
I must often simultaneously find ways to meet the needs of both Jewish and non-Jewish survivors in an interfaith family. This involves presenting clear explanations of Jewish funeral and mourning practices. It means explaining what the non-Jewish survivor may or may not do from the vantage point of Jewish tradition.
Two examples may be helpful. Before a Jewish funeral service begins first-degree Jewish relatives engage in the act of kriah, or tearing one's garment or pinning a black ribbon pinned to one's lapel. It is a powerful and ancient reaction to the harsh reality of death and an acknowledgment that death tears an irreparable hole in the fabric of our lives. The kriah ribbon, or the torn garment, is worn for the sheloshim period, the thirty days extending from the funeral. Traditionally, it is removed on Shabbat, the Sabbath.
What if a non-Jewish spouse/partner or child asks to wear the kriah ribbon? I respond that, while this is an obligation for Jewish mourners, like a black armband, the kriah ribbon is a symbol which communicates a universal message about the status of one who wears it. I, therefore, leave such a decision to the mourner.
What if there are not enough Jewish adults to constitute a minyan, a prayer quorum of ten Jewish adults, for the worship services held in the house of mourning? The lack of a minyan precludes the recitation of certain prayers, including the mourners kaddish, a prayer most closely associated with the Jewish mourning experience. May a non-Jew be counted in the requisite ten?
Insofar as the minyan symbolizes the Jewish community, which is mourning the loss of one of its members and which is drawing together in support of the mourners, I do not count a non-Jew in a minyan. That non-Jew is welcomed into that circle of prayer and comfort, but may not, by definition, help constitute it. This underscores the importance of connecting to a Jewish community which may be called upon to provide a minyan of support. It is among the many reasons people decide to affiliate with a synagogue.
Every family and every death is unique. The challenges which interfaith families often face come most sharply into focus at liminal moments, spiritual thresholds such as birth, marriage and death. As autonomous entities, Jewish communities can, and will, decide for themselves where boundary lines will be drawn. The phenomenon of interfaith marriage, especially when mixed-faith couples must contend with death, requires Jewish communities and their leaders to decide when and to what extent those boundaries may be made more permeable, so that the blessings of Jewish tradition may be brought to those bowed in sorrow.