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Facing Loss in an Interfaith Family: A Workshop for Congregations

© Rabbi Carl M. Perkins

This article appears in the book, Building the Faith: A Book of Inclusion for Dual-Faith Families, published by the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs,, and is reprinted with permission. The book can be ordered at the Federation's website by clicking here.

The article is an outline for a session that a rabbi or synagogue leader could conduct in a synagogue setting to open up discussion on the personal, familial and communal ramifications of loss in an interfaith family.

Purpose: To explore these often complex issues

Intended audience: Entire congregation, as this affects the community as well as dual-faith families.

Format: Lecture/discussion

Presenter: A rabbi or someone well-versed in laws and customs surrounding death.

Materials: Copies of FJMC publication: The Art of Jewish Living: A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort should be available to attendees for further information

Consider the following:

Bill and Christine (a convert to Judaism), receive a phone call informing them that Christine's Catholic father has died. The wake is scheduled for the following Thursday evening and the funeral for Saturday. What should they do?

John and Irma have been married for twenty-seven years and are the parents of two grown Jewish sons. John, a non-practicing non-Jew, dies suddenly of a heart attack. Irma tries to arrange for his burial in her congregation's cemetery and gets nowhere. Her rabbi is unwilling to officiate at John's funeral in a non-denominational cemetery. What should she do?

These are just two examples of awkward and difficult situations. What rules apply? When family members from different faith traditions are faced with these issues are there guidelines that may be helpful? How should the community respond?

In order to understand Jewish responses to handling death and mourning in dual-faith families, it would be helpful first to understand, in general, how Jewish law and tradition have approached the end of life.

First, there are two important concepts to consider in examining Jewish mourning rituals: y'kara d'shachvei: respect for the dead; and y'kara d'hayyei: respect for the living. Some mourning rituals appear to demonstrate y'kara d'shachvei, that is, they are done to honor the deceased, to "do right by the dead." An example would be the mitzvah of shmirah, watching over the body of the deceased between the time of death and the funeral. Other rituals appear to serve the purpose of comforting the mourners (i.e., y'kara d'hayei, honoring the living), e.g., the mitzvah of visiting a shiva house. Some rituals appear to serve both purposes.

Funeral Arrangements
When a death occurs, y'kara k'shavei is paramount. Keep in mind that in Jewish tradition, the body itself is considered a holy vessel. Therefore, in the spirit of y'kara d'shachvei, a series of obligations arises immediately, including:
Preparation of the body, ritual cleansing and purification
Watching over the body at all times until burial; often reciting psalms
Appropriate clothing of the body for burial
Eulogizing the dead (the funeral)
Timely burial

The period of time from the moment of death until the conclusion of the funeral service is known in Jewish tradition as "aninut." During this period, the shock or numbness felt by the mourner as a result of the death is pronounced. Consequently, no ritual responsibilities fall on the mourner prior to the funeral aside from preparing the body and making funeral arrangements--and these are generally done by others. Indeed there are no prayer services in the home, no visitation, no viewing of the body of the deceased, no condolence calls. (It is considered premature to offer condolences prior to the funeral; see Pirkei Avot 4:23.) (This is one of the more obvious contrasts between Jewish mourning rituals and those of many other faith traditions.) At the funeral itself, it is customary for first-degree mourners (parents, siblings, children, spouse) to perform "k'riah" (the tearing or rending of clothing in a prescribed fashion). Some will tear an article of clothing; others will tear a black ribbon provided by the funeral director.

Comforting the Mourners
Following the funeral and burial, y'kareh d'hayei (obligations reflecting concern for the living) rise in prominence. The Jewish community has a number of obligations towards the mourner, among which are the following:
To participate in the funeral and the burial
To form two lines of consolation as the mourners leave the gravesite
To prepare a meal of consolation
To visit the family during shiva, the seven days of mourning after the funeral, and attend minyanim, Torah readings, at the home during this week-long period.

Afterlife and the Jewish Tradition
We say two things at a Jewish funeral that may appear to be contradictory: "May he/she rest in peace" and "May his/her soul remain bound up among the living."

Are they contradictory? Not necessarily. In a sense, we believe both. On the one hand, we recognize that physical death brings to a close a person's presence in the physical universe and his/her opportunity to behave morally. As we say: "Lo ha-meitim y'hal-le-lu Yah" ("The dead cannot praise God" - Ps. 115:17). We don't, for instance, bury a Jewish man in a complete (kosher) tallit. (Generally, one tzitzit is cut off.) Because the dead cannot fulfill mitzvot, there is no need.

And yet, on the other hand, we believe that the soul is immortal. We believe that a person can continue to influence the world long after his or her death. We believe that human beings transcend death through, among other ways, the association of their lives with righteousness and other Jewish values. Note that there is truly no uniform understanding of these concepts in Jewish tradition, and that beliefs vary quite widely.

When Loss Occurs in the Interfaith Family
How does one determine what to do when a loss occurs in an interfaith family? One helpful approach is to distinguish between cases where the deceased is Jewish from those where the deceased in gentile, and cases where the mourner is Jewish from cases where the mourner is gentile. In general, the religious identity of the deceased should determine the way in which the funeral is conducted, whereas the religious identity of the family member should determine the mourning rituals observed by that person. Each and every mourning ritual should be examined, and the question should be asked: Is the obligation an example of y'kara d'shachvei-respect for the dead, or y'kara d'hayyei-respect for the living?

For example, to return to our opening case, one way to resolve the issues is as follows: As Christine's father lived and died a Catholic, he should be eulogized and buried as a Catholic. If it would be a sign of respect to him for Christine to attend his wake, she should do so, even though she is Jewish. Similarly, if it is possible to do so without violating the Sabbath, she should attend the church funeral and burial. Once burial is complete, however, Christine should mourn as a Jew with the full support of her community.

Similarly, inasmuch as John was not Jewish, it would generally not be possible for him to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, unless its policies explicitly permitted the burial of gentile partners or other family members in a separate section. John may be buried in a nondenominational cemetery. If the family's rabbi is unwilling to officiate there, perhaps he or she can recommend an officiant. Once the funeral is over, the family should sit shiva and observe all of the traditional Jewish mourning rituals, and the family should be comforted by the community.

Issues for discussion:
Open the floor to discussion as to how attendees would handle these situations.
How does your community deal with the case of John and Irma?
How do attendees and the community feel about non-denominational cemeteries?
Should "Jewish" cemeteries allow non-Jewish spouses to be buried in a family plot? If so, what restrictions are appropriate? If not, what should interfaith couples do?

Hebrew for "Chapters of the Fathers," and commonly known as "Ethics of the Fathers," a compilation of ethical teachings of the rabbis of the Mishnaic period. Included in the Mishnah, it's the only tractate dealing exclusively with ethical and moral principles; there is little or no Jewish law included in these teachings. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") Hebrew for "tassel" or "fringe," the name for specially knotted ritual fringes (strings). They appear on the four corners of a tallit (prayer shawl worn during prayer services) and tallit katan (small shawl, worn by observant Jews every day under their shirts). Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "prayer shawl," a ritual item that is worn and has knotted fringes (tzitzit) attached to the four corners. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "seven," refers to the seven days of mourning following the funeral of a family member. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Rabbi Carl Perkins

Rabbi Carl Perkins is the rabbi of Temple Aliyah, a Conservative congregation in Needham, Mass.

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