Jews at a Christian Funeral: Some Thoughts

May 12, 2014

Recently I attended the Christian funeral of a man who had been an employee and friend of my congregation for many years. He was a good man and dearly loved, and I would make a rough guess that there were as many Jews in attendance at his funeral as Christians.

We were all there to remember and say goodbye to a good man, a man without whom the world is a poorer place. Two communities with very different beliefs joined together in grief and love to remember Jim. At the same time, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the many differences between Protestant and Jewish funerals.

The differences boiled down to two things: the handling of the body, and the beliefs about afterlife.

• THE BODY – At this Protestant Christian funeral, the body of the deceased was dressed in his best suit and embalmed for display at the service. This was a bit of a shock to Jews in attendance who are not accustomed to it. The Jewish thinking is that it is disrespectful to look at the dead, and disrespectful to disturb the body other than washing and dressing it. The Christian thinking, if I understand it correctly, is to honor the dead by making the body look as good as possible before laying it in the earth, to provide mourners with a last memory.

• BELIEF – At a Christian funeral, there is a firm belief that this person has gone on to another life with God in heaven. The service made reference to this again and again, and the minister admonished the congregation to get into a right relationship with God, so that when their time came, they too would go to heaven. At a Jewish funeral, on the other hand, there is little if any talk about afterlife. Jews have a variety of thoughts about what happens after death, but our focus is on this life. At a Jewish funeral there is more of a focus on grief and on the importance of memory.

What was the same was the human need to stop and pay respect to a loved one who had gone from this life. We may believe different things about the mysteries of life and death, but Christian and Jew, we were awed to stand on the brink of eternity to say our farewells.

 


What Kind of Jew are You?

March 25, 2014

Are you ethnically Jewish, or culturally Jewish? A religous Jew, or a secular Jew?

In all the loaded discussions of “who’s a Jew” we sometimes lose sight of the many ways that one can be Jewish.

Ethnically Jewish – Do you have a parent who’s Jewish? For much of the Jewish world, that question is worded: Is your mother Jewish? The American Reform Movement broadens that to “a Jewish parent,” provided you were also educated as a Jew. Another way to say it is that they have “Jewish blood” or a “Jewish heritage.” Judaism actually includes many ethnicities: Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Persian Jewish, Iraqi Jewish, Ethiopian Jewish, Yemenite Jewish, etc. A person who is ethnically Jewish might or might not feel much connection to other Jews.

Culturally Jewish – Is there some aspect of Jewish culture in which you participate? Does your family mark Passover with some kind of seder? Do you belong to anything Jewish? Do you give to anything Jewish? “Cultural” implies some kind of participation in a culture. “I eat bagels” doesn’t quite do it – a Baptist in Omaha might eat bagels. But do you perk up your ears and feel a sense of kinship when you find out that such-and-such a movie actor is Jewish? Did you have a visceral reaction to the news about Bernie Madoff – did you feel linked to him, even though you never met the guy?

Secular Judaism – “I’m Jewish but not religious.” There’s a long tradition for secular Judaism. Sometimes Christians are puzzled by Jews who don’t go to synagogue or don’t believe in God but who feel fiercely connected to the Jewish People. That’s because Judaism is more than a religion, it’s also an ethnicity, a culture, a whole civilization and worldview. Secular Jews are no less Jewish than their religious cousins, and many are no less serious about their Judaism. Many of the founders of the State of Israel were (or are – a few are still alive) secular Jews.

Religious Judaism – In general, Jews who attend services, observe religious holidays, etc, although you’d be surprised at some of the overlap with other groups. Some synagogue goers go for the Jewish culture available there, not for religious content per se. There’s a joke that circulates about a man who goes to daily minyan and who tells a story about his friend Abe: “Abe goes to minyan to talk with God. I go to talk with Abe.” Synagogues were the first Jewish cultural centers, and they continue to fill that role for some Jews  today. But there are also Jews who believe in God, who have lively spiritual lives, and some of them go to synagogue – and some don’t.  Go figure.

There are also an increasing number of people in our communities who have been with us since Biblical times: people who live with Jews even though they themselves aren’t Jewish. Generally they find their way to us because they love someone Jewish. Some eventually choose to become Jewish; some have good reasons for not converting. But it is important to remember that in every gathering of Jews, there will also be some people who weren’t “born that way,” and others who are with us for love. Some raise Jewish children, and thereby participate in the Jewish future. At any rate, whenever you are in a Jewish community, remember that they are part of us, too: the Book of Ruth reminds us that King David had a Moabite great-grandmother.

How do you identify Jewishly? Do you find these labels useful, or limiting?


Measuring Intermarriage

March 18, 2014
Bruce A. Phillips, Ph.D.

Bruce A. Phillips, Ph.D.

Jewish population data is periodically in the news, and discussions of it always seem to generate more heat than light. The National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) in 2000 and more recently, the Pew Research Center Portrait of Jewish Americans set off a great deal of hand-wringing about the future of Judaism in America, because to some analysts they seemed to suggest that the intermarriage rate is high and climbing, and that the sky is falling in general.

Rabbis care about this stuff because our job (we see it as more than a job, it is our sacred task) is to see to it that Judaism is passed, intact, to the next generation and the generations that will come after.Certainly we don’t all agree on what “intact” means, but we care very deeply about the future.

Today I had the pleasure of sitting in a room with many of my favorite colleagues while Dr. Bruce Phillips of Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles offered us some insights on Pew and NJPS. He is a demographer and sociologist, which means that he understands how the surveys were done, the limitations of the data and methodology, and the implications of the studies. Better yet, while he worked on NJPS and consulted on the Pew Study, he is neither fundraising nor selling anything. One reason I mistrust the “analyses” I read in much of the Jewish press is that often the analysts are also dependent on a certain level of anxiety to keep the grant money and donations flowing to their organizations.

If you are interested in reading some of what he had to say, I live-tweeted the presentation. Go to Twitter and search for hashtag #IntermarriageData to find it. [Any errors in the tweets are solely my responsibility.]

I learned some interesting things.

First of all, I learned that NJPS and Pew count “Jewish marriages” in the present at the time of the survey. That means that marriages that began in 1950 are lumped in with marriages that began in 2012. The studies do not account for marriages that have since ended in divorce or death. They do not distinguish between marriages between people of exclusively Jewish ancestry and marriages between people with non-Jewish ancestors.  The bottom line is that both NJPS and Pew actually minimize the increase in the rate of intermarriage. It’s more complicated than that, though: using Dr. Phillips’ data, it seems that among people in Jewish families with no history of intermarriage there is no increase in the intermarriage rate. Among people in Jewish families with a history of intermarriage, the rate of intermarriage is increasing quite quickly.

Dr. Phillips also pointed out that while one can see that as bad news, actually there has been an important change that skews things somewhat. In the past, Jews who married “out” often ceased identifying as Jews at all. Nowadays, intermarried Jews usually continue identifying as Jewish.

He identified four types of Jewish interfaith couples:

  • Jewish (21% of IF couples) – One spouse is Jewish and engaged, other spouse non-Jewish but not strongly affiliated elsewhere. 44% of them raise children as Jews.
  • Dual (45% of IF couples)- One spouse is Jewish and engaged, other spouse non-Jewish and strongly engaged with their faith tradition. 16% raise children as Jews.
  • Secular (15% of IF couples) – One spouse is Jewish secular, the other Christian (or other) secular, neither engaged with faith tradition. 2% raise children as Jews.
  • Christian (19% of IF couples) – One spouse is Jewish but unengaged, the other spouse is Christian and engaged with Christianity. 5% raise children as Jews.

He concluded by pointing out that neither NJPS nor Pew researchers spoke with the non-Jewish partners in these couples.

At that point, Dawn Kepler of Building Jewish Bridges continued the presentation. She and Dr. Phillips have been doing a study interviewing adult children of intermarriage, and are ready to present some preliminary information from their study. My notes from that part of the presentation are scrambled, so I’m not going to try to present that material here. It’s very exciting stuff, and if you are a professional interested in hearing about it, get in touch with Ms. Kepler or with Dr. Phillips: they rock.

What does all this mean to me? My professional interest has long been the Jew at the margin of the community. My personal experience has been that with a little support and education, they don’t have to stay at the margin and indeed, some choose to engage with Jewish community and/or synagogue life.

Dr. Phillips offers a framework for thinking about the various needs of IF families. It helps me, as a Jewish professional, to listen more effectively to individuals and couples I serve. He said today that it is a fact that the majority of Jewish kids growing up now and in the future will be of mixed ancestry. Right now a lot of the Jewish establishment still speaks of interfaith families as if they are on the periphery. If Judaism is to thrive, interfaith families won’t be on the periphery: they’ll be a big part of Judaism going forward.

For me, as a professional, one take-away is that I need to quit thinking of Outreach work as “on the margins” – it isn’t. What we have called “Outreach” is right at the heart of the future of Judaism.

 

 


Who are You Calling Shiksa?

February 13, 2014

שיקסעWords matter. Words have power. Judaism establishes its reverence for words in Genesis 1, when God creates the world using the power of words.

I know that the word shiksa is a word many people have come to use ironically in English as a fun little word to use for gentile woman. It sounds cute. It’s crisp and appealing to the ear: shiksa!

But in Yiddish, shiksa means “filth” or “abomination.” It means the stuff you clean up out of the cat box. It means something you don’t want on your shoe, much less in your house. And yes, it came to be used to describe gentile women. It expressed disgust for women who were outsiders, women who were sources of contamination. It’s an ugly word.

The fact that it has become common via pop culture doesn’t change that history. It doesn’t change the fact that in Yiddish, that’s still what it means: filth.

But perhaps you say, no, I’m using it to take back the power of the word! I understand that idea – I am a lesbian, and I use the word “queer” to describe myself sometimes. But “queer” originally meant “odd” – the nasty connotations came later. There are words I would never use about other people, because those words were designed to convince both speaker and listener that a human being was sub-human. The word shiksa is such a word: it was coined to demean and denigrate a woman, to express nothing but disgust for her.

So when I hear a young woman describe herself as a shiksa, I cringe. Maybe her friends agree that it’s cute and sassy. But there is deep ugliness in that word, a hatred aimed at women. I  don’t want anything to do with it.

I know that my little blog post is not going to stop someone who likes the word shiksa.

I just want you to be perfectly clear what it means.


What’s the Difference?

December 4, 2013

interfaith dialogue

interfaith dialogue (Photo credit: Seeds_of_Peace)

This time of year, sooner or later I will encounter someone who will reassure me that “we’re all really the same, I mean, we all believe in God, right?” It’s a feel-good, no-worries approach to interfaith issues. My issue with it — well, let’s try an analogy.

 

I bring a beautiful loaf of home baked challah to a potluck supper. The loaf is still warm, crusty on the outside, and the odor fills the whole room with goodness. I set it on the counter.

 

My friend Bridget brings a traditional Irish cottage pie, savory beef with carrots and onions and mashed potatoes piled on top, gently browned in the oven. It, too, smells and looks wonderful. Bridget sets it on the counter next to the challah.

 

Another friend brings a vegetable curry, redolent with spice, served on a mound of brown rice. 

 

And yet another brings a crisp green salad with tomatoes fresh from his garden and a tangy dressing that his grandmother taught him to make.

 

All are mouth-watering. All are rich not only in nutrition but in cultural values and tradition.

 

Then the host welcomes us, crams everything into a giant blender, and begins pulverizing it into a liquid. When one of us protests, she says gaily, “It’s all food!” And that’s true – but the distinctive flavors have been lost, the texture is gone, and it’s just a tasteless mush.

 

Do you want to eat that mush? Is it really “just the same?”

 

For me, religion is like that. Each tradition has its own beauty, its own distinctive texture and flavor. Certainly we can learn from one another, just as I might try adding a bit of curry to a cottage pie to see if it brings out the flavor in a new way, but I don’t want to just mash them together. For Christians, the person of Jesus is the definitive revelation of God, and a personal manifestation of God. That is dramatically different from the fierce monotheism of Judaism, which insists that God is ultimately indescribable and utterly One. And both of those are completely different from the Allah of Islam, who revealed His will to humanity through the Prophet Mohammad, and to whom believers owe perfect submission.

 

There are elements in each that simply don’t reconcile. Either Jesus is God, or he wasn’t. (The tense difference is deliberate.) Either the Messiah has arrived, or not yet.  Either the Koran is the definitive word of God, or it isn’t.

 

My point is, THAT IS OK, at least from a Jewish point of view. As a Jew, I don’t think anyone is going to Hell for disagreeing. I don’t think there is such a place as Hell, except for the hells we make here in this life. And yes, this difference is also one of the tensions that can’t be resolved among our various traditions, because I know that Christian and Islamic ideas of salvation and redemption are quite different from Jewish ideas.

 

I understand why these differences can be scary and why it seems safer to insist that there is no real difference. The problem is, there ARE real differences, and all the insisting and pretending in the world won’t change that. Our task, in a pluralistic society, is to learn how to get along despite the fact that we disagree on so much. It can be done, but only if we’re willing to be honest about the differences. If we are honest in owning differences, then we can learn enough about each other to avoid injuries, and to foster mutual respect.

May the day come when we can respect one another enough to see differences, and to simply let them be.

 


More About Hebrew Names: What if I Have One Jewish Parent?

May 24, 2013

Apple Tree In Full Bloom, Washington State.

A while back I wrote A Beginner’s Guide to Hebrew Names. A thoughtful reader of this blog commented over on twitter that I neglected to talk about the Hebrew name of children of interfaith marriages. Excellent question!

If you haven’t read the earlier piece, it explains that Hebrew names include a given name and the names of the people through whom one has a claim to Judaism. So for children of two Jewish parents, their name follows the pattern Firstname  ben/bat  JewishFather’sName v’ JewishMother’sName. For a convert to Judaism, their name is Firstname-of-their-choosing ben/bat Avraham v’Sarah. (If that doesn’t make sense, you might want to click on the link and take a look at the other article before reading further.)

I did an informal survey of Reform rabbis about this very question a few months ago.

Out of eight rabbis who replied, three said they included the name of the Gentile parent, transliterated to Hebrew.  So Ruthie, whose parents are David (a Jew) and Susan (a Catholic) would have the Hebrew name Rut bat Da-veed v’Su-san.  Or Joe, son of Steve (Hebrew name Shlomo) and Jane (a Methodist) would have the name Yosef ben Shlomo v’Jane.

The other five rabbis said, no, they only use the name of the Jewish parent, so the children above would be Rut bat Da-veed and Yosef ben Shlomo. Almost all rabbis mentioned that they would be very careful to mention both parents’ names in English at an event like a bar mitzvah or naming. This is a more traditional answer.

It’s a delicate subject, because names and family relationships are close to the heart. The latter approach is more in line with strict Jewish legal terms, but given that we are commanded to “Honor father and mother,” naming the non-Jewish parent also has its logic.

What do I think? I think that as a general rule, the traditional answer makes sense. I love my parents, but I did not receive the Torah from them; I receive it through the merit of Abraham and Sarah. My biological parents are not in my Hebrew name because it is my “ID” when I am called to the Torah, and it has to do with my credentials as a Jew, without any rejection or disrespect to them. However, in a case where the non-Jewish parent has been instrumental in raising a child as a Jew, I can see the logic of including their name. As with many things in Jewish life, there is a theoretical answer, but in real life I would make the call on a case by case basis.

Again, if that was gibberish, take a look at A Beginner’s Guide to Hebrew Names. I invite your comments!

– HaRav Rut bat Avraham v’Sarah


Interfaith / End of Life

April 29, 2013

English: A combination of four religious symbo...

 

Funerals can be complex and challenging for interfaith families.  Here are some things to consider, if you are in a family with both Jews and Gentiles:

 

PLAN AHEAD. This applies to ALL families, of whatever religious persuasion.  Ask yourself these questions (the exact terminology and documents will depend on your state or country of residence.)

 

  • Do I have a current will or revocable trust? Is it up to date?
  • Have I designated (and documented!) the person who will make medical decisions for me if I cannot?
  • Have I communicated with that person about my wishes? Have we talked enough about it that they know what I really want? Are the legal papers for that in order?
  • Have I made my wishes clear – in writing! – about organ donation? Does my family know about my decisions?
  • If I have particular wishes about my funeral, have I communicated those to family in writing?

 

Making decisions and communicating them to family is an act of love and care, even if they don’t want to hear about it. There are few things more terrible than standing by the hospital bed of someone you love and not knowing their wishes about end-of-life care. Spare the ones you love the agony of guessing and guilt.

 

For interfaith families, you can save the ones you love a lot of grief if you specify your wishes about funerals:

 

WHAT KIND OF FUNERAL? If you are Jewish and most of your family is not, do you want a Jewish funeral? Do you have  a rabbi or other Jewish professional you would like them to call for guidance at that time?  If you are not Jewish, does your family know what you want, and whom to call for direction?

 

REGULAR JEWISH FUNERALS generally are led by a rabbi or cantor, although ordination is not necessary for someone who knows the ritual. The body is not embalmed, and the plain wooden casket is closed. Burial takes place as soon as reasonably possible after death, not on Shabbat (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown) , allowing time for family to gather. Bodies are not put on view. Funerals are simple and fairly short (20-30 minutes at graveside is not unusual – a chapel service followed by graveside will run a bit longer.)

 

BURIAL OR…?  Normally Jews are buried in the ground with their bodies as undisturbed as possible. Cremation is practiced by some liberal and secular Jews.  Remains are usually buried in a cemetery (or columbarium, in the case of ashes) where there can later be a marker (matsevah, in Hebrew.) Scattering ashes is not a normative Jewish practice, nor is it usual to keep ashes in the home.

 

These customs go back centuries, but at this point in history, the main things to know are that we have a tradition of visiting graves, and if there is no grave to visit, that’s hard to do. Secondly, after the Holocaust, cremation and scattering ashes have a very painful connection for many Jews.

 

In a city with a sizeable Jewish population, there is likely a Jewish funeral home, or a secular funeral home that many Jews use.  They can help you with these arrangements. If there is financial hardship, tell them. Burial of the dead is a mitzvah (sacred duty) and there may be programs to assist with the expense of a Jewish funeral. In a small town, Jewish resources may be more limited, but talk with the funeral home.

 

Since this is a Jewish website and I am a rabbi, I’m not going to presume to teach about Christian or Islamic funeral practice.

 

JEWISH CEMETERIES will have specific rules about who may be buried in them, what ceremonies can take place, and what sorts of markers can be put up. These will differ from place to place and may differ among zones in a cemetery.   If the family wishes to bury both Jews and Gentiles in a family plot, it is critical that you communicate that before you buy the plot.  For some families, a secular cemetery may be an easier choice.  The best way to determine what will work for your family is to talk with funeral professionals and clergy about your family’s needs.

 

COMFORTING THE MOURNERS. At a Jewish funeral there are two tasks: levayat hamet, burying the dead, and nichum avelim, comforting the mourners. Every mourner has a right to be comforted in a way that is meaningful to them. Exactly how that works will differ from family to family and from mourner to mourner. In a family with several Jews, shiva may be appropriate. (For more info about Jewish mourning customs, click this link.)

 

WORKING WITH CLERGY. Never assume that clergy will be comfortable co-officiating at an interfaith service unless you have a rabbi, priest, imam or minister who have worked together with your family in the recent past. Better to choose one clergy person to officiate and then talk with him or her about inviting participation by other clergy or planning additional services. There may be individual clergy who are comfortable with co-officiation, but it is never safe to assume about their boundaries.

 

All families are different. Any single statement above may or may not be useful in your situation. My best advice to you, if you are a Jew with mostly Gentile relatives, is that you should have a chat sometime with your rabbi about caring for your body and your family when you die.  If you are a Gentile with mostly Jewish relatives, let them know what you want, and if it’s going to require help outside the Jewish sphere, make those contacts for them: give them the name of sympathetic clergy you trust.

 

If you are a member of one of those fortunate families who are comfortable in one house of worship and who have clergy who know you, then disregard all the above: call your rabbi, priest, imam, or minister and put your family  in their hands.

 

For anyone reading this who has recently suffered a loss, I wish you comfort in the arms of loving family and friends, and I pray that you are able to find the professionals you need at this time.

 

 

 

 

 


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