Shabbat Funerals And Other Transgressions

Shabbat Funerals And Other Transgressions February 26, 2014

On Monday morning I attended a meeting of the Michigan Board of Rabbis. Like most big city rabbinical groups, the Michigan Board of Rabbis is really just a board of some rabbis. There are no Orthodox rabbis involved.

When I arrived, the chairperson took me aside and told me that he was sorry for the late notice, but there would be an agenda item relevant to me. Someone had requested a discussion about “Funerals on Shabbat.” I may be new here, but I didn’t just fall off the matzah truck. There is only one congregation that holds funerals or memorials on Shabbat and that’s the one that I serve.

Toward the end of the meeting, the chair invited those who requested the item to state their issue. One colleague spoke up, offering the completely unstartling news that The Birmingham Temple sometimes holds a funeral or memorial on Shabbat.

Naïf that I am, I asked her what it was that concerned her. It turns out that she harbored some anxiety that my congregation’s practice would serve as a signal that this is something that other rabbis do.

Well, I thought to myself, that’s just ludicrous. I told her that I found it surprising that anyone would think that The Birmingham Temple somehow establishes precedents for other rabbis or synagogues. I explained that we operate out of a different value system than they and that we make decisions that express our integrity just as we hope that they do the same. I drew blank stares.

One of the senior colleagues acknowledged that he had heard Rabbi Wine speak about our different values, too. And I thought to myself, “Well good then. Let’s just drop the matter.” But he did not drop the matter. He decided to bring in yet another concern that by scheduling a funeral on a Saturday morning I put some people in the unfortunate situation of having to decide whether to honor the dead or celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah.

I was flabbergasted. Because I don’t think that quickly on my feet – especially when I’m hit by something so out of left field – I was left murmuring something about how I hardly think that the 92-year-old atheist I memorialized was really going to create such a dilemma.

What I should have said is that life is full of choices and it is not my professional responsibility to minimize those choices. My sole responsibility lies with the family of the deceased and what they desire. I do Saturday morning funerals because people want Saturday morning funerals. As a Humanist, that is reason enough for me. My value system does not prioritize an ancient ban on Saturday funerals. In fact, that ban is not included anywhere on any list of anything that I give two hoots about.

Later in a private discussion, another colleague reiterated the crisis of b’nei mitzvah conflicts that I am abetting. Talk about a disingenuous protest. If avoiding b’nei mitzvah conflicts is really such a priority for them, why are they not holding big b’nei mitzvah scheduling conferences? Every Jewish seventh grader in town is celebrating during the same year. Now that’s a conflict crisis!

They don’t hold such conferences because they really could not care less about b’nei mitzvah conflicts. What they care about is my flouting of their Jewish values. In a stunning demonstration of their complete lack of self-awareness, not one of them seemed to realize that they were doing to me what the Orthodox do to them. Do they not understand why Orthodox rabbis boycott the Michigan Board of Rabbis?

The item did not appear on the agenda out of some deep-seated concern over scheduling conflicts. Whoever put it there did so solely to point out my deviance while demonstrating their own Jewish authenticity. What they fail to understand is that I don’t value Jewish authenticity; it’s a meaningless concept to me.

The values of Humanistic Jews are in no way derived from Jewish tradition. Our Jewishness is a cultural attachment. What Jewish customs we retain are in the service of our Humanistic values, not the other way around. My ethical decision making is not based on asking, “Is it Jewish?”

The ban on Shabbat funerals is a Jewish value and I have no interest in Jewish values. My loyalty is to Humanistic values. They place the needs of individuals above any so-called obligations to tradition. Secular Humanists believe that we owe no allegiance to any religious tradition.

One of my mottos goes like this: “All culture is human culture and must serve human needs.”

I don’t ask these other rabbis to agree. But it would sure be nice if they tried to understand.


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Lawrence A. Glinzman

    Well said Rabbi Jeff, and shame on them for being so small minded.

  • cipher

    I do think, though, that one ought not to schedule a funeral on Saturday out of deference to family members and friends who would like to attend, but can’t bring themselves to if takes place on Shabbat. As the deceased was 92, I’d imagine there were people to whom this would apply.

    Meanwhile, when did you move to Michigan?

    • Rabbi Jeffrey Falick

      As a Humanist, I do not believe that the decision about when to schedule a funeral should be in my hands. If a family desires a Saturday morning, and if I am otherwise available, then that is the time of the funeral. Any deference to more tradition-bound family members or friends is a consideration for the family of the deceased, not for me. In both cases when I have performed Saturday morning funerals, the families were quite aware that it was at variance with tradition. The traditional ban on Shabbat funerals – like hundreds of other traditions – simply bore no significance for them (or me). Nor did they anticipate any difficulties for their friends and family. As I have said, my duty is to serve their needs, not those of tradition.

      I was appointed as rabbi of The Birmingham Temple in July and am thrilled to be here (even with the record-setting winter)!

  • cipher

    Yeah, I Googled after I posted the comment and learned you’d taken a position with Sherwin Wine’s old congregation. Can a Humanist still say mazel tov? 😉

    That’s fantastic, but yeah – you picked a hell of a winter to move to Michigan! It’s been unbearable here in Boston, and we’re just having the kind of winter the Midwest gets customarily.

  • Patty Becker

    Well – if the family wants a Saturday morning service, then it most likely isn’t a problem for their family and friends to have it then. I know it’s not a problem for members of the Birmingham Temple. So, where’s the issue?

  • Carolyn Lowe

    As you know, it was initially difficult for me to call you, “Jeff.” Eventually, I got over it. Now, I really like being able to use your first name. It makes you more approachable…and dare I say it…this little behavior presents you as more human. An entire new world has opened up to me, because I am able to call you “Jeff.” You do not just talk the talk, as the saying goes, you walk the talk. As humanists, our obligation is to ourselves and each other. Bravo to you for not, “chickening,” on a serious matter. Your choice truly represents the manner in which humanism and integrity are practiced. BRAVO to you for standing up to bullies…and ministering to families in their time of need. Finally, this is the first time I ever found and posted on any blog. Even my “techie skills,” are benefiting from joining the Temple!

  • Paul Kadish

    I am proud of you Jeff. You defend our principals well. Even while in the Lion’s Den. Keep up the good work……Paul kadish

  • Doug Mann

    Right on!!!!

  • Judy Schneider

    Dear Jeff,
    I’m so proud to be a member of our Temple (since 1971) & congratulate you on your dealing with challenges to our Humanistic beliefs!! I’m sending this on to my daughter, Stephanie, whose sons attend the Humanistic Temple in Morristown, N.J. (along with the Katinsky’s daughter & family) & who is very active in keeping their congregation strong.
    Mort & I look forward to returning from Fla.to Temple soon :-))

  • Jodi Eisen

    My 22 year old step daughter decided to be Christian. She chose to leave home and spread her faith in the prison communities. Last week, she was killed in a hit and run. My husband had been seriously ill for quite a while, so we didn’t have buckets of money for a burial, so she was cremated. Out of respect for her faith,she is being memorialized by a pastor in our home on a Pesach Shabbat. This is the only time her father could be home from work and the pastor would be available for the next month. It does not seem right to have her ashes sitting around unmemorialized for another month. I would hope and pray that I am still considered a Jewish woman even though I have broken so many rules to ensure that our daughter is properly cared for in her last moments.

  • Joseph Wolf Boston

    Rabbi, your principle with regard to Shabbat funerals is in the interest of serving the needs or desires of the bereaved, and thus a worthy principle in line with Humanistic values, if not inconsistent with the previously affirmed desire of the deceased..

    However, your labeling of Jewish values would be better labeled Jewish ritual observances, not Jewish values.

    The humanistic value of treating all with individual worthiness is derived from the Jewish value of treating all humans with dignity; treating each individual as an end, and not as a means of fulfilling a traditional ritual. Unfortunately, the rabbis you mention fail to fully comprehend and carry out this Jewish value, being caught in the trap of ritual worship over human needs and desires. Rituals should be in the service of humans, not the other way around. Thus, the funeral, even on Shabbat, is a ritual that serves the needs or desires of the bereaved, and is both a Jewish value and a Humanistic value.

    Joe Boston, Sarasota, Florida; member of the Sarasota Congregation for Humanistic Judaism.

    • Rabbi Jeffrey Falick

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I understand your views about Jewish values, but I will stand by my position. The world does not owe the Jews for inventing the idea of treating all people with dignity (or for the concepts of justice, the sanctity of life, the value of peace or any number of other important ideas). Many, many other cultures and civilizations have promoted similar ideals.

      That said, I do believe that there is merit in considering these values from a Jewish perspective. For me this entails an exploration of the lessons of Jewish history and, yes, even referring to our texts when they have something meaningful to say. I frequently use Jewish language and stories to teach and convey what I believe are universally good values. This is a culturally appropriate way to connect to my Jewish identity. Yet it in no way indicates my belief that these are “Jewish values.”

      Another reason that I insist on clarity in this regard is because the idea of “Jewish values” is as slippery as the idea of God. Allow me an example. Recently one of our bar mitzvah tutors asked me to provide her with the Hebrew version of the famous “Jewish value” that “one who saves a single life has saved a world entire.” Unfortunately, there is no such Hebrew text. The relevant Talmudic principle actually reads: “One who saves the life of a single Jew (lit., Israel), scripture ascribes to him as if he had preserved the world entire” (Sanhedrin 37a). That we have transformed this into something more universal is a result of our evolved understanding of the equality of all people and not because we learned it from the Talmud. This is by no means an isolated example. Even today we have many conflicting understandings of “Jewish values” and these are by now means confined to disagreements about rituals.