Rabbis’ perspectives vary when it comes to co-officiating at interfaith funerals
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Rituals and death'Comfort for the family'

Rabbis’ perspectives vary when it comes to co-officiating at interfaith funerals

One local rabbi recently co-officiated with a Presbyterian reverend at the funeral of a child. He said he would 'probably do it again' if asked.

Rabbi Chuck Diamond
(File photo)
Rabbi Chuck Diamond (File photo)

With the rise of interfaith marriage, it is no surprise that families are seeking ways to meld the traditions of various faiths. From weddings performed jointly by clergy representing different religions, to the December holiday mashup “Christmakkah,” cultures and customs are being blended in ways unimaginable a century ago.

Interfaith funerals, co-officiated by a rabbi and a non-Jewish clergy member, while not yet ubiquitous, now can also be added to that canon.

Rabbi Chuck Diamond, spiritual leader of Pittsburgh’s Kehillah La La, recently co-officiated a funeral with a Presbyterian reverend for the first time, and “would probably do it again if asked,” he said.

Diamond, who has officiated at interfaith weddings — but not yet co-officiated at one — was contacted by a former congregant who told him of a Russian Jewish mother and Christian father whose 7-year-old daughter had recently died of leukemia. The funeral was to be held at Shadyside Presbyterian Church, and the mother was seeking a rabbi to preside over the service in addition to the reverend “to have both backgrounds represented,” Diamond said.

“To me, the most important thing is providing comfort for the family after such a tragic loss,” he explained. “I worked with Rev. (Lynn) Portz and she was very welcoming and sensitive to my needs.”

Portz also did not know the family, and the two clergy met with them together.

“I thought we worked very well together,” Diamond said. “We both had different things we brought to the service and to comforting the family. I learned a bit from her and I think she learned a bit from me.”

During the service, Diamond “said a few words and did the El Malei Rachamim both in Hebrew and in English.”

The two clergy escorted the coffin out of the church together, with Diamond reciting the “appropriate prayers we say when we escort the body from the chapel.”

At the cemetery, Allegheny County Memorial Park, Diamond and Portz divided up the service, with Portz reciting Psalms and Diamond supervising the attendees placing dirt in the grave. He also led a recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish.

“The priority for me was comforting the mourners,” Diamond said. “And I think we were able to do that.”

Although the child was not raised Jewish, according to Orthodox and Conservative law, she would be considered Jewish because she was born to a Jewish mother, Diamond said. The family, however, did not “practice much.”

If the child had not been Jewish, though, Diamond said he still would have been open to co-officiating at her funeral.

Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt, spiritual leader of Temple Ohav Shalom, a Reform congregation in Allison Park, estimates that between 60 and 70% of his congregation is comprised of interfaith families.

He will not officiate at an interfaith wedding, he said, and has never been asked to co-officiate a funeral along with a clergy member of another faith.

“The closest most interesting situation was a gentleman had passed away who was Jewish and his wife and children are all Catholic,” Weisblatt recalled. “Yet, they called me and asked me to officiate because they wanted to honor their father even though he wasn’t actively Jewish his whole life.”

If asked to co-officiate with non-Jewish clergy, Weisblatt would have to make his decision based on the particular situation.

“It would be one of those situations where I would want to talk to the family to understand what it is they are actually looking for,” he said. “What is their understanding of the funeral? How are they trying to honor their person? It is very different from a wedding in that a wedding is, according to Jewish law, a status change. And I am officiating as a rabbi creating a Jewish home, whereas a funeral is a whole different situation in that you are dealing with mourning and how people understand mourning…. Are we burying in a Jewish cemetery? Are we not burying in a Jewish cemetery? There are so many variables in that situation.”

Mourning, according to Jewish law, Weisblatt said, is about “honoring the dead, and we want to honor their wishes as best as possible. So that would be my focus in any decision on whether to officiate. It’s how do we best honor this person’s life and make sure that their memory lives forever.”

The primary issue that arises when assessing the propriety of a rabbi co-officiating a funeral with clergy of a different faith is not halachic but “Jewish,” according to Rabbi Danny Schiff, Jewish Community Foundation Scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

“When I say ‘Jewish,’ I mean that there is obviously a world of values and ideas and ways of thinking and approaching reality that Judaism brings to the table that are beyond the halachic questions, but nonetheless vital to how we see ourselves,” Schiff said.

A Jewish funeral is “an expression of the Jewish view of life and how we understand death,” ideally communicated by those “who understand the core of Jewish wisdom well.”

That core of Jewish wisdom, according to Schiff, “does not mesh with the core of Christian wisdom or secular wisdom. They are different schools of thought. And therefore, to have people from vastly different schools of thought come and present themselves together at a funeral doesn’t help to deliver a Jewish message.”

Schiff said he would not co-officiate with non-Jewish clergy at a funeral, but stressed that people must be sensitive when communicating and interacting with those who are grieving.

“Nobody should be telling people how they need to conduct themselves at times of tragedy and loss,” he said. “However, when we reflect upon these things at more sober and less emotional times, what we should always ask ourselves is to what extent particular ways of approaching a subject supports what we are trying to do as Jews, what our goals are as Jews. And I think the clear answer to that question is that officiation by people who are well-versed in the ideas and thoughts of Judaism is what our tradition demands.”

While Rabbi Eli Seidman, director of pastoral care at the Jewish Association on Aging, did officiate at the funeral of a Catholic veteran when he served as a military chaplain, he would not co-officiate at the funeral of a Jew along with clergy of another faith.

For Seidman, who has been an Orthodox rabbi for more than three decades, “that’s the only time it ever happened, and as a military chaplain, it was part of my job.”

Most of those to whom Seidman provided spiritual guidance while serving in the military were not Jewish, he noted.

“In the civilian world, I wouldn’t be comfortable co-officiating,” said Seidman. PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at
ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org

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