So I was sitting around the table with my New Jersey relations on Thanksgiving, doing the normal things — devouring turkey, scarfing down stuffing, choosing between candied yams and sweet potato pie (and selecting both) — when this topic came up:
One of my relatives is a board member at her temple (I won’t say where), where a controversy is brewing. One of its longtime members — a woman who is very active in congregation life — married out of the faith. Sadly, her husband just died, and the woman wanted the rabbi to perform some kind of service. But the rabbi, when informed of the death, said he didn’t do such services, and did not respond to the woman for nearly two weeks.
That was it. He never visited the widow and never expressed his condolences (until well after the issue blew up).
Now the aftershocks are being felt. This is a temple that has reached out to interfaith families. Yet one of those members recently said that if something like this could happen now to a longtime congregant, then what kind of support could she expect from her congregation if, God forbid, her non-Jewish spouse would die.
It’s a good question.
To be fair to the rabbi, he has since reached out to the widow, in question, though we don’t know what was said or done.
Also, no rabbi should be cajoled or forced to perform a ritual or service with which he or she is theologically uncomfortable. We expect our rabbis to defend our faith.
But it is also a Jewish teaching to comfort the bereaved. Does that mean only those mourners who are of our faith? Could this rabbi have said a few words at the funeral — not of a religious nature but comforting to the family? Could he have just attended the funeral and paid his respects to the family in the receiving line? If we reach out to interfaith families, don’t we have some kind of obligation to comfort them when times are rough?
From a strictly pragmatic viewpoint, if we ask these families to join our congregations, we must serve them — all of them — as fairly as our own religious beliefs will permit. To say that we can’t support them in their time of grief because it’s against temple policy, will reinforce the notion among non-Jews that ours is a dogmatic, legalistic religion with no sense of empathy.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-687-1005. This column will be posted at The Chronicle blog, Yinz/Yidz.)