Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ask the Rabbi: How to Respond to Non-Jewish Parent's Last Will

Ariela Pelaia,'s Guide to Judaism (as well as our programming director) sent a challenging "Ask the Rabbi" query my way this past week. It led to an interesting discussion at services last Shabbat morning. See the question on her blog here.

In this week's "Ask the Rabbi," Rabbi Joshua Hammerman answers a question about how to respond to the last wishes of a parent when those wishes conflict with Jewish beliefs and that parent had converted to Catholicism. As always, respectful comments are welcome.

Q. My mother just passed away and we have a difficult situation due to her last wishes and the way that she lived the last part of her life. My husband and I are Jewish, as was my father. After his passing, and against our wishes, my mother joined the Catholic Church (She was Jewish all her life before that). We were upset about that but couldn't talk her out of it although we tried to for almost 10 years. Our current problem is that her burial is being held up because she wanted a Catholic funeral Mass and also wanted to be cremated, and we are trying to decide what to do.

My husband and I do not want to attend a Mass or to allow cremation either. Should be just attend the graveside service or have a non-denominational service since she would not be able to have a Jewish funeral? And as for the cremation... should we go against her wishes? We can't decide what would be both ethical and morally right in this situation. Since she abandoned the Jewish faith, should we just allow her wishes to be honored? Or would that be giving sanction to her conversion?

A: First of all, my sincere condolences on the passing of your mother.

Your predicament presents two unusual twists to more common issues. First, I am most often asked questions by parents whose children have converted out or intermarried, not the other way. And second, I often am asked by those who have become Jews by Choice how to mourn the deaths of their parents who were lifelong Christians, not apostates.

There are two prevailing mitzvot that would seem on the surface to be at play here: 1) to honor your parent and 2) the obligations of a Jewish mourner. Traditional Judaism, including most Conservative opinions, would say that apostasy overrules both. It is counterintuitive to say that a parent should not be mourned, but the traditional approach would suggest that the mourning was already done, at the time of the apostasy. This would not be the case if a Jew by Choice were mourning a lifelong Christian parent. In that case I would say, by all means, attend the funeral and burial, and then mourn in the Jewish manner.

Why such revulsion against apostates? We need to remember that for most of Jewish history, maintaining a visible Jewish identity was risky. Yet so many became martyrs rather than betray their faith, and people had little respect for those who chose the cowardly alternative of submission. The resentment against apostates has grown in our time, when people are free to embrace their Jewish destiny without negative social consequences. Plus there is an added fear that the so-called "Jews for Jesus" and other missionary sects have muddied the waters, claiming that one can be both Jewish and a believer in Christian doctrine.

These are indeed muddy waters, because there is another side to it. Many who leave Judaism have done so under duress, such as the Marranos of the Spanish Inquisition era. And many return to the fold, even on the death bed. Rabbi Moses Isserles in the 16th century ruled that one may recite Kaddish for an apostate parent murdered by idolaters, and later authorities extended that include those whose parents died a natural death. They figured that the commandment to honor parents was one meant for the living, the children, and not subject to the dead parent's being deserving of that respect.

Okay, so what would I advise you? If I knew your mother's motives, it would be easier for me to respond. If the conversion coincided with some sort of dementia, for instance, I would lean toward lenience. If, on the other hand, her motives were to somehow punish God, or even you, I'd be less generous. Not knowing all the facts, I propose a compromise. I do think that it is important to mourn her in the Jewish way, because the Jewish way is your way. Your response to her conversion is to affirm the faith of your -and her - ancestors. The Kaddish speaks of restoring a degree of Godliness to the Universe, after all, and says nothing specifically about the fate of her soul.

But, while I would have no problem with a Jew attending a church service in general, or a Christian burial in particular, I believe that the honor due this parent need not extend this far. A non denominational service is not necessary, if there is going to be a mass as well. Why not make it a Jewish service?

I know just the place for that - at your home, during shiva. You can announce that she will be memorialized there. During the service, people can stand up and exchange anecdotes, or you could speak more formally. You can focus on all those positive qualities she embraced, the ones you will pass on to her descendants - her Jewish descendants.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

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