Monday, March 27, 2017

Jews may enter a Church for a Christian Funeral

Recently in our community we suffered two losses of beloved Christians whose funerals were in churches.   It has been asked if a Jew can attend the funeral in the church, likhvod hamet, for the honor of the deceased in a church.  The answer is yes, and here is why.

Those who prohibit Jews from entering a church must base their halakhik reasoning in Talmud Avodah Zarah 17a, which is not applicable to the circumstance we raise.  That source was traditionally used by sephardi sources from Jews in Muslim countries to prohibit entering a church.   The Talmud there presents a "heretic" as having spoken with Rabbi Eliezer, and that Rabbi Eliezer appreciated the Torah teaching that the heretic presented.  Rabbi Eliezer believes that he was subsequently punished for this act of openness, quoting the verse about idolotry and harlotry: "and do not come near the door of her house" (Micah 1:7).  The moral of the story is that even Torah is forbidden to learn from a heretic, and "her house" could mean the forbidden shrine.

Not surprisingly, the chain of tradition in the sephardi world of Muslim countries named the heretic as a follower of Jesus, and the "door of her house" the church.   This is because they considered Christianity to be idolatry, with all the incumbent prohibitions and condemnations. Maimonides, Rashba, Ritba, and today Ovadia Yosef all follow this chain of tradition.  The only "Ashkenaz" authority to do this is the Rosh, who actually is living in culturally Muslim Toledo Spain during the time of the Reconquista.

We now know, however, that Christianity is a legitimate form of monotheism, though not a form that we accept for ourselves. With Crusades and more, we can understand the Muslim Jewish cultural antipathy against Christianity and Europe.  We can also understand a classical Jewish discomfort with the Church.  However, it is not "idolatry," and Christians are not automatically to be deemed "heretics."  While the reasons for this are many, suffice it to stand as a point that the Talmudic passage here does not apply for that reason;  Christians are not idolators.  Since the passage does not apply, then the chain of tradition from the Sephardi world also does not apply.

In recent times, this prohibition was adopted by a major Orthodox Ashkenazi authority, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, z"l.  He, however, not only forbade entering churches, but mosques and  non-Orthodox synagogues as well - under the same rule.  This sweeping prohibition against attending "other" religious prayers is not justified under the Biblical and Talmudic prohibition against idolatry and heresy, unless you define all other religions, and all other Jewish denominations as idolators.  Obviously, the teaching of Rabbi Feinstein on this topic degrades the original source significantly, and merely serves to build walls around a very narrow definition of Judaism. We hold this teaching to be unfounded and unacceptable. Perhaps it is most clear to us because we in the Conservative movement are included in the accusation of heresy, but even objectively it is not based in an accurate understanding of either Christianity or the original sources.

Since a church is not a place of idolatry, it is permitted to enter even during a time of prayer.  A Jew should not engage the Christian aspects of the prayer services, but should be attentive and respectful - learning and living in relationship with our neighbors.  If there is a reading from "our" Bible, then the Jew should certainly feel free to participate or not based on his or her own comfort levels.  If asked to read or speak from our own tradition, that would also be permitted. We do not fear that "exposure" to Christianity (or Islam or other denominations of Judaism) will taint us or draw us away. In the strength of our own faith, we can be fully present even in relationships of difference.

There is nothing forbidden about a Christian burying a Christian.  No Jewish norm is at risk.  No prohibition applies to attendance, and even to appropriate participation.

Not only can we, but we should.  For the Talmud also taught, "We bury the dead of the gentiles like the dead of Israel, mipnei darkhei shalom for the sake of peace" (B. Gittin 61a).

In memory of those we've lost, and in support of their families and our community,

Rabbi Tobin