Rabbinical council gives green light to lay eulogies

By Simon Rocker, September 19, 2008

New guidelines allowing lay people to speak at funerals are to be introduced by the United Synagogue "in the next few weeks", its president Simon Hochhauser said on Monday.

The relaxation of previous rules restricting eulogies to ministers was announced last month by the leaders of the US's Rabbinical Council (RCUS). But the rabbis were subsequently told by US head office to hold fire on the new policy, pending further consultations.

Dr Hochhauser told the US Council (the forum for local synagogue representatives): "The announcement perhaps came out a bit early before arrangements had been made with the Burial Society. These arrangements are now being put into place."

But he stressed that there was "no division" in the US over the changes, which were "long overdue".
RCUS chairman Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet explained at the meeting that the move on eulogies reflected local rabbis' desire for more autonomy in their own communities.

"The rabbi is the man on the ground," he said. "He is the one who deals with his membership on a day-to-day basis. He knows better than any other what it is they want from him... When there is an overwhelming consensus that things should be done differently, they shouldn't have to go always knocking on the door, cap in hand, to ask permission for every initiative."

He went on: "There are things that can sail somewhat close to the wind...but are still perfectly within the realm of halachah [Jewish law]... It may be that sometimes the rabbi would choose to implement something in the shul that is perfectly acceptable... but then would get a phone call from ‘above' to tell him, ‘how dare you allow that to go on?'"

He said; "If a rabbi wants a woman to get up and give a dvar Torah at the end [of a service] because that's what his shul enjoys... he should be allowed to do so without getting rapped on the knuckles."

But autonomy also "could go the other way", he added. "So if a rabbi chooses that his shul is going to stop saying Hallel on Yom Ha'atzmaut [Israel Independence Day], and everybody in the shul is on board with that, maybe you have to allow that as well." Hallel is the traditional prayer of praise on festivals.

Rabbi Naftali Brawer, RCUS joint vice-chairman, said: "We are not trying to operate outside the confines of the Beth Din or the Chief Rabbinate, but we do want a place at the table. We want to be taken seriously."

Rabbi Michael Harris, his fellow vice-chairman, said that it was "crucial" for the London Beth Din to become more broadly representative of "the Orthodox world in its entirety. The dayanim that we are blessed with are fantastic people, and we are lucky to have them. But what we should strive towards as an organisation which has at times described itself as modern Orthodox... is a Beth Din that represents all streams within Orthodoxy."

Last updated: 3:08pm, September 18 2008