United Synagogue removes gag on relatives speaking at funerals

By Simon Rocker, August 15, 2008

The United Synagogue has relaxed one of its most controversial rules that restricted the delivery of funeral eulogies to rabbis or ministers.

A letter has gone out to rabbis from the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogues recommending that lay people should be allowed to give a hesped (eulogy) on certain occasions at the discretion of the local rabbi.

Explaining the policy change, Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, the recently elected chairman of RCUS, wrote: "We recommend that in the first instance it remains the ideal that the rabbi should be the one to give the eulogy."

He went on: "However, in circumstances where the rabbi deems it appropriate or necessary for a lay person to deliver the eulogy, then he may use his own discretion to allow for that to happen."

Rabbis would be advised to read over a lay person's eulogy beforehand to "ensure suitability in terms of content as well as length".

But individual rabbis should use their own judgment. "There is no longer any need to be concerned or to look over one's shoulder," he wrote.

One rabbi who has long been in favour of the move is Rabbi Geoffrey Shisler, minister of New West United Synagogue. In his previous pulpit at Bournemouth, he had allowed relatives and friends to speak, as is the case in many regional communities.

"Rabbis are frequently called on to speak about people they have never ever met," he said. "It has to be better to have someone speak from the heart about someone they loved rather than giving notes to the rabbi to speak."

The United Synagogue's previous ban on lay eulogies had been designed to prevent people saying inappropriate things, he explained.

"In my seven years' experience in Bournemouth, I never heard anyone say anything inappropriate. I heard beautiful speeches at the cemetery.

"I limited it to family members, or if it was an occasion where someone had been very heavily involved in a Jewish organisation, the chairman could say a few words. It was not a blanket permission to anybody to speak."

The issue was highlighted more than a decade ago by broadcaster and former JC columnist Vanessa Feltz, who spoke publicly about her distress at not being allowed to speak at the funeral of her mother, Valerie, who died in October 1995.

Rabbi Schochet told the JC this week that the eulogy policy had been "an ongoing concern for more than two decades. It is time to take a definitive stance on a number of such issues."

RCUS aimed to be "a dynamic force to empower the individual rabbi", he said. "The next issue on our agenda will be kashrut and catering within our shuls," he added.

Last updated: 4:38pm, August 14 2008