The flip-flopping over who can eulogise at funerals is part of a power struggle within the United Synagogue.
Goldberg the gangster has breathed his last and is about to be laid to rest. The local rabbi has gone out of town, his children are estranged, so at the funeral, the sexton asks: “Since it is the custom to say a few words in memory of the deceased, would anyone like to give the eulogy?”
After murmurs among the mourners and a prolonged silence, finally an old man steps forward and stands before the coffin. “Well”, he begins, “his brother was an even bigger mamzer…”
Most letters sent to this newspaper come in response to an item in the previous weeks. But there is one subject that has produced a steady flow of correspondence over the years unprompted by any article. Why is it, people have wanted to know, that the United Synagogue allows only members of the clergy to deliver eulogies at a funeral, but not relatives?
The US position has been that rabbis are best placed to preserve the dignity of the occasion and prevent the embarrassment of inappropriate remarks, an ill-judged anecdote or the distressing spectacle of a family member breaking down in grief mid-speech.
Whereas the arrangement may have worked perfectly well for many congregants, others found it deeply frustrating. “An absurd travesty,”complained one (unpublished) letter-writer to the JC, resulting too often in “a babble of inconsequential platitudes” from the rabbi.
The policy has been under review for some time and last month US rabbis felt it was time for a change. After a meeting of the executive of their rabbinical council (the RCUS), its chairman Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet recommended that they relax the previous restrictions. Yes, rabbis should ideally give the eulogy, but they could use their discretion if they wish and allow a lay person to do so.
Hardly had the decision been hailed as a victory for common sense, than the rabbis have now been – at least temporarily – stopped in their tracks. Stuart Taylor, the interim chief executive, has since written to the rabbis to say that the change cannot go ahead until new guidelines have been agreed pending further discussions with the Chief Rabbi, the Beth Din and the head of burial.
His intervention has not gone down well with the leaders of the rabbinical council and it is easy to see why. The president of the United Synagogue, Simon Hochhauser, has made no secret of wish to give communities – and their rabbis – greater independence. But no sooner have the rabbis exercised their collective will than they feel a restraining bureaucratic hand clamped on their shoulder.
A few months ago the leadership of the RCUS passed into the hands of a more assertive group of rabbis – Rabbis Naftali Brawer and Michael Harris are Rabbi Schochet’s vice-chairmen – who are determined to make it a force for change. Lest anyone fail to get the message, Rabbi Schochet was pretty explicit in the letter he sent out about eulogies.
“We want to create a situation in which we are not ‘dictated to’ in how we deal with particular circumstances, rather it should be our own collective view that will reflect best practice going forward,” he wrote.
And there’s more. “The important thing is however is that each colleague be empowered to use his own judgment in such circumstances. There is no longer any need to be concerned or to look over one’s shoulder,” he declared.
Not every rabbi is going to feel comfortable about being asked to use his discretion, of course. Bereavement can be a sensitive enough time without having to decide when to allow family members to speak and when not, or to choose between competing relatives who is to best to pay tribute at the funeral.
But the rabbis in favour of change argue that since they have to deal with all kinds of delicate issues among their congregants, they can be trusted to handle the situation properly, and if they need advice from the Beth Din or anyone else, they are sensible enough to ask for it.
The question of rabbinic independence is hardly a new one within the United Synagogue. Recall Lord Jakobovits, who, at his installation address as Chief Rabbi way back in 1967, said: “I realise that the intense concentration of rabbinical power and authority in the Chief Rabbinate is bound to stunt the growth of a dynamic ministry.”
Under his successor, Sir Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbinate may certainly wield less power, but that is because, in practice, he has ceded some of it to his Beth Din.
The heads of RCUS have made it clear that they believe the rabbinate should have room to make their own decisions. If the United Synagogue leaders are serious in wanting more independent-minded rabbis, then they are going to have to give them the freedom to show it.