I'm curious about what Judaism says. William Shatner was being criticized for not attending the funeral of his best friend, Leonard Nimoy. Mr. Shatner said he couldn't come due to attendance at a charity event in Atlanta on the same day (he had committed to attend to help raise funds). His daughters did attend the funeral in his place (as his representative). Since i grew up believing that Tzedakah is important (Hadassah Life Member) and sending a representative is acceptable, and I know that both men are Jewish, I wanted to know what the proper behavior would have been, and if the criticism is warranted. Thank you.
Actually, there are many times in our lifetime that we are caught in challenging situations, wherein we must make difficult decisions. Consider, for example, the rabbi who has agreed to officiate at a wedding far away from hometown, and just before leaving, a synagogue member passes away. The rabbi cannot attend both, and is now faced with a no-win situation. Surely, whatever the decision, there will be criticism.
So, I approach this matter with great sympathy for William Shatner. But there are other issues you raised in your question that are worthy of note. This issue is not necessarily a matter of Jewish law (halakhah), and therefore Shatner's Jewishness is not a factor.
Charity is important, but that too is not as relevant as it might seem. Would Shatner's absence have caused the charity to lose money? Was it a charity for the Arts, which is not in the same league as charity for the poverty stricken?
Sending a representative makes for good copy, but when there is a clear duty to fulfill, sending someone else is not an excuse for not living up to one's duty. Asking a representative to shake a lulav (palm branch) on Sukkot (Tabernacle Festival) for you does not cut it. Having someone attend a funeral on one's behalf is not the same as actually being there.
Back to your question. William Shatner had no obligation to attend the funeral. Had he been not well, and unable to attend, fewer complaints or criticism may have been levelled. But whatever the reason, it is really no one's business to criticize. The proper Jewish reaction to this should be - well, we know they were good friends, so there had to be a good reason why Shatner could not attend.
As to Shatner, he knows as well as anyone that there are many ways to honour the memory of a friend or family member. These include visiting the family during the shiv'ah (mourning period), giving charity in memory of Leonard Nimoy, or even holding a benefit event in his memory dedicated to Mr. Nimoy's favorite charity.
The bottom line, after all is said, is that we should try to see things in a positive light, as you endeavor to do. That is better both for the departed and the living.
Short answer: No one should be criticized for attending or not attending a funeral.
Long answer: As a rabbi and a Jewish chaplain, one of the lessons I have learned is that one’s presence can be far more important than anything that is said. Simply showing up is a great mitzvah. Yet, as our grandmothers taught us, “Mit eyn tokhes ken men nit tantsn af tsvey khasenes. (You can't dance at two weddings with one behind.)” We can only be at one place at a time. The challenge is what to do when we have competing priorities and values. Does Judaism have something to say there?
In the Talmud, Ketubot 17a, it says that a wedding takes precedence over a funeral, that we reroute the funeral procession so as not to disturb a wedding procession. Studying Torah, a major mitzvah, is interrupted to attend a wedding or funeral. Yet with entire tractates of Talmud devoted to upholding promises and following one’s word, a promise to attend an event, especially a charity event would not be something one should quickly abandon. In our tradition, a representative can fulfill a commandment on behalf of someone else, as a legal proxy. As such, sending a representative and attending the charity event is entirely within religious grounds.
In Judaism, an important principle is showing kavod habriut, respect for other people. Publicly embarrassing people might even be considered a cardinal sin. Doing so is considered worse than murder, for murder you die once, public embarrassment you die over and over!
The long answer and the short come to the same conclusion. Mr. Shatner did nothing wrong. He weighed his options and did the best he could. The error lies with those that choose to publicly shame him for his heartfelt consideration (not that I want to shame them!)
It is interesting that this question should be posed today of all days. My wife and I are both rabbis at two different temples. One of her congregants, who I was close with, was very sick and died. The funeral was today. The congregant's son is one of my congregants at a my congregation. It would have been nice if we could both have been there. Unfortunately one of us had to drive my son to sleep away camp today. Since it was my wife's congregant she represented both of us and I called my congregant and explained why I wouldn't be there today, but that I would see him at shivah during the week.
When my favorite grandfather died I was studying in Israel. My family convinced me not to fly home for my final grandparent's funeral so that I could continue my rabbinic studies uninterrupted.
Life trumps death. The rabbi's in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ketuvot state that "one causes a funeral procession to make way for a bridal procession. One also interrupts the study of Torah for a funeral procession only if there are not enough mourners.
William Shatner had a previous engagement to help a cause he volunteered to help. He was doing a mitzvah to help the living. He sent his daughters to represent him and his family and to pay his respects to his departed friend's family. If he still wanted to pay his respects he could have made a shivah call on Leonard Nemoy's family at his earliest convenience during the week of shivah after he had completed his obligations. He could also have made a contribution in memory of Mr. Nemoy per the family's request in lieu of flowers.
Mr. Shatner did right by his friend when he couldn't be there in person. He is above criticism in this case.
Rabbi Michael Sommer
Founding rabbi of
Har Shalom Synagogue
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