Question: 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.
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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Question: Can a non-Jew (or a person studying for conversion, but not yet converted) lead prayers? Is there a difference for different parts or prayers (e.g. Kabbalat Shabbat vs Amidah)? Is there a difference if there is a minyan or not?
The traditionalist in me says no, a person studying for conversion who has yet to convert cannot lead prayers because they are not traditionally obligated to lead prayers yet. The modernist in me says, maybe, but they can't lead the Amidah, they can't be called up for an Aliyah yet and are not counted as part of a minyan. This leaves leading the opening song and gathering the community before reciting the Barechu, reading Yotzer Or, Maariv Aravim or some of the poetic readings in a service and leading the closing song. The CCAR Responsa on this question answers in great detail the reasons why a person just prior to conversion isn’t obligated yet to fulfill the mitzvah of leading services. It also uses the traditional definition of a minyan:
“A minyan is thus a mini-recreation of the entire people of Israel. When a minyan is present, God is present. This is the rabbinic understanding of the verse, "God stands in the divine assembly [edah]" (Ps. 82:1).13 The constitution of a minyan for worship, therefore, is a reaffirmation of the relationship between God and Israel. Within the minyan, Israel collectively expresses its relationship with God, and the members of the minyan reaffirm their membership in the covenant community (b'nei b'rit). Minyan thus defines a Jewish community in a spiritual sense, as opposed to an organizational or institutional sense. When this spiritual community gathers as such for communal prayer, it must be led by one who is a full member of the community, i.e., one who is obligated to participate in fixed prayer. For this reason Tradition restricted the function of sheliach tsibbur to those upon whom it placed the obligation for public worship: free adult Jewish males14.”
The irony in today’s world is that the majority of reform Jews can't be bothered with daily prayers, Shabbat services or concerns about who is or isn't leading the prayers. On average most reform congregations are lucky to see between 2% of their members in a large congregation to 10% in a small congregation on a given Friday night. Jews by choice choose to be Jewish, seek community, and are actively defining their religious identity. Many people convert after years of journeying towards their Judaism, years of introspective soul searching and a years of classes and study. Most soon to be converts, after taking their local class of Introduction to Judaism, know more than naturally born reform Jews. Until their moment of conversion, however, a non-Jew just prior to conversion cannot yet be counted as part of a minyan or lead the central parts of a service. This should be seen as a goal within their conversion and not an insult or blockage towards their conversion. If person seeks to become part of the tradition and embrace its deeper meaning they must understand the difference of their status prior to conversion and post conversion when it comes to leading a Jewish prayer service.
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