I attended a Baptist memorial service last Friday. For me, it was a most positive experience — one that I recommend to other rabbis and other Jews, as well. Having listened as objectively as possible to the minister, from a Baptist perspective I cannot help but feel that he is deserving of a big Yasher Koach for doing an excellent job.
More importantly, however, from a Jewish perspective, attending a Christian service afforded me the opportunity to realize what I, as a rabbi (and, by extension, what I as a Jew) simply do not believe in. For it is only after realizing what I as a Jew do not believe that I can better understand and appreciate — as well as put in a clearer perspective — what I do believe, as well as what makes us Jews so very different.
The minister focused on death. He made a point of correctly pointing out that we will never again find ourselves in the unenviable position of bidding that most difficult and heart wrenching final farewell (“difficult and heart wrenching” are my words…always the rabbi!). Typically, a Jewish memorial service focuses on life. Rather than bidding farewell to the deceased, we are apt to spend time on saying “hello” by introducing or at least reminding those assembled of the good, decent and, hopefully, even remarkable aspects of the deceased’s character via anecdotes about the deceased’s life. I have no idea who coined the phrase “celebration of life” to serve as a euphemism for a funeral service, but, when you stop to think about it, that’s precisely what we Jews have been doing for the longest time as we recall the positive and uplifting, even though the hearts of so many in attendance seem to be pulling in the opposite direction.
As Jews, we seem to be very uncomfortable whenever we are reminded that the deceased is now in a better place. We shouldn’t be. That’s precisely what Judaism teaches — but in no way dwells upon. As “heavenly” as death may be for the deceased, from time immemorial we Jews have adopted the attitude of “what’s your hurry?” In fact, this is exactly what went through my mind as I listened to the minister remind us that our dearly departed is now “whole again” and free from any aches, pains and disabilities that had set in over the years.
Yet I had another thought in mind, as well: Provided we are blessed with mental acuity until the very end of our lives, the longer we are here in this world the greater the opportunity we have of continuing to become a better individual. Accordingly, Jews can’t help but feel that death “got in the way”.
I’ve lost count of how many times Jesus was invoked by the minister, which, when all is said and done, is quite proper as well as theologically correct from a Baptist perspective. The thing is, each time I heard the minister mention Jesus I realized that our admittance into heaven as Jews rests primarily in our belief not in any savior but in ourselves. Our ultimate reward is solely dependent on our ability to stay true to the mitzvot which, if done correctly, will result in our becoming better selves. Judaism maintains that the greater one’s self-improvement becomes, the greater the likelihood of clear sailing into heaven.
At the risk of sounding smug, I’ve never been concerned about having to provide an answer to the question “Did you believe in HaShem?” What does concern me — more than you can ever know — is finding out whether HaShem believed in me!
As Jews, we are all too quick to dismiss such words when we hear them coming from a minister. It seems to be a knee-jerk reaction that there is absolutely nothing any minister can possible teach us as Jews. Perhaps not. One thing is for certain, though: Listening to a minister conduct a memorial service can clarify our Judaism for us more than we can possibly believe.