Jews have an interesting, sometimes conflicting approach to death.
On one hand, mourners perform the ritual of keriah — tearing clothing or a black ribbon — symbolic of the renting of garments, which our ancestors did in biblical times.
On the other hand, the Mourner’s Kaddish is full of praise for God.
We are consumed by grief, but not so consumed that we forget to praise the source of all life.
Just now, one of the biggest stories in the Pittsburgh Jewish community is that of a rabbi — Daniel Wasserman — who is fighting the state’s bureaucracy in federal court for his right to perform religious funerals as Jewish laws and traditions dictate, and not necessarily with the services of a licensed funeral director. He claims Pennsylvania’s Funeral Director Law is being selectively enforced among the state’s religious groups, which violates his rights under the U.S. Constitution and the state’s Religious Freedom Protection Act. (Wasserman asserts that other religious groups in Pennsylvania — the Amish and Quakers — are not held to the same standards.)
He is seeking damages as well as a court injunction assuring his right to perform all aspects of a funeral (except for embalming or cosmetic work), without the assistance of a funeral director, in the Orthodox Jewish tradition.
On the other side is the state, which says the funeral director laws are there for good reasons — to protect the public health and safety as well as the families of the deceased.
Like the Jewish approach to death, we, too, feel conflicted in this case. On one hand, Rabbi Wasserman wants to do what he believes is right for his congregants and community — even if that means going to court to assure his right to do it. That must be respected.
On the other hand, we have state officials defending laws they say are meant to protect those same congregants and community. That must be respected, too.
We’re not lawyers — and we do not yet have all the facts — so we won’t take sides here.
But we know lawsuits can be divisive. While their resolutions have potential to make people “whole,” to use the legal term, they can also divide communities.
The latter outcome must be avoided. However each of us views the merits of this case, we must not let this lawsuit divide the Jewish community, creating rifts that may not heal for years to come. That would do no one any service.
We hope this suit can be amicably resolved, perhaps even used as a catalyst to improve our understanding of how Jews view death and comfort the bereaved. In many corners of our community, our own traditions aren’t always understood. Many Jews don’t realize how our rituals help mourners transition from one stage of life to the next.
And death is another stage of life — the final stage. Let’s use Rabbi Wasserman’s suit against the state as an opportunity to educate and inform, rather than criticize traditions and customs we may not understand.