Burial Society Instructions Issued Amid Signals that Women can Still be Excluded from Funerals

In response to growing exclusion of women from burial services, the relgious services ministry has been forced to issue instructions to burial societies telling them that women must be allowed to fully participate in funerals. At the same time, the religious services ministry recently renewed a burial society license without any conditions that it allow women full participation in funerals for their dead.

In the past several months women have been coming forward to complain about their treatment at burials of their loved ones. Some burial societies force grieving women to stand apart from husbands and brothers. Women are sometimes prevented from giving eulogies for their dead parents, grandparents, siblings, or children. Sometimes women aren’t even allowed to accompany their relatives to the grave. Sadly, this problem is not new. 23 years ago, the Israeli Masorti movement published a respona by David Golinkin addressing exclusion of women in the 1980’s.

In September, 2003, Rivka Luvich was not allowed to eulogize her father Israel Prize Laureate Charles Liebman when he died. She appealed first to the Ashkenazi Israeli Chief rabbinate. Yona Metzger who was also Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in 2003 wrote a decision saying that she could indeed eulogize. However, he also said he had no power to enforce the decision because local rabbis had jurisdictions over local burial procedures. Rivka Luvich then turn to the Israeli supreme court. In 2007 the court ruled that “The burial society will not forcibly separate between the sexes in the cemetery, and women too will be able to eulogize.”

However, as is often the case both in the USA and Israel, a supreme court ruling is only the start of a long process of change. The government has been slow to implement the supreme court ruling. In 2011, Suzi Ayad of Netanya filed suit against a Hevra K’dissha (burial society) for demanding that women stand separated from men. In her suit she wrote:

Many of the people attending the funeral objected to this demand, which is at variance with out worldview, …Nonetheless, we refrained from creating an uproar, given the nature of the event; and so, by necessity, we assented to the rabbi’s directive. …Throughout the funeral, I felt humiliated, and was also angry about being forced to stand with the women and separated from the men. I can’t understand how at a public venue such as a cemetery, someone has the authority to tell me where to stand because I am a woman,

Aside from the terrible emotional toll of such exclusions, this places an unfounded limit on their ability to fulfill mitzvot of love and justice: hakarat hatov ( recognizing the good done to one) and halvayat hamet (accompanying the dead),. Thus the comfort of connecting to God via mitzvot and giving back through respect to those we have lost is also denied. According to both the Golinkin teshuva and the Ashkenazi chief rabbi there is no halachic justificaion for excluding women, if the family desires their inclusion.

As a result of the uproar this fall and much waffling on behalf of the religious services ministry, the religious services ministry finally issued instructions to burial societies and made a small change to their contracts. According to Israel haYom, the instructions addressed all three issues of separation, eulogies, and accompanying the dead:

  • gender separation at funerals: –. “The means of separation are intended to cater to families who desire segregation, and are not in place to coerce families who aren’t interested in segregation,”
  • women giving eulogies – “[burial societies] will allow women who wish to eulogize the dead at funerals to do so, as long as the family of the deceased approves. This is in compliance with Jewish law, which does not forbid women from delivering eulogies.” —
  • women in procession: — “”As long as the family wishes to include women in the procession, Hevra Kadisha will allow them to do so.”

This letter of instruction was presented last wednesday (Feb 1, 2012) to the Interministerial Working Group for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Members of the committee quickly pointed out that the instructions had no teeth and the burial society was already signaling that it would not take compliance very seriously.

The same instructions state that failure to follow these guidelines will be considered when contracts are renewed. However, contract licenses last for two years giving only occassional narrow windows of opportunities for the religious services ministry to enforce its rules. Secondly, the instructions only say it will be considered among other factors.

The religious services ministry in fact has signaled that exclusion of women is not a priority in its renewal decisions. It recently renewed a burial license without requiring that the burial society commit to allowing women full participation.


Religious discrimination is also financial discrimination

According to IRAC, the discrimination is financial as well as emotional. National Heath Insurance covers burial in sites licensed by the Religious Services Ministry. Although alternative burial sites on kibbutzim exist, plots are expensive. Municipal civil burial sites have had diffulty obtaining land from the governement. Despite years of legal action and the Knesset’s Alternative Burial Law, there is only burial site, on the outskirts of Beer Sheva, where Jewish buriial can be conducted according the family’s beliefs rather than those of the rabbinut.


Chief rabbinut’s power increases

The burial society contracts have also been changed to stipulate that the chief rabbinut will decide matters of burial law rather than local rabbis. With a haredi run rabbinut, this could work both for and against women’s rights at funerals. Further, local rabbis vary greatly on their positions about women’s inclusion and the strictness of criteria to use when determining who is a Jew with rights to be buried as a Jew. While some local rabbis are more negative than the rabbinut, others are more inclusive than the rabbinut.

Although current Ashkenazi chief rabbi Metzger has written a responsa finding no reason to exclude women from burials, this could change in the future. In the current environment the existance of an earlier ruling permitting women certain acts has little force.

Certian Jewish groups in recent years have been disregarding halachic rules that allow women’s participation in favor of adding new rules and so-called halachic decisions that exclude women further and further from the public sphere. For example, despite Moshe Feinstein’s ruling that men and women could ride together on crowded New York City subways and buses and strong condemnations by certain current rabbis, several Israeli religious groups have been lobbying for seggregated buses.

When legal efforts to have publicly enforced seggregation failed, certain members of the ultra-haredi comunity have felt strongly enough about seggregation that they have attempted to enforce seggregation with violence, verbal abuse and shaming. (see Naomi Regen in 2004, Ronit in 2005, Oriya Ferdheim in 2010, Tanya Rosenblit , Doron Matalon, and Yochev Horowitz in 2011 among many others; see also “Two Percent is Too Much” for discussion about the systemic nature of the harassment. ).

The chief rabbi in particular sees no fault with the idea of seggregated buses and only objects to the use of violence to enforce them. In the wake of Tanya Rosenblit’s mistreatment, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Metzger said “We can’t be the world’s landlords. This isn’t the haredi public’s country,” the chief rabbi said in an interview to Kol Barama Radio. “We have no authority to impose our opinion on others. This is a public place….if we want separation, setting up a special bus company for certain lines is legitimate, and then we’ll be the landlords.”. Sephardi chief Rabbi Amar said “A person can be strict about himself, but not about others. If the haredim want to be strict on their own buses, let them. But imposing it on other people is irrelevant.”

According to his spokesman Haim Cohen, Rabbi Eliashev, one of the most respected rabbis in Ashkenazi social circles, echoed Metzger “The rabbi believes that a barrier can be useful on private buses, but it is impossible to make public bus companies follow suit. They might be able to be convinced to do it if a financial benefit was involved, but you can’t force them to do it.”

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