Halakhic Hotline Monthly Message from Rabbi Joel Wasser

Question: Is it permissible to dedicate a yahrzeit plaque in the synagogue sanctuary for a non-Jewish relative?

Answer: As conversion and intermarriage are an indisputable fact of Jewish demographics in this country, the question is not only timely, but will undoubtedly remain so for years to come. Framing an answer requires both legal consideration and emotional sensitivity towards this most delicate subject.

It seems to me that three major arguments could be advance arguing against the dedication and placement of such plaques:

1) There are rabbinic rulings going back centuries which insist on the separation of the Jewish and non-Jewish community when it comes to burial and all matters surrounding death (see Lamm, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, pp.67-68 for general guidelines).

2) If as the Talmud describes (Yevamot 48b), a convert is “like a new born child,” then perhaps, previous relationships are severed upon conversion and he or she has no obligation to mourn the passing of these relatives.

3) One could argue that affixing plaques with non-Jewish names lessens the holiness of the synagogue sanctuary.

While each of these arguments has merit, it seems to me that different sources readily advance the opposite conclusion.

1) While it is true there is a rabbinic tradition to separate Jew and non-Jew, there is an explicit commandment from the Decalogue which states, “Honor your father and mother” (Ex. 20). Where rabbinic and Biblical values are in tension, Biblical directives almost always take precedence. By affixing a plaque in memory of a parent, the convert honors their memory and fulfills this most significant Torah requirement.

2) While the Talmud does speak of conversion as “a new beginning,” that need not come at the expense of past associations. Within the Conservative Movement, rabbis strongly encourage converts to maintain ties with their families. If you will, we understand the description of a new birth and entering a new family to be spiritual, not physical, in nature.

3) Throughout the modern codes which deal with these complex issues (for several sources see Yechavei Daat 6:60), there is an approach which says that Judaism must present itself as a religion based on the most lofty ethical standards. The last thing anyone would want, is that a convert’s family suggest that before conversion the child would have memorialized a deceased parent in some way, but now that he or she is Jewish, he/she won’t! As such, affixing a plaque, allowing the child to memorialize his or her mother or father, actually increases the sanctity of the Jewish religion within the eyes of the world.

In conclusion, it seems to me that in the case of an immediate relative, halakha would encourage a convert to purchase a plaque to memorialize the dearly departed, in the same way it would for one born Jewish. At the same time, this would not apply in the case where the deceased would have found it offensive to be memorialized in a context other than that of their own faith.

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