20 May 2010

Let's Buy A Cemetery!

In a conversation with a congregant some weeks ago, the topic arose about burial of non-Jews in Jewish cemeteries.  For several hundred years, the general practice has been for Jewish law to oppose such instances of eternal co-habitation, even though several texts and rulings can be brought to bear that would allow such a practice.

In general, the issue revolves around public perception--and the Talmud is quite clear on this matter, writing, "We bury non-Jewish dead and comfort their mourners so that we follow the ways of peace."  One encounters this idea often in the rabbinic literature--that barriers of separation can be lowered at times in order to keep the peace, but when possible, separations should be maintained in order to preserve the sacred and ancient ways of our people.  For the Sages--even those that would allow for the burial of non-Jews in a Jewish cemetery--the issue is about preserving Jewish culture.  So for instance, in cases where a non-Jewish spouse, married to a Jew, participating in the life of a community, raising his or her children as Jews--can be buried in a Jewish cemetery by the most liberal reading of Jewish law if only he or she is not a member of another faith tradition and provided the gravestone bears no mark of the cross or symbol of another faith.  And when it happens, there is meant to be a kind of separation, whether it be a fence, a hedge, or a pathway.

As the topic of conversation evolved that day, we began talking about how the Jewish cemeteries in the greater New York area actually don't allow it and being one who is interested in what I'd call the 'lost art of Jewish burial,' I shared my general concern that as the generation which intermarried at a higher rate than prior generations of American Jews begins to die, we face a very, very difficult set of challenges around Jewish burial for these families.  The final nail in the coffin, as it were, for Jewish burial for liberal Jews may very well be the refusal of the Jewish community to come up with a way to accommodate these families.  Otherwise, we're looking at non-sectarian cemeteries with a general feel for the broader culture (which would comport with where most American Jews are at, I suppose) or cremation.  People will simply opt out.  And gone will be a whole landscape of Jewish death that I for one and am not ready to say kaddish over.  There is simply too much history in our Jewish cemeteries, too many layers of life to be learned about, to consign it perpetual care for an interested few who like to wonder the grounds and read the names and consider the meaning of the lives that came before us.

Anyway, this member met a young journalist who is now working on a story about the issue and in his background research, he sent me a recent ruling of the Conservative movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which convened to consider this burial issue of non-Jews.  They have essentially ruled, based on their reading of Jewish law, that the burial of non-Jews should be allowed in Jewish cemeteries, recommending "'mixed burial' sections in Jewish cemeteries, where non-Jewish spouses and children may be buried alongside Jews.  The mixed section should be separated from the rest of the cemetery by a path, a road or a sidewalk."  It remains a source of particular pride that the Bach (which stands for Bait Chadash--New House") no relation, provides a very liberal halachic ruling from his pulpit in late 16th-early 17th century Poland.  Rabbi Yoel Sirkes--the Bach--lived from 1561-1640 and provided one of the most definitive commentaries on the Jewish legal treatise the Shulchan Aruch.  He wrote, "Just as we support the non-Jewish poor by themselves even when there are no Jewish poor, we can bury the non-Jewish dead by themselves wherever they are found even when there are no Jewish dead.  And just as we support the non-Jewish poor together with the Jewish poor, we can bury the dead together with the Jewish dead."

You will find the ruling HERE.

It's a step forward but not good enough for me, truth be told, since it seems to consign to eternal rest the both real and perceived separate status of intermarried families in the community--even when an unconverted spouse embraces a Jewish life, joins a synagogue with his or her family, and helps raise the children as Jews.  Separate seating in this case is offensive.  And though the ruling is a progressive move in the right direction, it is nonetheless a disappointment.

One could say, "What does it matter to you?  You're a Reform rabbi."  And that would be a fair question.  But I don't own a cemetery, and so one has to sift through arcane and deeply complicated New York and New Jersey State Cemetery Law, as well as the individual policies of each cemetery which rules in accordance with its own wishes and those of the halachic authorities it consults.

But it did have me thinking yesterday while reading the article, "Hey, let's buy a cemetery!"  At the very least I could obtain one manifestation of my own wish fulfillment to be a landscape architect.

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