Virtual Talmud

In his piece on whether non-Jews should be buried in Jewish cemeteries, Rabbi Waxman goes too far, in my book, by suggesting that a Jewish cemetery fully retains its Jewish character if non-Jews are buried within it. Is a cemetery still Jewish when a priest or other religious leader officiates over a burial? When the family observes the mourning rites of another religion, such as a wake? Or should a rabbi use Jewish prayers for someone who throughout his or her life refused to make the faith commitment to embrace the very concepts such prayers represent?

Rabbi Waxman is not making the argument that we should open our cemeteries to anyone defined as Jewish according to any of our recognized movements–even if, like in the case of the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, other movements would declare that person not Jewish. Such a suggestion would some merit, from the point of view of Klal Yisrael (the unity of the Jewish people), though I would still disagree. Rather, he is advocating that we bury non-Jews in Jewish cemeteries. There is no equivalency between the two concepts.

I understand why an intermarried couple would want to be buried together. They have spent their lives together and now they would like to sleep through eternity side by side. As Jews we believe that the righteous of all nations go to heaven. Faith is not a test of salvation for us. However, we also recognize that the Jewish nature of a cemetery is perhaps the oldest and most sacred of all of our laws and traditions. We have a responsibility to serve as caretakers of the trust that those already buried have placed in our hands–the trust that we will care for the sanctity of their graves.

It is not as if intermarried couples cannot be buried together. There are more than enough non-sectarian cemeteries available. I am sure there are also at least some Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis who would officiate at the Jewish spouse’s funeral in a non-sectarian cemetery. And if a couple want to be buried so badly in a Jewish cemetery following Jewish ritual, the non-Jewish spouse can always convert to Judaism.

The real point is that people choose not to convert to Judaism for many different reasons, some from positions of faith or conviction, some out of concern for parents and family, some because they just don’t see why they should need to change anything about themselves.

But Judaism is all about changing ourselves. As Jews we are supposed to be constantly evolving. Judaism is also about taking our identities and faith seriously. Yes, there are secular Jews who observe less of Jewish tradition than do many of the non-Jews who through marriage are affiliated with our synagogues and are raising Jewish children. But the majority of children of intermarried families are not affiliated, according to the latest National Jewish Population Survey, which should give us Jewish leaders pause before we continue to push the failed policy of blurring distinctions between who is Jewish and who is not.

While intermarriage is a significant fact in American Jewish life, the answer to that demographic dilemma is not the one Rabbi Waxman advocates: further blurring the boundaries between who is a Jew and who is not. Recent discussions among Reform movement leaders recognize that their patrilineal decision not only has not worked out the way they had hoped, but ultimately undermined efforts to encourage conversions, something they are now seeking to correct.

Rabbi Waxman states that “a Jewish cemetery is one that is governed by Jewish customs.” That is true. What is also true is that what he is suggesting contravenes the most ancient and serious of Jewish customs regarding our Jewish cemeteries. Let us focus our outreach efforts on the living and not undermine the final resting places of those who currently rest in peace.

— Posted by Rabbi Susan Grossman

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