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Rest in Peace

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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Marian Neudel

posted January 23, 2007 at 7:00 pm

I’m not surprised that the author of this posting remains anonymous. The issue of the burial of non-Jews in Jewish cemeteries seems to bring out the worst in many of us. Death, we are taught, is “the ultimate kapparah”, the atonement for sins. But those left behind are all too ready to start committing a whole new batch in the name of reverence for the deceased, concern for the family, or “the Jewish character of the cemetery.” The dead, we are taught, are at rest. WHERE they rest is determined by, and to satisfy the needs of, the living. How dare we exclude from burial with family members a person who, in his or her lifetime, had been welcomed in Jewish homes and places of worship!

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posted January 24, 2007 at 12:45 am

Let me get this straight. The Rabbi is asserting that Judaism is all about evolving, but we must abide by ancient laws that by definition cannot evolve? The C movement is hemorrhaging members, many of whom are intermarried and are sick of being in a stream that cannot successfully welcome these folks. Too little and too late, the movement is now suggesting that a push be made for intermarried couples and that children with Jewish fathers ( and gentile mothers) be admitted to Solomon Schedcter schools. How can the Rabbi cannot see that telling a loving non-Jewish spouse that they can raise Jewish children ( and hopefully future Federation donors) but they can’t be buried with their loving Jewish spouse is a public relations disaster? What, we’re afraid of polluting the corpses of Jews with gentile contagion? Judaism is not all about ‘evolving’. It is about belonging to a covenantal community, seeking justice, shunning idolatry, worshipping the ineffable God that makes salvation possible. While I would never suggest that non-Jews be given aliyah or that messianic Judaism is ok ( ritual or theological syncretism is treif) we need to recognize and cherish the many others who love and marry Jews and don’t want to be buried apart. I cannot believe that Torah, which supports shalom bayis and the sanctity of marriage and the family, could be read in such a way to ban a loving non-Jewish spouse from resting next to their Jewish partner. While I am all for honoring the dead, the fact is, we living now are Israel, the current generation, and we are marrying non-Jews at a huge rate. A hope that exclusion of non-Jews from burial in Jewish cemeteries will stem the tide of intermarriage is ridiculous. So let’s honor the dead, Rabbi, by making sure there are plenty of Jews who continue to live as Jews, even if their heart brings them to fall in love with a gentile. Rather than drive them away with rules developed in medieval times based on scant scriptural support, let’s unharden our hearts and welcome the strangers in our midst.

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posted January 24, 2007 at 1:00 am

Ok, I’m gonna have post here because I have a stake in this issue for several reasons, ranging from the fact that while my Mom married a jewish male when she was young, and had 2 children with him, she also divorced him, and her 2nd husband(my stepfather, who’s name I legally took) was not a jew, but was better to her and her children than the biological father ever was. We cannot force who we fall in love with, nor can we force those we love to convert to our way of living. Judaism is not about “evolving” nor is it about being tied to old standards that are rooted in the past. M. Kaplan said it best:”The past gets a Vote, but not a veto”. As a Jew who loves people of the same sex, I know that my “pool” of jewish ppl to date is even smaller than usual. I’d like to hope that if I enter a long term relationship with someone, that our love will enable us to be buried together, that we will live for the most part as Jews, and that we will be together forever.

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posted January 24, 2007 at 5:11 am

The C movement is indeed collapsing, but it is the O movement, especially the ultra-O movement that is growing. They don’t accept Gentiles into their schools or cemetaries (emphasis on schools since some ultra-O families have 10 or more children). Love (or merely have sex) with whoever you want, but 20 or 30 years from now it will be obvious that the O strategy of near zero intermarriage is the correct one.

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posted January 24, 2007 at 4:25 pm

David Don’t count your O chickens before they are hatched. While Orthodoxy is indeed gaining adherents, many studies suggest that the retention rate of children raised O is only about 50%. And much of the surge of O Judaism, imho, is predicated on a rejection of secular society and modernity. But the ready availability of the internet will continue to expose inquisitive youths to science, porn and philosophy, sure enough to weaken the orthodox emunah of many.

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Rev. Paula

posted January 24, 2007 at 5:18 pm

Here we have a religion espousing separatism ~ even between married couples. How sad. Do you really think God cares where or how we are buried? I believe that God cares about the way we conducted our physical lives while on earth ~ not which cemetary, Jewish or non, our physical bodies lie in. For a Rabbi to promote such separatism is a shame. Are Jewish cemetaries better than say, Catholic or any other type of cemetary? The writer seems to suggest that. Again, what a shame that a supposed learned religious teacher lives by separation, and not by the unifying word of God.

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7/8 Jewish woman

posted January 24, 2007 at 5:51 pm

I would like to add an anecdote to this discussion. My maternal grandmother was the product of a mixed marriage, her father being an Austrian Jew and mother, a German Lutheran. She had little to no religious affiliation growing up in America, but when she married my Jewish grandfather, she continued her life as a Jew, albeit a non-religious one. Her children, including my mother, were also brought up non-religious Jews. As a married woman, my aunt became a member of an Orthodox synagogue in her community. When my grandmother died, my aunt made arrangements to have her buried in a Jewish cemetary with the funeral services officiated by the Orthodox rabbi. All went smoothly until everyone arrived at the graveside. As the coffin was about to be lowered into the ground the rabbi apparently overheard some murmerings in the background that my grandmother was only half Jewish — and to make matters worse, Jewish on her father’s side, thereby according to Jewish tradition, not really Jewish at all! The rabbi then asked what he thought he heard to be clarified as he was about to stop the burial. Fortunately, a family member said something to convince the rabbi that he heard “incorrectly” and thereby quell the rabbi’s concern. The burial continued as planned, and my grandmother was laid to rest next to her husband (my grandfather) much to everyone’s relief. But what would have happened had someone not intervened? I shudder to think! Isn’t there something wrong with this picture?

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posted January 24, 2007 at 6:31 pm

If you have 10 kids and 5 leave, you still have 5 kids which is a lot more than most R and C families have even assuming all the R and C offspring stay. Kiryas Yoel has a growth rate of 8%/annum and that’s net. Plug those figures into your Excel spreadsheet and see what you get in 20, 50 or 100 years. And as to the availability of immorality, well, immorality has always been available and not just on a screen, and yet the fundies of all religions are growing in number

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herbert stewart

posted January 24, 2007 at 8:53 pm


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posted January 24, 2007 at 11:44 pm

Some things I notice: 1) We thnk gentiles are not as good as us, no matter what we say. 2) The Orthodox hate the rest of us. 3) If we continue to define Jews only by blood, we should not get offended when gentiles speak of people with “Jewish blood” or of us as a race. You get what you give.

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posted January 25, 2007 at 4:12 am

Responding to Rev. Paula. We Jews made a deal with God that we leave God alone if God leaves us alone. This deal was made with mutual respect and love, kind of like what parents do with kids sometimes — helps everyone grow up. So to wonder what God thinks when we have trouble trying to figure out how to have cemeteries and build community is pretty much irrelevant. Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people; it’s one aspect of the Jewish people. The power in Judaism’s lack of dogma is that we can hang together as a people better when it doesn’t matter what your beliefs are. Your sister is your sister, it doesn’t matter what she believes. The trick is to hold on to this particularity in ways that are compelling and not chauvinist. Not an easy feat, but something to strive for. –Rabbi Shai

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posted January 25, 2007 at 7:20 pm

My daughter married a man who does not believe in organized religon. For reasons of her own she is strictly a Conservative Jew, as is most of our family. Her husband’s birth religon is United Methodist Christian. His family is diverse in the type of Christiantity they actually practice. When family members have died the subject of her and her husbands burial have come up. It looks like it will have to be in a non-sectarian burial ground since they want to be buried next to each other. Hopefully their children, who would probubly survive them, and or her husband, will be able to find a Rabbi for my daughter’s service. Unless at some point her husband decides to convert. Too bad since they have a Jewish household in every other way. Thank goodness non-sectarian bural ground is usually in the area. Laura

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John Daniel Kelly

posted April 6, 2008 at 11:56 pm

Having had Catholic Christianity shoved down my throat, I am now closest to the Jewish faith. The reason for this is that I am mono-theistic believing in evolution. I do not know if there is any room for me with this understanding. I have finally concluded that Albert Einsein (an Atheist) did in fact, discover the higher power. He should have taken it one step further and realize that God itself was Energy. Everything in this planet was created by Energy: the planets themselves, everything on them, and life itself. If one can think back to the origin of the earth, one will most assuredley agree. I don’t know if anyone shares my understanding or not, but it sure is lonely up here.
Any responders?

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