No rest, no peace
by Jonathan Rosenblum
August 8, 1997
The parents of 15-year-old Grigory Pesahovic, one of those killed in the Mahaneh Yehuda suicide bombings, displayed rare dignity. Not only did they lose a son, but because Grigory wasn't Jewish, they had to endure a two-day ordeal before he was buried.
Yet despite their personal tragedy, they refused to allow themselves to be turned into a cause celebre. Mrs. Pesahovic thanked everyone involved in the effort to find a burial plot in Jerusalem, and begged the media and politicians not to visit.
This being Israel, however, her pleas fell on deaf ears: The family's suffering proved an irresistible opportunity to attack halacha and those who obey it. Self- styled experts who would not even know where the laws governing Jewish burial are located rushed to advise the rabbis on 'creative' and 'humane' ways to avert more such tragedies.
The particulars of the case were conveniently ignored. The Pesahovic's did not claim that Grigory was Jewish; nor did they insist that he be buried in a Jewish cemetery. They were prepared to have him buried in a Russian Orthodox cemetery, but objected to a Christian ceremony. (Were there any editorials decrying the inhumanity of the priest who insisted on performing a Russian Orthodox service?) All they asked was that he be buried in Jerusalem close to his home, as he ultimately was, in a Bahai cemetery. Their situation is far from unique. Under the Law of Return, between 100,000 and 250,000 non-Jews have entered the country in recent years. In time, cemeteries must be found for them. But burying a gentile in a Jewish cemetery is not a costless gesture of goodwill. We all understand when a Jewish cemetery is vandalized or turned into a parking lot that a deep wrong has been perpetrated. The wrong, however, is similar when a Jewish cemetery loses its status as such because non-Jews are buried there.
For centuries, Jews have made their way to Jerusalem to die and be buried. Imagine the torment of all those who sacrificed so much to do so if they knew that the cemetery in which they rest was no longer a Jewish one.
And what about the anguish of those whose loved ones are buried in Jewish cemeteries when non-Jews are buried alongside them?
In the '50s, religious Jews were afraid to go to hospitals lest they be subjected to autopsies (Israel then had the highest rate of autopsies in the world). Religious Jews nearing the end of their lives would be denied peace of mind in the same way if they cannot be sure of interment in a Jewish cemetery. Can there be clearer case of religious coercion than denying them that assurance? At stake are two irreconcilable visions of halacha.
Those who criticize Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Kulitz's decision that those who are definitely gentiles cannot be buried with those whose status is unascertainable (a view shared by other halachic authorities of our time) assume he is just being stubborn. Where there is a halachic will, claim the critics, there is a halachic ay. In their view, halacha is nothing more or less than what the rabbis say it is, and as such is infinitely malleable. From this premise it follows that if the rabbis are only creative enough, solutions can be found to every problem.
Those who take this view make crucial decisions without considering the halachic implications. But when the chickens come home to roost, they expect rabbis to wave a magic wand and clean up the mess.
Upwardly mobile Jews, for instance, move to the suburbs. In buying a house, they consider everything from the quality of the local Little League to the size of the fireplace, but not proximity to a synagogue. Yet having placed the presence of a community synagogue at the bottom of their list of priorities, they don't hesitate to condemn the 'old-fashioned' rabbis for not permitting them to drive on Shabbat.
Jewish college students date without regard to religion. When the inevitable intermarriages follow, their parents blame neither their offspring nor themselves. But heaven help a rabbi who cannot come up with a way to bless the nuptials.
Similarly, Israel admits a quarter of a million non- Jews as citizens. When recognition of that fact becomes embarrassing for the Jewish state, and being a gentile proves inconvenient for the new arrivals, blame is placed on the rabbis who refuse to sprinkle fairy dust to turn gentiles into Jews.
As it happens, there is a ready solution for situations like Grigory's: the creation of non-Jewish cemeteries. Let us do everything possible to ensure that no other immigrant families have to endure what the Pesahovics did. But not at the cost of abrogating the halacha.
Related Topics: Pluralism
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free jewish media resources mailing list