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Yom Kippur, Sermon before Yizkor 2018/5779: Opening the Gates: Burial of a Non-Jewish Partner in a Jewish Cemetery

(Sermon delivered on Yom Kippur day, 5779, Sept 19, 2018)
The Talmud recounts a story about a debate between two sages in the second century CE: Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer. They argued over a question of purity or impurity. The Talmud says that God actually weighed in on the debate, taking Rabbi Eliezer’s side. Miracles occurred to support Rabbi Eliezer: a tree jumped 50 metres, a stream of water started flowing backwards, and the walls of the study house began to cave in. Finally, a heavenly voice came down and unequivocally stated that Rabbi Eliezer was right. But the consensus of rabbis still insisted on using their own human methods of deciding halakha (Jewish Law). They overruled the heavenly voice, and side with Rabbi Yehoshua, not Rabbi Eliezer. Elijah the prophet later related what God’s reaction was. God laughed and proudly said, “My children have defeated me. They have defeated me!” (B. Bava Metzia 59b)
Parenthood is one of the biggest blessings of humanity; perhaps the biggest blessing of all. The close connection we get to have with our parents and with our children gives such meaning to our existence. The challenge of parenthood is to raise our children without the expectation that they grow up to be just like us. It’s not unusual for most of us to have some fraction of hope to see our children walk in our footsteps and maybe take over our family businesses; but if our children do so, that does not prove that we were good parents, and if our children do not, that does not indicate any failure on our part. The good parents among us raise our children to be themselves, to follow their own hearts and to live according to their own beliefs even when those differ from our beliefs. The good parents among us are proud of our children for believing in themselves and following their own convictions. And we will fight for our children’s rights to be themselves, whomever and whatever they may choose to be.
The Talmudic story with which I opened seems to indicate a similar relationship between God and the Jewish People.
God puts us into the world and starts us off on our life journey. We must take this journey in good faith and with reverence for God and our holy tradition. But when following our religious beliefs means cautiously and respectfully making religious decisions that our ancestors would not have anticipated nor would they have chosen, we have to believe that God nods and smiles and says, “Those are my children. I created them with intellect, and I taught them how to think for themselves. Those are my children.” In our High Holiday prayers God is called ‘Avinu Malkenu’: ‘our parent, our ruler’. God is our parent before our ruler.
We spoke last night about learning from the past to make informed decisions about the future, to make our future better. We often need to make difficult decisions, sometimes drastic changes, and we often have to do so in a timely fashion, before it becomes too late. As Jews, our focus in moving into the future has to be the survival of the Jewish People. We have to cherish each and every one of our people, regardless of certain choices they make. We have to welcome newcomers who sincerely want to join us. We can’t afford to lose Jews.
When I was little, intermarriage was spoken about a lot, as being the greatest threat to Jewish survival. I was told by my rabbi that a Jew marrying a non-Jew is akin to them taking a Torah scroll, throwing it to the ground and stomping on it. 
[*Please note: in the following story, names have been redacted.]
An elderly family member* of mine once asked her young father how he’d react if she were to marry a non-Jew. Her father was the only Jewish man in town, friends with all the locals, and a Freemason. She told me her father’s face became cold. He looked at her and said, “I’d rather see you dead.” It was the only time she remembered him not smiling at her. Her father died very young. He never lived to see his children grow up; he never lived to see his youngest daughter marry a very nice gentile man.
This was the prevalent attitude even in my childhood: Making huge, bold statements about intermarriage and taking drastic measures to shun those who did it, because it was believed this would be the beginning of the end of the Jewish people.
Today we know this is simply not true. Jewish people do not intermarry as a way of turning their backs on their people. It’s not betrayal of their people. They do so because they’re in love. Today, some of the most committed Jews in modern Jewish communities happen to be married to gentiles. They serve on our boards, they faithfully come to minyan day after day. It is common for their non-Jewish partners to be the ones bringing their children to Hebrew school and to bar and bat mitzvah lessons, and we see the non-Jewish parent getting up on the bimah to celebrate their children becoming Jewish adults. They don’t turn their backs on us, but we sometimes turn our backs on them. That is the tragedy of intermarriage, today: our reaction. That is something we need to rectify.
We still believe that there is something very special when two spouses share a common Jewish destiny in the traditional Jewish way. We still only celebrate Jewish marriage between two Jewish people; a Jewish religious wedding only makes sense in this way. If asked, we still confidently, unambiguously say that we believe a Jew should marry another Jew, even as we acknowledge there will be those of us who make a different decision.
Notwithstanding this, we can also celebrate other forms of genuine love and congratulate our family and friends on finding that one special person, no matter who they are. And when a new baby joins our families we can still say ‘Mazal tov’, whether or not the baby’s mother is Jewish.
Beth Jacob is doing wonders to make everyone feel welcome here. Our next step in preserving Judaism and carrying it into the future, is creating a new cemetery for burials of couples in which only one partner is Jewish. We need to provide a Jewish burial option for those Jews and their gentile partners who want to be buried side-by-side. Not doing so will rarely mean the Jew will choose to be buried apart from their partner; instead, they will choose to be buried in a municipal cemetery and with a non-Jewish ceremony. But they are our people, they deserve Jewish funerals too.
I spoke before about my relative who made that bold statement about his children intermarrying, and happened to die young before his youngest daughter grew up and married a gentile. That gentile actually died about 30 years ago. A Jewish cemetery for mixed burials did not yet exist in their city. His wife wanted to be buried beside her husband when her time would come, but their daughter didn’t want her mother in a municipal, non-Jewish cemetery. The daughter was and is a committed Conservative Jew, married to a Jewish man with Jewish children, and she imagined wanting to be able to bring her own children to visit her mother’s grave in a traditional Jewish cemetery with Hebrew inscriptions and stars of David – a link in the everlasting Jewish chain of existence. Their solution was to him cremated. At the time, they were only able to find a Jewish Reform cemetery in another city that was willing to bury the Jewish woman’s body together with her husband’s ashes. She’s still alive and well, by the way.
Today, many cities have their own Conservative-Jewish cemeteries for mixed burials. Winnipeg has one adjacent to but not inside their old Shaarey Zedek cemetery where my own grandparents rest. We had a cemetery like this in Gothenburg, Sweden. Beth Jacob has recently been lucky to receive a substantial donation to cover the cost of establishing this new inclusive cemetery. To the best of my knowledge, though they exist in other Jewish communities, it will be the first Conservative-run Jewish cemetery of this sort in Ontario. We will be following established practice of those other Jewish Conservative communities, largely following Winnipeg’s model.
We will continue to bury in our established Jewish cemeteries. The concept of a cemetery just for Jews is so historically rich and meaningful. We can’t and would never abandon that tradition. In addition to those, we will operate a completely new cemetery, geographically near the others but not a part of them. It will not change the halakhic status of our other cemeteries and will not infringe on the rights of those already buried in them.
In the inclusive cemetery, all the traditional standards and customs of Jewish burial will be upheld: wooden coffins, no embalming, simple shrouds, and no crosses on graves. The only difference will be that some of the dead lying in that field will not be Jewish. These people may not have been Jewish. But they still chose, during their lifetimes, to associate and support the Jewish community, and we will not abandon them either even after they have left this world.
It should also be noted that although it still has largely not yet been done, the concept is far from being totally foreign to Judaism. It says in the Talmud that Jews are obligated to bury dead non-Jews in the same manner in which we bury dead Jews, “mipnei darkei shalom” – in the interest of living peaceful lives in the world (B. Gitin 61a). By creating this new cemetery we will be fulfilling this Talmudic directive. As Beth Jacob’s rabbi, I will be available to perform the funerals of those non-Jewish spouses as well. Today, I consider many of them to be good friends and I’d never want to officiate at their funerals because I want them to live long and healthy lives. But there is nothing wrong with a rabbi performing a funeral for a non-Jew. The Talmud directs us to do so.
I opened by speaking of children choosing paths that are different from their parents’; intermarriage is often a prime example of that. Communally, the decision to open this new cemetery is different from what our ancestors may have decided themselves in their days. The Beth Jacob rabbis of previous generations may not have approved. But who knows what they would have thought if they were alive today? As long as we forge ahead in good faith, we need to assume that even when making those different decisions, we are making our forebears proud.
We are about to recite Yizkor as we always do on Yom Kippur. We will think of those loved ones who are no longer with us, at least not in bodily form. We will remember their values, the things they taught us. And then we will turn our thoughts to ourselves. Are we living up to their hopes for us? It’s fine if we are acting differently. We still owe our lives to them, they gave us and taught us so much. They are now up in the Olam Ha’Emet, the world of truth, and they have a better understanding of how things are now. They know the realities we face. They look down upon us and say, “those are my children. I taught them to make their own decisions.”
Let’s make sure, though, that we are making them proud, with the ways we conduct ourselves with our families, friends and community. Thinking about them should inspire us to improve our ways, so that we can be sealed for a year of good health in the book of life.
After this Yizkor break to think of our ancestors we turn back to the main theme of Yom Kippur, our own repentance, and try to figure out our own lives. And then, tonight, after the sound of the shofar, we will turn our focus away from ourselves and set it on our children and grandchildren, giving them the best that we can. Give your children and grandchildren, your parents, your spouses extra hugs and kisses. Tell them you love them.
The Talmud relates that once a person named Ḥoni the circle-drawer was walking, and saw an old fellow planting a carob tree. Ḥoni addressed him and asked, “Why are you planting a carob? They only bare fruit after 70 years. Surely you don’t think you’ll live 70 years to be able to enjoy its fruit!” The old man replied, “Just as my grandparents planted trees I enjoy today, I plant trees that my grandchildren will be able to enjoy.” (B. Taʿanit 23a)
We are here in shul today planting those carob trees. May they be fruitful and multiply. Shana tova.