Thursday, December 17, 2009

Unto Death Do Us Part

Gal Ben-David, a 13-year-old Spanish boy died this past Sunday of a brain tumor. He was to be buried in the main section of Madrid’s Jewish Cemetery. Despite the fact that Gal lived as a Jew, and attended a Jewish day-school, it was the ruling of the Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar that Mr. Ben-David was in fact not Jewish. Why? Because he converted to Judaism under the auspices of the Conservative Movement, a denomination of Judaism that Rabbi Amar rejects as illegitimate.

This is not new or unusual in communities dominated by Orthodox Judaism. Rabbi Amar is not being mean or acting in any way contrary to Jewish law. He is standing up for the one true Judaism as he perceives it—his. While I am saddened and embarrassed by the story, and while I feel great sympathy for the parents of Mr. Ben-David there is no blame to be assigned here.

Expecting Orthodox Jewish leaders to accept other Judaisms as equal to their own would be like expecting Southern Baptist leaders to accept the Pope, or Muslim leaders to welcome Baha’u’llah as a legitimate prophet of God, or Buddhists to worship Krishna. Religions have their limits and must play by their own rules. If this leaves a 13-year-old boy to be buried outside the main section of the Jewish cemetery, that is just part of the game.

So what should one do in this instance? My suggestion is simple enough—stop playing the game. Obviously when it comes to matters of identity and death Orthodox Judaism trumps Conservative Judaism at least in Spain. But who wants to play this game of “Who Is a Jew?” If someone tells me she is Jewish, I don’t question the matter. And if she dies right after telling me she is Jewish she can be buried in the Jewish cemetery if that was her wish or the wish of her family. Who cares? She’s dead!

I can see how, among the living, one might not want to pollute your neighborhood with someone of a different socio-economic, religious, racial, or ethnic group. We call that bigotry. It is part of human nature, and one of the reasons humans are so prone to following demagogues and committing genocides. But a dead body is going to decompose eventually, and dust is dust, so why freak out over who moves into the dead neighborhood? Are we afraid that it will lower the property values? Are we nervous that a liberal Jew or even a Gentile buried next to an Orthodox Jew might convince the latter to abandon the faith? It seems to me that death ought to be the great leveler. Death is death and grief is grief, and to pretend otherwise is to deny our humanity. Which is what religion so often does. Which is why I say, stop playing. Whenever your religion contradicts your humanity, reject the religion.

There should be only one criterion for being buried in a cemetery—you have to be dead. Maybe this is why Jesus said, “Let the dead bury the dead.” The living have yet to learn how.


Mano said...

LeRav Ram HaYakar

Get hold of a short story called "Unto Dust" by famous South African Short story writerCharles Herman Bosman. Makes the same point, ut in a very powerful, non-polemcal way. Chag Chanukah sameach and shabat shalom

Rabbi Rami said...

Thanks for the tip. I will check it out. Good Shabbos,

Julie said...

"...and to pretend otherwise is to deny our humanity. Which is what religion so often does."

I love this. And I appreciate you.

Hope you are well.