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Can some non-Jews - such as intermarried - be buried in Jewish cemeteries?


Rabbi Goldwasser

Rabbi Jeffrey Wolfson Goldwasser

Question: Can some non-Jews - such as intermarried - be buried in Jewish cemeteries?

Would a Reform rabbi allow the burial of a non-Jew in a Jewish cemetery in some cases? An example would be a father who did not convert but who fully agreed to raise his children in the Jewish tradition and participates in the reform synagogue as a member. Would he be prevented from being buried in a Jewish cemetery?

Answer: Thank you for your question about burial of non-Jews in Jewish cemeteries. You raise the example of a non-Jewish man who actively participated in the Jewish community and in raising his children as Jews with his Jewish wife. You ask if the traditional prohibition against burying such a man in a Jewish cemetery is based in Jewish law.

The Talmud forbids "burial of the wicked with the righteous" (B. Sanhedrin 47a). That is understood by most traditional commentators as a prohibition on the burial of Jews and non-Jews in the same cemetery. Another passage, however, states that Jews should bury "heathens" for the sake of maintaining peace (B. Gittin 61a). Rashi, the most authoritative commentator on the Talmud, rules that it is permissible in some cases for Jews to bury non-Jewish dead, but not in a Jewish cemetery.

The prohibition on burying non-Jews in Jewish cemeteries is observed today by Orthodox and Conservative Jews. It is an interpretation that is well established over many centuries.

Reform Judaism, however, takes a different position. As early as 1914, Reform rabbis have ruled that it is permissible to bury the non-Jewish spouses of Jews in Jewish cemeteries. This position is based on several factors: 1) The Talmud passage restricting "burial of the wicked" refers to criminals, not non-Jews, 2) The passage that supports the burial of "heathens" alongside Jews seems to apply better to contemporary concerns, 3) Only individual graves, not cemeteries as a whole, are considered sacred in Jewish law -- one grave does not affect the sanctity of another.

This Reform position, however, does not sanction non-Jewish burial rites in a Jewish cemetery or the officiation of non-Jewish clergy in a Jewish cemetery. Most Reform Jewish communities do not permit either.

Regarding the example you raised in your question, virtually all Reform rabbis and congregations would allow the burial of such a man in a Jewish cemetery. Many contemporary Jewish cemeteries have sections designated for the burial of Jews and non-Jews together. Far from being regarded as "wicked," a non-Jew who commits to building a Jewish home, supporting Jewish community, and raising Jewish children should be honored in the context of Reform Judaism.

I hope this answers your questions.

Best wishes,
Rabbi Jeffrey W. Goldwasser

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