Digging Graves for the Secular

"Jerusalem is a pluralistic city committed to allowing every individual to choose his own path in life and the manner in which his burial is handled, without coercion." The speaker: Uri Lupolianski, Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox mayor. The context: A decision made by the local Committee of Planning and Building at the end of last month to submit a plan, proposed by Lupolianski himself, to build Jerusalem's first cemetery for civil burial.

At around the same time it was revealed that the Religious Affairs Ministry, led by Shas, ignored the law and delayed the construction of civil cemeteries (the funds allocated for this purpose for 2007 were returned to the treasury). The most common reaction on the part of the ultra-Orthodox sector to Lupolianski's initiative was a thundering "Gevalt!" Ultra-Orthodox Jews asserted that Jerusalem's mayor was "more left-wing than members of the Meretz party," and some even wished him a political burial in just any cemetery.

"I told you that Bareket [Nir Bareket, the opposition leader on Jerusalem's Municipal Board and a former mayoral candidate] was better but you chose this shaygetz [non-Jew in Yiddish]," erupted one of the contributors of the ultra-Orthodox Bihadrei Haredim Internet forum. "Lupo feels like he's got us in his pocket, so he courts favor with secular Jews and extremists," he continued. Cynical secular Jews maintained that the mayor was prepared to protect the interests of Jerusalem's atheists as long as they were prepared to pay for the fees to acquire a death certificate first.

'It's a bluff'

It is worth peeling back several shrouds to examine the municipality's celebratory announcement. According to a 1996 law and a High Court ruling, the Ministry of Religious Affairs must establish plots for civil burial and allot 10 percent of all new cemetery lands to this purpose. The plan for cemetery expansion approved for submission last month earmarks 350 dunams of land adjoining the Har Hamenuchot Cemetery in Jerusalem's Givat Shaul neighborhood. According to the law, a tenth of this land will be allocated to civil burial plots. That section of the cemetery will be set aside for those who do not wish an Orthodox Jewish burial ceremony or those whom religious Hevra Kadisha burial societies deem "irreligious" and prefer not to bury - mainly new immigrants.

Meretz's Jerusalem branch has been working for a year to establish a civil cemetery, faced by the opposition of religious parties and Hevra Kadisha burial societies. Pepe Alalo, Meretz's chairman on the Jerusalem City Council, attacked Lupolianski for taking credit for the plan.

"It's a bluff," he declared. "He's required by law to build a civil cemetery. We and the 'Menuha Nechona' [Rest in Peace] non-profit organization [which runs the civil cemetery in Be'er Sheva and hopes to assume the same responsibilities in Jerusalem, too] have been pressing for this for years, and there was a lot of opposition. Lupolianski himself rejected this issue three or four times."

What sparked the mayor's change of heart, which could in effect make Jerusalem more pluralistic than Tel Aviv? About two years ago, in response to the law that required land allocation for civil burial, the mayor consulted with his own rabbi and spiritual leader, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, who is also known as posek hador or the one who decides on matters of Jewish law in this generation. Rabbi Eliashiv's answer came as a surprise. "What's the problem," he asked, according to one of his assistants. Why does a paramount spiritual leader of Rabbi Eliashiv's stature support a civil cemetery?

Rabbi Eliashiv believes the new initiative will kill two birds with one stone: Adamant secular Jews will be buried in a separate cemetery, and "irreligious" individuals who are now buried at the edge of the Jewish cemetery in Har Hamenuchot will be buried there, too. The Hevra Kadisha societies' monopoly on burial in Jerusalem currently requires that they also handle the remains of the "irreligious" deceased, but all except the largest burial society in the capital, Kehilat Yerushalayim, refuse to do so. A few years ago, Kehilat Yerushalayim established a special section at the edge of Har Hamenuchot for this purpose.

"The rabbi said, 'What's the problem? If someone declares that he is not religious and never was religious, why should we bury him among Jews,'" the rabbi's assistant quoted. "'On the contrary, we should be happy. According to halakha, it is forbidden to bury someone like that in a Jewish burial. What we want is to avoid mixing.'"

Thus, Lupolianski's "pluralism" actually derives from the exalted conservatism of his patron. Rabbi Eliashiv may stand as a fortified wall in the face of civil marriages and demand control of Beit Din religious courts, but in many matters he prefers to avoid punishment by secular Jews.

Dr. Rami Reiner, who recently lectured on the rabbi's rulings at the Van Leer Institute, says this approach was also reflected in Eliashiv's ruling that Jews must not formally mourn the death of Yisrael Segal, a journalist who denounced his ultra-Orthodox background. Reiner maintains this stance was also expressed in the rabbi's ban on registering marriages in which one of the spouses is a convert to Judaism who does not observe halakha.

In any case, Kehilat Yerushalayim is not worried that the new initiative will erode its revenues. "There will be no great demand for civil burial in a city in which most of the residents are religious or traditional Jews," noted Kehilat Yerushalayim Director Hananya Shahor. He is certain that the "irreligious" will continue to be buried in his own special section of the cemetery rather than the civil cemetery, which may or may not be built. "I do most of the burials in Jerusalem, and to date, I have never had to market myself. People come to us because of the service."

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