It seems that congregant (and executive board member) Maria Balaban is outraged that the 47-year-old Jamaican-born Christian Juliet Steer was allowed to be buried in the interfaith section of Ahavath Achim’s cemetery. This, Balaban claims, is a violation of the congregation’s own rules, and in her lawsuit she demands that the body be removed.
The situation is like this: The cemetery owned by the Conservative congregation opened an interfaith section, a move that Balaban originally supported. When Juliet Steer was buried there (according to some reports, she asked to be laid to rest there because she found the area particularly peaceful, others say that she wanted to be buried “just like Jesus,” according to Jewish custom; but she had no personal connection to the community), Balaban not only revoked her support for the interfaith section, she decided to take the synagogue to court.
Not surprisingly, Julie’s brother Paul asserts that Balaban wants his sister out simply because, unlike other gentiles at the Ahavath Achim cemetery, she is Black. Ms. Balaban adamantly insists that this is not her reason, and you know what? I believe her. But it’s almost beside the point.
Ms. Balaban, on the off chance you are reading this, allow me to offer you some advice: You need to get your priorities straight. Do you really think you’re defending the faith by suing to get a gentile removed from a (mostly) Jewish cemetery? Let me see if I’ve got this right: An interfaith section for the goyishe spouses of Jews who identify with their own but not strongly enough to marry Jewish, this you’re okay with. But bringing in a gentile not formerly engaged in a Biblically-prohibited relationship with a Jew, this is where you draw the line?!
I’m not a rabbi, and won’t pretend I’m qualified to poskin on anything. But even I know that in Judaism, matters of darchei shalom (“ways of peace,” i.e. maintaining positive relations with our non-Jewish neighbors) carry serious weight in Jewish law, to the point of preceding certain ritual laws, because ultimately, animosity between Jews and gentiles has, throughout history, often ended in the shedding of Jewish blood.
But this isn’t even about Torah. Balaban endorsed a cemetery for intermarriage. Maintaining Jewish unity (and creating certain social barriers between Jews and non-Jews) is only ethical when it’s for the sake of preserving the Jewish people, and the Torah way of life. Jews stick together as an affirmation of what we value, not as an insult to everyone else. Members of other faiths and cultures do the same, and there’s no reason to fault anyone for it. Creating barriers purely for the sake of excluding the outsider, that’s called bigotry.
Giving your seal of approval for intermarriage by allowing burial in a Jewish cemetery for gentile spouses, but not for gentiles who just want to be buried with Jews, is hypocrisy, plain and simple. It’s either all okay, or else none of it is.
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