(Vol. XCI, 1981, pp. 71-72)
QUESTION: May an individual who is in the process of converting to Judaism, but has not yet been converted, be buried in a Jewish cemetery? Is his/her status different from an unconverted Gentile who has no such intentions? (Rabbi Stephen E. Fisch, Corpus Christi, Texas)
ANSWER: The status of a Jewish cemetery in Jewish law has been discussed by Solomon B. Freehof in a full responsum (Current Reform Responsa, pp. 154ff). It is clear from this responsum that we are willing to bury the non-Jewish spouse of a Jewish man or wife, that we do so in order to maintain peace within the family, and that this is possible because of the vague status of a cemetery in Jewish law as a separate entity. Naturally, no Christian rites or symbols may be used.
In this case, however, we are not dealing with the non-Jewish husband or wife of a Jew, but with a non-Jew who simply plans to convert and has not been able to fulfill this wish at the time of death. We certainly applaud such intent and praise it as we would anyone studying Judaism for its own sake; however, until the time of conversion we cannot be sure of the individual's intent. Most converts come to us with an open mind, a desire to become Jewish, but have had little opportunity to confirm their notions of Judaism. As Reform Jews, we have emphasized study and an intellectual approach to our religion. Conversion has followed a thorough course of study. This is in contrast to the Orthodox approach which has emphasized ritual and felt it sufficient if the convert underwent the proper rituals with the thought that further study would follow later. Traditional Jewish law has placed its emphasis on ritual and it was perfectly possible for someone to convert to Judaism by undergoing Mila (for males) and Tevila along with a minimum of information (Yev. 46bff; Yad, Isurei Bi-a 13.7, 145, Shab. 135a; Sh.A., Yoreh De-a). It is in that way that we should understand the story of Hillel and the prospective convert who wished to learn about Judaism while standing on one foot.
A convert who is sincere and really wishes to convert to Judaism could be simply converted. There is nothing within traditional or Reform Judaism which would prevent us from going ahead with the conversion at a time of serious life-threatening illness and thus bring the person into Judaism. This might then provide peace of mind to the dying individual. That person would then be buried as any other Jew. If, however, the individual died suddenly and unexpectedly we could not, in good conscience, bury that person in a Jewish cemetery as this individual at that time has only a preliminary relationship to Judaism.
Walter Jacob, Chairman
Leonard S. Kravitz
W. Gunther Plaut
Harry A. Roth
Rav A. Soloff