BURIAL IN A NATIONAL CEMETERY
A Jewish veteran has asked whether it is permissible, from the point of view of Jewish tradition, for him to be buried in the national cemetery instead of in a Jewish cemetery. (Asked by Rabbi Bennett M. Hermann, East Meadow, New York.)
DURING WARTIME the Jewish Chaplaincy Commission, composed of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis, was confronted with the problem of whether or not it is permissible for a Jewish soldier to be buried at Arlington or any other national cemetery. The question arose because of a proposal made at that time to establish other national cemeteries in addition to Arlington; and so there would be plenty of space for the bodies of such veterans who had the right to be buried in a national cemetery.
The situation before the committee was not quite the same as the earlier situation with regard to Jewish soldiers fallen in battle. During and after wartime, cemeteries were established near the chief battlefields in Europe, and many Jewish soldiers fallen in battle were buried there. There is no objection at all, from the point of view of Jewish law, for a Jewish soldier who has fallen in battle to be buried where he fell (or near there), because a fallen soldier is considered a mayss mitzvah, i.e., a body which we are in duty bound to bury, who, according to the law, acquires possession of the place where he has fallen. Thus, according to the law, if a body is found in someone else’s field, he may be buried there, for a mayss mitzvah acquires the place where he lies ( Sanhedrin 47b, Yore Deah 364:3).
But the burial in a national cemetery of bodies brought back to the United States, or of veterans who die after the war, such are not to be considered mayss mitzvah, and the question is, therefore, whether they must necessarily be buried in a Jewish cemetery or whether they may be buried in a national cemetery, such as Arlington or others. To this question this joint committee gave an open answer. It did not say it is forbidden, nor did it say outright that it was permitted. The reason for not forbidding such a burial in a national cemetery outright was that there is no definite law forbidding it. While it is true that it is a long-established custom in Jewish communities to have Jewish cemeteries, this is not a required law, although one or two scholars in recent generations have endeavored to raise this custom to the status of mandatory law (Eliezer Spiro, Minchas Eliezer, II, 41; also Eliezer Deutsch in Dudoye Hasada, #3 3, 66). Many small congregations all through Jewish history did not have a cemetery of their own but sent the bodies to a larger community. All that the law actually requires is that a man should be buried in his own property (besoch shelo) (Baba Basra 112a) and also that no righteous person should be buried by the side of a sinful one (Sanhedrin 47a). And as an actual fact, in ancient times in Palestine, there were family caves which were the property of the family. Therefore the committee could not say outright that it is forbidden for a Jewish soldier to be buried anywhere else but in a Jewish cemetery. It left the matter open for each family to consult its own rabbi, who would decide the issue and whether he would officiate or not. Of course, under this joint ruling, Reform rabbis and many Conservative rabbis would permit burial in the national cemetery and would officiate. But beyond this general though indeterminate permissibility, there are definite and positive reasons why a Reform and possibly a Conservative rabbi would, without hesitation, permit such burial and officiate at it. First of all, the national cemetery belongs to the nation, and every Jewish citizen can be declared as much an owner of it as any other citizen. If he is buried there, the plot in which he is buried can certainly be called besoch shelo, “in his own property.” Besides, later scholars have often described the Jewish cemetery as a courtyard owned in partnership, chotzer shel shutfin, and certainly all of us, Jews and Christians, are, as citizens, partners in the national cemetery.
A further consideration is the fact that the national cemetery, which belongs to us all, is in no sense a Christian cemetery. The military services held over each soldier—the bugles, the volley, etc.—are the same for everyone. A Christian soldier may have a Christian chaplain or minister, a Jewish soldier may have a Jewish chaplain or rabbi. The national cemetery is as much Jewish as it is Christian.
These, then, are the considerations relevant here. All that the Jewish law actually requires is that a man should be buried in his own property and not next to evildoers. On a battlefield the grave is considered to be the property of the fallen soldier since he is a mayss mitzvah. Under non-battlefield conditions, a national cemetery belongs equally to every American citizen and is in no sense a Christian cemetery. Therefore no Reform and very few Conservative rabbis would deny the right or the propriety of a Jewish veteran to be buried in a national cemetery or would refuse to officiate for that reason.