I. Separate Cemeteries
Jews and Gentiles share many aspects of their lives but in their deaths they must separate. Halakhic authorities over the centuries have consistently ruled that Jewish cemeteries must remain exclusively for Jews. In early nineteenth century, R. Shlomo Kluger strongly opposed joint cemeteries and decades later R. David Tzvi Hoffmann demanded that a Jewish cemetery exclude (halakhically non-Jewish) children of Jewish fathers and Gentile mothers (Tuv Ta’am Va-Da’as 3:2:253; Melamed Le-Ho’il 2:127). R. Avraham Kook (Da’as Kohen 201), the Minchas Elazar (2:41), the Tzitz Eliezer (16:36) and R. Ovadiah Yosef (Yabia Omer 7:YD:36) are just some of the recent authorities who have insisted on maintaining this tradition. What is the reason for this practice?
When Rus, the paradigmatic convert, indicates her intention to join the Jewish nation, she tells Naomi: “Your people are my people, and your God is my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.” (Ruth 1:17-18). The Talmud (Yevamos 47b) explains that Rus was saying that Jews bury the righteous and wicked separately (see Sanhedrin 47a).
This is quite puzzling because Rus was never wicked. She had been a righteous Gentile and became a righteous Jew. Why was she implying that prior to her conversion she would have been buried separately from Naomi?
II. Separate Burial
Elsewhere, the Talmud (Gittin 61a) states that the Jewish community buries Jews and Gentiles. The commentaries — Rashi, Ritva, Ran, Meiri — explain that this means that the Jewish community tends to the needs of the deceased regardless of ancestry. However, it does not mean that we bury everyone together. Rather, Jews are buried in a Jewish cemetery and Gentiles are buried in their cemetery.
The Ran, in his commentary to the Rif (ad loc.), states that we cannot bury Jews and Gentiles together because we do not even bury righteous and wicked Jews together. Later authorities, such as the Bach (Yoreh De’ah 151), phrase it as a logical deduction. We don’t bury righteous and wicked Jews together so certainly (kal va-chomer) we don’t bury Jews and Gentiles together. But what is the kal va-chomer between a wicked Jew and a righteous Gentile?
III. Separate Communities
I suggest that the separation of cemeteries — which requires at least a deep gate and a space of eight amos — is not a function of righteousness but of community. Burial is not just a sacred religious rite but also a lifecycle ritual. We perform those ceremonies as a community, practicing our religion as only a society can.
Those who are distant from our religious community are excluded from these rituals. While denying access to non-religious Jews is an obviously sensitive subject, those who are executed by a religious court (the subject of the talmudic discussions) are more easily turned away. They have been tried and convicted of irreligiosity and cannot be buried with our community.
Righteous Gentiles share a bond with religious Jews but only as like-minded people within different communities. Therefore, while we take care of their burials needs, we require that they have their own cemeteries. If even wayward Jews are excluded from a Jewish community cemetery, then certainly Gentiles must be as well.