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The Or Shalom Cemetery: A Community Teaching on related issues of Integral Halacha

When I began my Senior Teshuva (Responsa) project, knowing that Or Shalom was in the process of acquiring the rights to a section of Mountain View Cemetery, wanting to ask a “live” question (as we are enjoined to do), the question I posed was whether it was possible to accommodate the needs, dreams, wishes, desires of those who wanted to be buried only with other Jews, those who wanted to be buried with their non-Jewish loved ones, and those who may not be in relationship with another but have committed themselves to our community without converting to Judaism. Once I found the 2010 Responsum of the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly (CJLS), I considered that the question had been well and truly asked and answered in a paradigm-shifted way.

CJLS preferred a path, road or sidewalk of four amot to separate the mixed burial section from the rest of the Jewish cemetery because it did not send a message of exclusion which a wall or bush would because it is a physical barrier. But I was concerned about the width of the path. The piece of land to which Or Shalom has acquired the rights is not very big; most especially, it is very narrow, allowing for only two rows of graves. Creating a path of four amot to divide the mixed faith and the Jewish sections would deprive the synagogue of precious grave plots.

My question changed, as happens in the halachic process: must the interfaith/mixed section of the synagogue’s small new cemetery be separated from the Jewish section by a path that is four amot wide, given that such a wide path will affect the number of possible burial plots, or will something narrower suffice? This question also raises the question of whether there are other acceptable alternatives. What is the significance of four amot? In what contexts is it used? What does it mean halachicly? Is it a real measure of distance or a metaphorical one? Or both? It was like delving into a mystery novel!

First, what is an amah? It’s a Biblical and Talmudic unit of distance, known as the distance from your elbow to your middle fingertip (roughly 1 1/2 feet). It is equal to six tefachim (a measure that will become relevant shortly) A tefach is roughly equal to a hand’s breath (less than 4 inches).

The phrase arbah amot is found only four times in the TaNaKh, once in Melachim/Kings Aleph/One describing the construction of the Temple undertaken by Shlomo HaMelech/King Solomon, specifically capitals that were of a lily design four amot high. The other three times are all in Sefer Yechezkiel/the Book of Ezekiel describing Yechezkiel’s guided vision of the restored Temple of the future, specifically the size of a side chamber, and the height and width of the altar.

The p’shat/simple meaning of these specific Biblical references is that they are referring only to measurements of size/length/height/distance of physical objects. However, in the Talmud arbah amot becomes a measurement that has much greater significance: the definition of the private or personal domain, the domain within which God is present, the distance one can travel on Shabbat in the public domain, the distance a Kohen must maintain from something that is tamei, the space occupied by a deceased, etc.

The first mention of arbah amot in the Babylonian Talmud is in Brachot 8a about God’s presence in the private domain/sphere. Here the Babylonian sage Ulla declared that since the day the Temple was destroyed, all that remains for the Holy One in this world are the four amot of halacha. This is understood to mean that since God’s permanent dwelling in Jerusalem no longer stands, God is present in the private domain within which we act according to His will.[1]

The sense of this seems to be that since the Temple was destroyed, the cite of God’s permanent dwelling, God is present in the private domain within which we act. In Integral Halachah, Reb Zalman z”l quoted this passage when beginning his analysis of using the principles of Integral Halachah when discussing how halacha has been done until now:

What do they mean by saying that God’s home in this world is limited to these dalet/ four amot of halachah? Remember that the rabbis of the Talmud thought in terms of four levels of understanding anything in Torah. In p’shat, the literal meaning is pretty clear. The four cubits are my surround, one cubit in each of the four direction. I can count and say, “This is my space. I inhabit this space. It is my field.” And so, the four cubit space of a person who lives life observing halachah is the beit ha-mikdash seen as a field replacing structure. … It’s like a kinyan/an acquisition, where the person says that this area is part of my guf/body, it’s my aura, my makif ha-karov/my immediate surround and all that is in it.[2]

Reb Zalman went on to discuss the question of davening at a different time than wearing tallit and tefillin, wondering how long he would need to wear them to meet the obligation/be yotzei, answering that the sources say - as long as it takes to walk four amot, thus measuring time by distance. He continued:

When I hear “as long as it takes to walk four cubits,” I hear the four letters of the Divine Name and the four worlds they have come to represent in Kabbalistic and Chassidic teaching. In order to be yotzei on the mitzvot of tallit and t’fillin, I need to wear them at least as long as it takes me to ascend the four ells, to experience, however briefly, each of the four worlds.

The rabbis also talk about Shabbat using a four fold system. Here, each letter of the Divine Name would correspond to one of the four t’shuyot/domains that are discussed in relation to various prohibitions on Shabbat and which therefore connect with one another to create a complete reality. The yod is the r’shut ha-yachid/private domain; the karmelit/that which is between public and private domains corresponds to the upper hei; the makom patur/place which is exempt from restrictions altogether corresponds to the vav; and the r’shut ha-rabbim/public domain, is the lower hei.[3]

That the Talmudic Sages were not invoking the four worlds in clear, since it is a Lurianic concept. The way Reb Zalman broke this down into four sets of two domains is also unlikely to have been something conscious in the Talmudic mind and sounds more like Eastern European Hassidut. However, the Talmudic Sages were aware of PaRDeS (P’shat/simple or plain meaning, Remez/hinted meaning, Drash/interpreted meaning, and Sod/hidden/secret meaning) and the notion of the Torah having 70 faces and multiple interpretations could then co-exist. Sefer Yetzirah may already have been composed and, if not exactly so, the conceptual underpinning of what becomes the books is known to them.

I worked my way through 24 entries in B.T. Brachot and concluded that, although the phrase arbah amot may be have started out as an arbitrary distance, it had taken on spiritual significance to our Sages, a private/personal place/domain of ritual purity, and the amount of space the Shechina occupies as She surrounds one who is praying. Given that life is short, and the amount of time that one can reasonably spend on a Senior Teshuva is circumscribed, and the fact that the Talmud can’t be relied upon as authoritative for purposes of a ruling, I redirected by energies to the Shulchan Aruch.

A search of the Shulchan Aruch in the Judaic Classics Library revealed 263 entries for arbah or dalet amot with grammatical prefixes. After working my way through all of them, not surprisingly, I concluded that arbah or dalet amot is used there in both real and metaphorical senses although it is sometimes difficult to discern the difference with certainty. This is interesting because, as a general rule, something which is equal parts physical and metaphorical becomes more literal over time. There is also a modern day concept of dalet amot which clearly is metaphorical while still referring to the personal domain. For example, you might tell someone that choosing to put on deodorant is their own business, as long as they stay of your dalet amot. Or, it might be used to refer to an area of expertise. For example, you might tell someone not to ask you about quantum physics because it is outside your dalet amot.[4]

Recalling that one of the teshuvot relied up by the CJLS in their 2010 Responsum was that of Rabbi David Golinkin[5] and that they appeared to follow his ruling on the height and/or width of separation required between the two sections of a cemetery, I decided to obtain his full teshuvah in Hebrew to see if and how he explored that question. The title of the Golinkin Teshuvah, The Burial of Non-Jews in a Jewish Cemetery, is a bit misleading. It is specifically about establishing two sections in a cemetery, one of which would belong to the Masorti Movement and the other to a secular group in which intermarried Jews will be buried together with their non-Jewish spouses.

The question Rabbi Golinkin addressed himself to was how to separate the two parts of the cemetery. He identified eight different possibilities: a mechitzah or wall of 10 tefachim (80 or 96 cm), a “living fence” composed of bushes/shrubs of 10 tefachim, a distance of four amot (1.9 or 2.3 meters), a mechitzah of 10 tefachim together with a distance of four amot, a distance of eight amot, a distance of eight amot together with a living fence, a distance of eight amot together with a fence of 10 tefachim, and stone pillars or an usually wide path.

Rabbi Golinkin concluded that the first three choices were preferable to the rest because a mechitzah and four amot are ancient means of separation mentioned in Talmudic sources in various contexts related to the laws of mourning. He concluded that the choices involving both a partition/mechitzah and a distance of separation were not necessary. With respect to the option of eight amot, he pointed out that this was a relatively late creation that was not based in the Talmud. He discounted the last choice, although most lenient, because it was without support in the sources. In the end, he concluded that the two sections should be separated either by a wall or bushes 10 tefachim high, or by a path, road or sidewalk four amot wide. His reasoning was also based on strong opposition to the phenomenon of intermarriage while at the same time recognizing that it is a modern phenomenon affecting more than 50% of marriages in most countries where Jews reside.

It is this Teshuvah that forms the basis of the choice made by the CJLS in their 2010 Responsum regarding the separation between the two sections. They concluded that a path, etc. of four amot would be the least “exclusive” of the two options because it is much less obvious that even a short hedge or fence. Their reasoning was much softer that Rabbi Golinkin’s, based more on a recognition of the existence of the phenomenon of intermarriage, particularly in North America, and a desire to make them and their families feel welcome.

And now I come to Or Shalom’s cemetery. For the time being, we actually don’t need to “decide” this question. If burial/interment starts from each end, one designated Jewish and the other designated mixed faith, it will be a (hopefully long) while before the two sections “meet up”. Meanwhile, there will be the unfilled space in between. Speaking to that future time, a separation of arbah amot is not a terrible option because the distance would not be much more than the standard distance between two burial plots and could be landscaped in some aesthetically pleasing way.

But there are two other options that would not result in the loss of any burial plots and which would be in complete “compliance” with the halacha of separation without engaging in a paradigm shifted understanding of four amot. First the other, halachic, option: a fence or hedge 10 tefachim high. It is not at all clear from the CJLS 2010 Responsum why they dismissed this option without comment, except that they opted for the least visually obvious choice - a flat path rather than a vertical hedge. But 10 tefachim is actually not very high. There are six tefachim in one amah, which is approximately 18”. So 10 tefachim is less than two amot, which means it would be less than three feet, probably about 2 1/2 feet high. My arithmetic may not be absolutely accurate but, my point is that it is not very high. Although I did not conduct an exhaustive search in the sources of the meaning of 10 tefachim like I did of arbah amot, I learned that it has a specific meaning in the laws of domain and represents the height over which impurity cannot travel because it is a separate domain.

The obvious argument against a fence or hedge/living fence is its visibility. Those in interfaith relationships/marriages or those who are gerei toshav and not in relationship/marriage with a Jew may already feel socially and/or communally segregated notwithstanding our synagogue’s efforts to welcome them because of other issues such as the fact that the synagogue does not accept patrilineal descent nor is the rabbi permitted to perform intermarriages. Having a visible barrier can create or perpetuate similar feelings of segregation/separation. The best response to that reasonable objection is that the available space is small and compromise is thus necessary. I believe it can be done well and tastefully and made to feel like organic landscaping.

Although I concluded that the question can actually be resolved using either of these traditional categories, I went on to explore another option which stretches them and recognizes that we live in a paradigm shifted world. The central/core mitzvah is how Jews relate to and understand non-Jews who are gerei toshav and their purpose in the world in general and our synagogue in particular. Is there a question of integrity here as well? Can we pursue the ways of pleasantness? Is there a path of peace that does not involve holding on to principle and conflict beyond the point where it is useful? How would the principles of Integral Halachah be of assistance?

What about the concept of four amot itself? From my research, it is obvious that arbah amot does not just refer to an actual distance. It is also a metaphorical or figurative distance in many circumstances and is a formulaic way of saying something else. It is always speaking to personal versus public domain, but sometimes the domain itself is metaphorical/conceptual, figurative or representative of something else, or it is measuring time by distance, or it is being downright mystical (the place where the Shekhina resides). Arbah amot is about respect for the personal space of the other, whether because God dwells there, or because of the four methods of Torah learning/understanding, or of the four worlds. It is also, in modern Hebrew, quite prosaic.

I have concluded that it is very arguable that arbah amot is only referring to a respectful distance - my personal space, my area of expertise. Less than four amot could also be considered to be a respectful distance, particularly if we conceive of it in terms of a measurement of time - the distance should be as long as it takes to travel through the four worlds, for example. That may not be very far in the physical world even though it may be a tremendous distance in the mystical world. My personal space in the physical world of burial plots also could be smaller than four amot.

I have another option to suggest which I consider is more paradigm shifted and very worthy of consideration. It is kind of out of the box which is, at least part of, what Integral Halachah is all about. What is the moral and ethical response, for that is the halacha we seek. What is the path to goodness (Godliness?) and holiness here? What does common sense/svara tell me. There is another way.

Given that there may (likely are) Jewish members of the synagogue who would be very happy, or at the very least not object, to being buried in the mixed section, there is a way to have the mixed section right next to the Jewish section with no greater separation whatsoever, beyond the graves of those “agreeable” Jewish Or Shalom members. The last row of graves of Jews who want to be buried in the Jewish section would be buried immediately next to Jews only on each side of them because the first row of those buried in the mixed section would also be Jewish. Thus the last graves of Jews buried in the Jewish section would be separated from the first non-Jewish graves by more than four amot. There would have to be a written, contractual “guarantee” that the first row of graves in the mixed section would only be occupied by Jews, whether or not they are double burial plots.

The problem with this option is that we don’t know in advance where the meeting point will be, so we can’t very well say “me, me!”. At one of our cemetery committee meetings, I gleefully offered my husband and I to be part of the “mechitza” when another committee member responded, “but where would we bury you?” Great question! There could be a lot of people saying “me, me, I’ve always wanted to be a mechitza!” If this were the chosen option, we in Or Shalom will need to develop the culture of our community such that there will always be people saying “me, me”!

[1] Rabbi Julian Sinclair, “Dalet Amot”, The Jewish Chronicle Online, March 6, 2009.

[2] Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l and Rabbi Daniel Siegel, Integral Halachah: Transcending and Including, Trafford Publishing (2007), pp. 63-64.

[3] Ibid., p. 65.

[4] Sinclair, op. cit.

[5] Rabbi Golinkin is president and rector of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches Talmud and Jewish law. He heads the Va'ad Halakhah (committee on Jewish law) of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement's Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.

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