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The Wars of the Lord

By Rabbi Bernard Illowy (1814-1875).

Responsa Concerning Jewish Burial of a Convert

(The Occident, vol. XIV, 1856-1857).

At a meeting of the Congregation K.K. Magen David of Nashville, March 23, 1856, on motion it was:

Resolved, that the Revd. Dr. Illowy be invited to attend this meeting to give his opinion in the case of the burial of Mrs. Sara Garritson. Carried unanimously. After hearing his views at length on the subject it was:

Resolved, that the meeting abides by his decision. Carried unanimously.

D. Elsbach, secretary
H. Harris, President.

Rabbi Illowy's decision:

This day came before me a question concerning a deceased person whose right to burial some have contested; and I decide according to the knowledge with which the Lord has favored me. But that all men might know the justice of the case, I will explain all which belongs to the inquiry and the answer which I have given thereto.

A certain Jew, a native of Holland, whom it is not necessary to mention by name, took unto himself a Gentile wife, and left his own country with her to seek a home in another portion of the world, to wit: some part of America; and it came to pass as he had lived with her in a manner contrary to our law for some years, his spirit disturbed him for the wrong he had done; and he moved the heart of his wife after the G-d of Israel, to forsake the false belief of a strange god, and not to confide any more in a mortal son of man. And she also said for her part, "Moses is true, and his law is true; therefore will I go and join the Lord; thy people shall be my people, and thy G-d my G-d; I will call on the name of the G-d of Israel, and in his ways, statutes and commandments will I walk all my days; and in this faith will I live and die." And so it happened that in the year 5599 (1839) this man returned with his wife to Holland, the land of his birth, and they came together to the city of Amsterdam; and the man took his wife and brought her before the judges of Israel, the chief teachers, and he besought them to make a proselyte of his wife, and to induct her into the covenant which the Lord made at Horeb even with the children and the women, even those of Jeshurun. But these men replied, that they could not do so in their city, as a royal ordinance had interdicted any one from quitting his native religion; and that no one should dare to convert an Israelite to become a Christian, or a Christian to become an Israelite. But as they saw the perplexity of both the man and the woman, for it was great, they said, "We can not afford to transgress the king's ordinance; but do this, go to a small and little populated city, where the thing can be quietly and noiselessly done."

The man did so, and went with his wife to the town of Maarsche, where by permission of the Lord, the judges of the city made his wife a Jewess, and brought her into the covenant of the Lord, doing unto her all the requirements appertaining to females, all as it written in the book respecting the laws for proselytes; after which he married her legally and she became his wife according to the law of Moses and Israel. But when he required of the judges a certificate signed with their hand and bearing their seal, that he might have this as proof and defense that his wife had been made a Jewess, they refused compliance, fearing that it might become known that they had transgressed the royal mandate.

After this the man returned with his wife to his adopted country, America, and it is now nearly fifteen years since, they settled in this city, Nashville, where they have done what is right and good in the eyes of the Lord, she no less than he; because she was pious, modest and strict, being more particular than other Jewesses; nothing prohibited ever entered her house; she upheld, kept and sanctified the Sabbath in a most particular manner; and every day she duly prayed to the G-d, the G-d of Israel; her hand she opened to the poor, and showed kindness to the living and the dead; and she educated her husband's daughter by his first wife in the fear of G-d, and taught her well what the daughters of Israel have to observe, that which is, and what is not to be done; how to conduct the household according to the word of the King, the Lord, so that her table might always be set even before those very particular concerning the food permitted to them; and she prospered and succeeded, for the daughter emulated the good deeds of the mother.

And now in the past week on the second day of Ve-Adar, towards daybreak, she awoke from her sleep and called her husband, and told him that she was exceedingly ill; and he arose to prepare something to give her relief. But she said to him, with strength of spirit and resignation, "There is no earthly remedy for me; my end has come; I am failing, and my sight has left me. Therefore, pray with me, that I may bless the Lord before I die." The husband thereupon lifted up his voice while he wept, and said with her the Shema' Israel, and she repeated after him six times word by word "The Lord is G-d"' and the seventh time she had not quite finished when her spirit fled, and her soul returned to her Father's mansion. And when the husband afterwards desired to bury his wife and to perform the necessary religious rites, some persons objected, and refused to give him permission to bury his dead in the burying-place, unless he could bring proof that his wife had been made a Jewess according to law. Nevertheless, permission was granted to him to bury his wife among the Jewish dead. And now some men have come before me and asked me as to who was right, whether the objectors or the husband?

And I answered in this way: "They who have shown kindness of truth with the dead, to bury this pious woman, the daughter of Abraham, with the children of Abraham, have done well, and deserve well for the pious act which they have committed, and the objectors are wrong for many reasons. For,

"First. We are taught that a father is credible as a witness to testify of his daughter that he had married her to a priest wherefore she is permitted to eat of heave-offering (Terumah); and although he is known to be only an Israelite, he is believed; and his daughter may eat of the holy things, and he need bring no other proof. Now, whereas as respects eating of the holy things which is prohibited by the Scriptures to a person not a priest, a father is to be believed, how much more should a husband be believed to testify of his wife that she had become a proselyte to entitle her to be buried with the dead of Israel.

"Secondly. One witness is credible in all prohibitions contained in Scripture; consequently the inference is that it ought to be more so in matters resting on Rabbinical authority.

"Thirdly. This woman proved by her whole course that she had become a proselyte, and her end, when she departed in acknowledging the Lord as G-d, demonstrates that the inference from her previous life is just.

"Fourthly. Every one who observes the precepts which are obligatory on Israel has an evident claim to be regarded as an Israelite: and he that objects is bound to bring his proofs.

"Fifthly. We rely on presumptive proof to permit the wife of a lost person to marry again, and to eat of holy things, thus raising an Israelite to the rank of priest; why shall we not then rely in this instance on presumptive proof, so as not to take this pious woman out of her grave, and to insult her after her death; for can there be a greater presumptive proof than her having lived and died as a real Israelitess? Wherefore, we decide according to the presumptive evidence. (See beginning of Nedarim, in Rashi, Rashba, and all the casuists on the passage; and Tosephot to section, "The woman that is become a widow;" Rif and Rambam in connection with Ketubot, 22, 26.).

I therefore maintain again that the husband need bring no proof, but the objectors ought to do it; and of the soul of the deceased let us say that may the memory of the righteous be blessed, and her soul be bound up in the bond of life with the souls of pious men and women."

In behalf of the truth,

Dr. B. Illowy.